Mainstream, VOL LII, No 17, April 19, 2014
Uniqueness of the 16th Lok Sabha Election
Sunday 20 April 2014
by T. Sadashivam
The elections in our country, either for State Assembly or Lok Sabha, bring a festive mood among political parties (that may not be true for the majority of Indians). Nonetheless, elections bring voting rights in the hands of the common people to elect their representatives, who will in turn govern them. In the first Lok Sabha election, which was held in 1951, the total electorate was 17.32 crores, which increased to an electorate of 81.5 crores at present (there was an increase in the electorate by 10 crores from 71.3 crores in 2009 to 81.5 crores in 2014). Out of the 81.5-crore electorate, the percentage of male voters is 52.4 per cent and female voters 47.61 per cent. (The Telegraph, March 7, 2014) The forthcoming 16th Lok Sabha election is going to witness new phenomena, not seen in earlier elections. The present article is going to discuss some of them.
Whether it is a coincidence or not, the World Wide Web (WWW) has turned 25 years in the month of March 2014. And also in India we are having the 16th Lok Sabha election in the months of April and May 2014. There exist a close relationship between both of them, because of the influence of WWW (Internet) on the Indian voters (not a majority of them), and especially the young and middle class voters, through the use of the social media networking sites. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), India has inched towards 13 per cent internet penetration with roughly 160 million users in 2013, whereas nearly 40 per cent of the global population is online at the same time. It was predicted that by 2015, internet users in India will rise to 330 million, according to a Mckinsey and Company report of December 2012. At present India is the world’s third largest internet user after China in number one and the USA in number two position. (Shalini Singh, The Hindu)
In India, these days the use of the social media (networking), especially Facebook and Twitter, has been high, thanks to the Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), which made these possible. From the young generation to the older ones, everybody is using these for comfort. The social media has now become a 24x7 activity for the people; from anywhere and any place you can access it. The events related to politics, sports, entertainment etc., we can see all of these have been given a platform, where these can be shared with other people not only in our society, but globally as well. In India, as the 16th Lok Sabha election is being held, it is necessary to analyse the role of the social media in the election. The use of the social media by the political parties and their leaders in the developed countries for elections and other purpose is not new. For example, US President Barack Obama got 33,510,157 followers (the data as on July 1, 2013) in his Twitter account @Barackobama. (Gautam Chikermane, FirstPost.India) But, for a country like India, it was something new; of couse, there are politicians like Shashi Tharoor, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley etc. known to the common people (that is, those people who use the social media for their tweets every day or connect with online citizens) through the social media.
Before the ongoing general election, the role of the cyber world was not seen; however, in the 16th Lok Sabha election, every political party, from national to regional, wants to use this cyberism as much as possible to gain support and influence the voters (political mobilisation). The social networking has emerged as the most popular online activity worldwide. (Nandini, c, Yojana) This is the reason why these days we are seeing IT cells existing in almost all the parties which work day and night especially in the field of social networking platforms (such as Facebook and Google+); blogs and micro-blogs (such as Twitter); content communities (such as You Tube) etc. The potential of the social media for opening up new spaces for dialogue, debates, and issue-based deliberations which are free from the mainstream hierarchical and bureau-cratic tendencies of the institutionalised political process, has been often celebrated. (Ibid.)For instance, last year (2013) the survey conducted by the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and Internet and Mobile Association of India came out with results that show that there are 160 Lok Sabha constituencies (also called as ‘high-impact constituencies’) in the country where the number of Facebook users is more than the victory margin seen in the 2009 Lok Sabha election or, in other words, they constitute 10 per cent or more of the voting population. The study also shows that 75 of the 206 seats won by the Congress and 43 of the 144 seats where it finished second are in the high-impact constituencies. For the BJP, this is true for 44 of the 116 seats it won and 50 of the 110 seats where it came second.
Thus, the Facebook users emerge as a new vote-bank to the political parties and they can influence the election results. (Prashant Jha, The Hindu)For example, the Facebook users in India are 93 million (the data up to December 2013), second only to the United States’ user base, and out of 93 million users in India, 75 million users access the Facebook through their mobile phones. The Facebook adds about two million new users a month in India and offers services in nine languages. It is also interesting that Facebook celebrated its tenth anniversary in the month of February 2014. (Shelley Singh and Chaitali Chakravarty, The Time of India) Even the Election Commission of India (ECI) uses it for conducting free, fair, peaceful and transparent elections and, more importantly, to check the problem of paid news. The ECI for the first time brought the poll campaign for a candidate or a party on the social media under strict regulation and control. For this purpose, the ECI directed the social networking sites to take a necessary pre-certification from the Media Certification and Monitoring Committees at district and State levels before putting any of the contents in the public domain. Also, they should maintain the expenditure incurred by the political parties and individual candidates. (Newslink, an English newspaper, 2014)
Young Voters : A New Vote-bank
Since independence till now we have seen a total of 15 Lok Sabha elections but there is something unique about the ongoing 16th Lok Sabha election 2014, which is for the first time witnessing the largest number of young voters. The youth of the country became a vote-bank themselves with 149.36 million first-time voters, who constitute about 20 per cent of the electorate. This formidable vote-bank—on an average 90,000 voters in each constituency—is going to be a major factor in deciding the fate of several candidates. (Prasun Chaudhuri and Avijit Chatterjee, The Telegraph) There exist excitement and expectations among the new voters (young) who are for the first time exercising their right to vote to elect their representatives. It will be interesting to see on what basis they will cast their votes as there are many factors which play an important role like: which political party a candidate is representing; credibility of the candidate, young or old; whether or not he/she is a new entrant to politics; the caste and religion etc. of the candidate; if the young voters are going to boycott the election.
