Good turnout but Mumbai isn’t a political city
Mumbai witnessed a 55.11% turnout this year as opposed to the 41.4% in 2014Updated: May 01, 2019 23:22 IST
Mumbai’s voters covered considerable distance in the last 10 years and two general elections this Monday with 55.11% turnout. It was a good 3.5% higher than in 2014 when change and hope were in the air and there was a ‘Narendra Modi wave’. Ten years ago, when Mumbai voted barely four months after the 26/11 terror attack, the turnout was only 41.4%. Mumbai somewhat redeemed itself this time around but there’s still distance to be covered.
Monday evening news had TV anchors expressing outrage at the “poor turnout” and panel discussions focused on whether south Mumbai had electorally ceded. What were they reading? The papers the next morning gave us the 55.11% figure – the city’s highest since 1991.
Is it good that one in every two voters is exercising their franchise? Given Mumbai’s record, it is an improvement. But to cry “urban apathy” when the previous turnout was 41.4%, and when it clocks 55.11% this time around, renders the phrase meaningless.
Mumbai records the lowest voter turnouts among India’s four metros. Urban apathy is a good catch-all phrase; an easy explanation; but it does not comprehensively capture the city’s voting trends or place in them in the framework of urbanism. Mumbai’s voter turnout trends must be read in the contexts of voter perception, participation, and politicisation, as psephologists tell us.
Urban voters have the worst perception of their political leaders and governments when compared to their counterparts in rural and semi-urban areas; their engagement level and political participation are similarly, the worst, found Reetika Syal, political scientist and Lokniti researcher, in her study after the 2014 election.
Other studies have shown that urban citizens tend to have lower interaction – both quantity and quality – with their elected representatives than rural voters; their politicisation and political literacy also tends to be lower. The more urban an area, the higher its voters’ disengagement from politics.
In addition, Mumbai has at least two more historical reasons. The first is the gradual decline of the manufacturing sector and working-class population, which was the most organised and politically mobilised set of citizens.
Lakhs of Mumbaiites were at the centre of the trade union movement and Left politics; their politicisation and political literacy saw high turnouts, with their votes going to the Congress if not the Left parties. This backbone of the city and its politics was broken politically by the growth of Shiv Sena, and economically by the rise of the service sector and non-unionised work.
Secondly, after the bloody turn in student politics of the University of Bombay in the late 1980s, campus politics was banned and student elections never held. Campuses are grounds for grooming politicians and politicising the young.
Generations of Mumbaiites have grown up, earned degrees and moved on without coming within a whisker of political debate in their lives. Political movements, the few which happened, were framed as traffic nuisances rather than the articulation of ideologies and demands.
All this has reflected in political participation in the last few years. Except for committed workers of political parties like Shiv Sena and a handful of citizens’ groups mainly in south Mumbai, Mumbaiites’ political participation is next to nil. It’s difficult to find the average Mumbaiite attending rallies, participating in processions and nukkad meetings, canvassing door-to-door (housing societies even frown upon this), contributing to or collecting money for election-related events, putting up posters or distributing election-related leaflets and so on. Lack of time is an excuse, lack of inclination and political will equally so.
These factors manifest themselves in low or average turnouts during elections. It is not a coincidence that Kolkata, the most political of all metros, sees voter turnouts in the range of 68-70%. Mumbai’s turnouts were in the range of 62-68% through the 1960s and 70s, up to the 1977 election which punished Indira Gandhi for the Emergency. The disintegration of the working class, the de-politicisation of the youth, and the lack of enthusiasm for politics overlap in the years after that.
For every voter to cast their ballot, or even three-fourths of voters to do so would call for greater political mobilisation in non-election years. No, Malabar Hill clocking 56% turnout does not make Mumbai a political city.