MumbaiNaama: Only Voter Turnouts Don't Decide That Mumbai Is Not A Political City

MumbaiNaama: Only Voter Turnouts Don't Decide That Mumbai Is Not A Political City

As a broad trend, urban voter turnouts have been lower than in rural areas for decades. This has been labelled, rather lazily, as urban apathy

Smruti KoppikarUpdated: Thursday, May 23, 2024, 09:38 PM IST
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Representative Pic | Dinesh Avhad/Pixabay

On the evening of the voting day in Mumbai this Monday, Colaba was in the news. It had recorded the lowest of all constituencies in the city which form the six Lok Sabha seats. A part of the Mumbai South seat, which has been notorious for its low turnouts, Colaba earned disrepute this election by registering barely 36%. Mumbai South recorded the lowest of all six at 47.7%. The average turnout for the city in the ongoing 2024 polls was 52.4%. As the numbers trickled in, the debates moved along the predictable lines of how the rich south Mumbai has been famously disinterested in voting, how the city is apolitical or non-political, how urban apathy overrides people’s constitutional duty and so on.

There is some truth to these charges frequently hurled at Mumbai’s voters but it does not capture the entire story of Mumbai and its political behaviour. As with all narratives, this too has layers that stump the casual analyst or social media influencer. In the seven general elections held from 1998, voter turnouts have been in the range of 40-50%. This means only one in every two voters, or fewer, cast their ballot. The average turnouts are as follows: 50.3% in 1998, 44.9% in 1999, 47.2% in 2004, a dismal 41.4% in 2009 barely four months after the deadly 26/11 attacks which shook the city and made people demand accountability, 51.5% in 2014 which saw the ‘Modi wave’ at work, a surprising 55.4% in 2019 which was Mumbai’s highest in eight elections, followed by an average 52.4% this time around.

There is frequent comparison with other cities of India. Kolkata and Delhi register healthy percentages of voter turnout which, political scientists, have pointed out as the manifestation of being political cities. Chennai and Bengaluru, which went to the polls in April this year, saw voter turnouts that, more or less, resembled that in Mumbai. Chennai’s 56% turnout was far lower than Tamil Nadu’s 69.4% and a significant drop from the 2019 and 2014 when the voter percentages were 72.47% and 73.74% respectively. Bengaluru city, with three Lok Sabha constituencies like Chennai, also registered an average of 53.4% this time which was considerably lower than Karnataka’s average of nearly 69% for 14 constituencies which went to the polls in late April.

As a broad trend, urban voter turnouts have been lower than in rural areas for decades. This has been labelled, rather lazily, as urban apathy. But the fact is that voters in cities tend to be less engaged and involved with political processes in their cities than people living in villages and smaller towns. But more of that later because urban apathy does not explain the drop from five years ago which has been consistent across cities and noticeable in Mumbai.

This, as many have pointed out, has its roots in the election management this time around – deletion of names from the voter rolls, long serpentine queues at polling stations, scorching heat which made the wait more excruciating, malfunctioning EVMs which made the wait longer, and a lackadaisical approach of the Election Commission to cleaning up the rolls and adding new voters. The less-than-adequate election management this time was evident in cities in these and other ways, discouraging voters many of whom returned from their polling stations without casting the ballot.

Mumbai can, and should, do far better. We must all agree on this. Voting is only a part of the political process that comes around once or twice in five years if the central and state governments run their full terms but, for it to happen, there has to be political engagement in between the years too. In Mumbai, there is a general disconnect or disengagement between the large majority of people and the city’s political processes.

The disengagement has sharpened in the last five years, based on anecdotes and observations, after the political shenanigans that the city has seen – blatant daylight crossover of politicians of Shiv Sena and later of the Nationalist Congress Party to the BJP which led to a change in the government when chief minister Uddhav Thackeray was replaced by Eknath Shinde, a gradual erosion at the ground level or shakhas of the Sena whose cadre had a visible presence and impact at the neighbourhood level, an equally troubling attrition in the organisational strength of the Congress party, an inordinate delay in holding elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation which were due in early 2022 and usually tend to energise voters.

Till the political processes at the base level, neighbourhood unit level, are set back on track and not controlled by narratives set by the dominant BJP from Delhi, people’s engagement is unlikely to improve. Even then, as many studies have shown, urban citizens tend to have less interaction with their elected representatives than rural voters, and their politicisation and political literacy also tends to be lower. So, the more urban an area, the higher its disengagement from politics. “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,” showed a Lokniti study after the 2014 election.

Besides this, there are two historical reasons for people’s disengagement with politics. The first has been well documented over the last 25-30 years. Mumbai’s turnouts were in the range of 62-68% through the 1960-80s. The decline of the manufacturing sector meant a consequent drop in the working class which was the most organised and politically mobilised set of citizens; trade unions and the labour movement, of the Left as well as the Congress, educated and groomed people to be politically aware citizens and nudged them to vote elections. Political literacy meant higher turnouts and better political discourse. This backbone of Mumbai’s politics was broken politically and replaced by the Shiv Sena but as the city’s economy transformed in the 1990s into a services-oriented one, with contractual jobs and non-unionised work, the politicisation too declined.

Then, the city has simply not recovered from the blanket ban on campus politics and student elections after it took a bloody and murderous turn in the University of Bombay in the late 1980s. Educational institutions and campuses are grounds for engaging citizens in political activities and grooming future politicians as it were — politicising the young. But generations of Mumbaikars have passed through college portals with not even a nodding acquaintance with politics, being treated by their institutions merely as young prospective job-seekers.

At a macro level, when political movements took the shape of demonstrations and rallies, they have been framed as traffic nuisances in the city’s daily rhythm rather than an articulation of ideologies and demands. Also, the exponential rise and spread of social media channels have given people a false sense of political participation. Altogether, this reflects in poor voter turnouts. If only one in every two people are voting in elections, it does not make Mumbai an apolitical or non-political city. The time to set that right is not right before an election but to revive and restore the political processes that make voting a non-negotiable duty for all.

Smruti Koppikar, senior journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and the media. She is the Founder Editor of the award-winning online journal ‘Question of Cities’

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