‘None of the Above’ (Nota) or Negative Voting
It also fascinating to see how Indian voters view option button called ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) on the voting machine, which is being used for the first time in this Lok Sabha election (that is, negative voting). This came into being because of the landmark judgment given by the Supreme Court of India on September 27, 2013. (Arup Saikia, G-Plus, Guwahati’s own English weekly) Delivering the judgment, the Chief Justice of India, P. Sathasivam, said: ‘Giving right to a voter not to vote for any candidate while protecting his right of secrecy is extremely important in a democracy. Such an option gives the voter the right to express his disapproval of the kind of candidates being put up by the parties. Gradually, there will be a systemic change and the parties will be forced to accept the will of the people and field candidates who are known for their integrity.’ (J. Venkatesan, The Hindu) Although NOTA was earlier used in the elections to the five State Assemblies (Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Mizoram) which went to the polls in the month of December 2013, it is being used for the first time in the parliamentary election. Here we have data from the first four States where voters pressed the NOTA button on voting machines (Delhi—49,730 voters; Chhattisgarh—3.56 lakh voters; Madhya Pradesh—5.9 lakh voters and Rajasthan—5.67 lakh voters). Thus, it will be interesting to see if NOTA is exercised or not by the voters in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, and if so, then who will be using it more—urban voters or rural voters. (Op.cit., Arup Saikia)
Despite whatever has been written earlier in this article about the role of the social media in the Lok Sabha election, there are many critics who believe that among those having Facebook accounts, not all are eligible to vote as many of them are teenagers. Also, even among those who are eligible, all may not come out on the election day and stand in queue in the polling booth to cast their vote, because they are more interested or active in Facebook sitting along with their computer, laptop, smartphone or mobile phone etc. This is also true for other social media tools which are available. The critics further argue that the social media (like Facebook or Twitter) are an urban phenomenon, and in the election it is the people from the rural areas who come out in large numbers to cast their vote, when compared with the urban areas. Regarding the participation of young voters, the critics argue that the present young generation is fed up or frustrated with our political system and they are not interested in any political activity (voting).
Whatever the critics say about the social media and young voters, we should not forget that the role played by the social media and young people of this country in the Anna Hazare-led Jan Lokpal Bill and Nirbhaya movements not only in the Capital city (Delhi) of the country, which of course became the epicentre of these movements, but almost all over the country. Perhaps it will be naive to presume that the social media and young voters are going to play a major role in the 16th Lok Sabha election, but it is also wrong to discard them totally. At the least we can say that for both the social media and young voters, a beginning is being made to participate in the democratic processes starting with this 16th Lok Sabha election, and there is still a long way to go. Nevertheless, this election is unique for the reasons mentioned above.
1. ‘In place: Dos & Donts’, The Telegraph, March 7, Friday, 2014, Guwahati.
2. Shalini Singh, ‘40% of global population now online; women catching up’, The Hindu, July 4, Thursday, 2013. Source: http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/internet/40-of-global-population-now-online-women-catching-up/article4878231.ece? homepage=true Accessed on July 4, 2013.
3. Gautam Chikermane, FirstPost.India, July 24, Thursday, 2013. Source: http://www.firstpost.com/world/manmohan-and-obama-need-twitter-lessons-from-other-world-leaders-982415.html?utm_source=voices&; utm_medium=hp. Accessed on July 25, 2013.
4. Nandini, c, ‘Activism with a new Face (Book)?’, Yojana, Vol. 57, May, 2013, New Delhi, p. 57.
5. Prashant Jha, ‘Facebook users could swing the results in 160 Lok Sabha constituencies’, The Hindu, April 11, Thursday, 2013. Source: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/facebook-users-could-swing-the-results-in-160-lok-sabha-constituencies/article4607060.ece?homepage=true Accessed on April 12, 2013.
6. Shelley Singh and Chaitali Chakravarty, ‘India: The next big thing for Facebook’, The Times of India, February 3, Monday, 2014. Source: http://timesofindia. indiatimes.com/tech/tech-news/internet/India-The-next-big-thing-for-Facebook/articleshow/29804785.cms Accessed on February 3, 2014.
7. ‘EC guidelines to Social Networking Site on posting of election related matters’, News Link, an English newspaper, March 20, Thursday, 2014, Aizawl.
8. Prasun Chaudhuri and Avijit Chatterjee, ‘Your Vote, Your Concerns’, The Telegraph, March 20, Thursday, 2014.
9. Arup Saikia, ‘NOTA-Is it Practical’, G-Plus, Guwahati’s own English weekly, March 29—April 4, Vol. 01, Issue 26, 2014, Guwahati, page no. 5.
10. J. Venkatesan, ‘Give voters right to cast negative vote: apex court’, The Hindu, September 27, Friday, 2013. Source: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/give-voters-right-to-cast-negative-vote-apex-court/article5174414.ece?homepage=true Accessed on September 28, 2013.
Dr T. Sadashivam is an Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Pachhunga University College (a constituent college of Mizoram Central University), Aizawl (Mizoram).