The silence of Hyderabad’s voters is a statement on electoral democracy and political parties. The low turnout for Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) elections, which saw only around 46.6% of voters turn up, reveals indifference towards the electoral process, which has remained aloof to people’s issues and preoccupied with contests for power. Voter anger was also evident in a recent study in the city, where 69% of respondents felt corporators worked only before elections and over 95% demanded a ‘Right to Recall’ of elected representatives.
The findings of the Urban Distress and Reforms Study, conducted in the GHMC area in November 2020, explains why a large section of Hyderabad voters stayed away from casting their ballot. Latest figures show only around 46% voters participated in polls, which the state administration reasoned was due to COVID-19. This, however, is an inconsistent argument because just a few weeks ago in the bye-election for the Dubbaka Assembly constituency in Telangana, the voter turnout was 82.61%.
Voter turnout has been falling for the past decade in Hyderabad but has never been this low. In 2014, during the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, the voter turnout was 53%. In the 2018 Assembly elections, the voter turnout fell to 50.8%, and in the Lok Sabha election held just six months later in 2019, the voter turnout was 45.5%.
There are several reasons for the low turnout in a city that appears fatigued with the neglect of development agenda. Following are the top five reasons:
One, over 91% respondents in the study stated they felt ‘anger and frustration’ about the state’s indifference towards people’s problems. More than 37,000 households were affected by the recent flooding, and the study found that over 74% of respondents held the government responsible for the losses. Over 43% voters also stated that they had no options to recover the losses they had incurred in the floods.
Two, the ordinary voter in Hyderabad has shown their disinterest in the agenda of political parties, where the BJP had pushed a divisive agenda, and the ruling TRS denied its misgovernance. For example, over 79% respondents in the study stated that it was not enough for the government to provide free sarees for women and wanted more to be done for women welfare. It is possible that both the ruling party and the opposition failed to promise solutions that inspired people to vote.
Three, Right to Recall was supported throughout the 15 out of the 30 circles of the GHMC area. Of the 95% respondents who demanded recall, a significant number at 74% also wanted a similar power over the careers and tenures of municipal officials. Over 40% of respondents in the study stated that they found GHMC officials ‘not at all honest’ and another 20% said they were ‘mostly corrupt.’
Four, findings of the study reveal the perception of powerlessness is higher among certain sections of the population. When asked if they would like to have more control over the tenure of corporators, the highest support at 86% was among those with schooling up to primary level, as well as members of the SC community.
The study was done by the New Delhi-based research organisation, Institute of Perception Studies, which works in the areas of electoral democracy and reforms, with special focus on municipal and panchayat levels.
Voters are aware that the development agenda is being side-stepped because of delivery failures. They are also aware that this is the reason why emotive issues are whipped up, whether on religion or caste, so that the unfilled promises of earlier elections are forgotten. What could have made the Hyderabad citizens vote?
One, political parties should have presented an effective action plan to end corruption at the municipal level in Hyderabad and to promote transparency. Two, the campaign should have been focussed on financial worries of a population deeply affected by COVID-19 and the recent floods. Three, all parties should have refrained from undermining the voter by promising short-term populists measures. The silence of the Hyderabad voters shows they believe their future will be no different from the struggles of their past.
Dr Kota Neelima is an author and researcher and writes on electoral reforms and democratic deficit in urban and rural India. Views expressed are the author’s own.