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Why was the voter turnout so low in Bihar?

May 14, 2009 15:16 IST

The low turnout in the Lok Sabha polls in Bihar despite a media blitzkrieg by the Election Commission for voter awareness has led political parties and prominent persons to draw varied and often conflicting conclusions, ranging from heat wave to criminalisation of politics.

The turnout in the four-phased poll for 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar was quite low at 43.75 per cent in comparison to the last general elections when it stood at 58.02 per cent. While a total of 46 per cent voters exercised their franchise in the first phase of polling, 44 per cent turnout was recorded in the second.

Polling percentage went up to 48 in the third round before plummeting to just 37 per cent in the fourth phase. Not even the presence of high-profile candidates like Rashtriya Janata Dal boss and Union Railway Minister Lalu Prasad (Patliputra), actor-turned-politician Shatrughan Sinha and TV superstar Shekhar Suman (Patna Saheb) could draw large number of voters to polling stations in the last phase of polls.

While some poll-watchers felt a majority of voters did not come out of their homes due to their indifferent attitude towards participating in the electoral process, others attributed it to the sweltering heat. Bihar recorded the highest voter turnout of 64.6 per cent in 1998 which came down to 61.48 per cent in 1999

The turnout dipped further to 58.02 per cent in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and it was 43.75 per cent in the current Lok Sabha polls.

"Criminalisation of politics and fewer good people joining politics are responsible for the voters' disenchantment with the electoral process," feels Shaibal Gupta, Asian Development Research Institute's Member Secretary.

Besides these, he cites sultry weather, non-existence of any major national issue and 'absolute lack' of anti-incumbency factor, a crucial issue in elections, against the Nitish Kumar government in the state, as other reasons for low participation.

Shyam Rajak, RJD's national spokesman and party candidate from Jamui, said while people in urban areas did not come out of their houses due to scorching heat, in rural Bihar, relocation of the polling stations, often far away from the voters' homes as a result of delimitation, discouraged the electorate from participating in the exercise wholeheartedly.

Rejecting the argument that criminalisation of politics and fewer people with good image joining electoral politics led to the poor turnout, Rajak held economic policies of Bihar's National Democratic Alliance government responsible for it.

"A large number of migrant labourers and others living outside cannot be expected to come to Bihar only to cast their vote at the cost of their salary and leave," he pointed out.

However, the state's ruling Janata Dal – United's national spokesman Shivanand Tiwari was not worried about the poor turnout and said that it was not for the first time when the polling percentage was so low in the crucial Hindi heartland state, where voter participation was not high even during the first general elections in 1952.

"The voters may not be interested in taking part in the electoral process due to a variety of reasons not new to Bihar. This has been happening off and on since the first elections," Tiwari said.

On whether criminalisation of politics had kept voters away from polling stations, Tiwari pointed out that political parties alone could not be blamed for it.

"There are occasions when the voters elect people with criminal backgrounds, who are contesting as independents," he said. State's chief electoral officer Sudhir Kumar Rakesh also accepted that the turnout was poor but did not ascribe reasons for it.

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