The cheapest way to go on a Dilli Darshan is to hop on the ubiquitous blue HOHO buses. The buses run on a fixed route and tourists can hop-on and hop-off in front of any heritage monument on the way that catches their fancy. Last week, the passengers on a bus included a larger-than-life figure who was more interested in the country’s future than the city’s past. Meet Mr Votu, probably the world’s first election awareness mascot.
Wherever the bus stopped, Mr Votu jumped out, followed by a street play troupe. While the team spoke about voter awareness and the importance of casting votes, Mr Votu posed for pictures with curious onlookers.
“We have taken Mr Votu to seven locations across India,” says Neeraj Gupta, the brainchild behind Mr Votu and director of the Vote for India initiative. “The idea is to focus on urban areas and create awareness that polling day is not just another holiday. Mr Votu ignites curiosity and when they walk up to him, we use that as an chance to give information about the importance of voting.”
Outside the media glare, the Election Commission is working overtime to handle the logistical nightmare that is the General Election. In the next month, 815 million registered voters (including 100 million first-timers) will find their way to 9.3 lakh polling stations, each set up within a 2-km radius of the their homes.
However, the Election Commission — which was formed in 1950 — is no longer restricted to its original mandate of planning and executing a free and fair election. With a population of 1.2 billion, India is the world’s largest democracy, but since Independence, there has been a decline in voter participation. In the 2009 General Election, only 58.17 percent of the voting population exercised its franchise. To combat this huge gap, the EC launched the Systematic Voter Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) in 2009. The poll body’s role has now grown to actively work to increase the voter turnout.
Through sweep, the Election Commission identified the reasons for poor voter turnout and created innovative systems to combat them. “Women, youth, middle class, minority and weaker sections of society are the key areas that we have identified,” says a bureaucrat from the Delhi Election Commission. “We found that women often don’t vote as they stay home with the children when their husbands go out on polling day. The youth feel that all politicians are ‘thieves’, so they abstain from the electoral process. While there are many factors that ensure that the people go out and vote in rural areas, in Delhi, middle-class apathy is a big problem. For them, polling day is just another holiday. We are working to change that.”
To combat these problems, as well as boost the overall voting percentage to at least 70 percent, the Delhi Election Commission has carried out various initiatives.
Usually, political parties reach out to celebrities for endorsements. Their voices boom on the radio, appealing for votes. This time, the Election Commission is trying similar tricks. With nearly 50 percent of the voters falling in the 18-40 age bracket, Election Commission officials have hit the malls and are organising concerts to woo young and first-time voters.
Recently, the Election Commission roped in stand-up comedian Kapil Sharma and singer KK Menon for an election awareness programme at Talkatora Stadium in New Delhi. Music and humour was interspersed with a simple message, “Come what may, vote on polling day.”
“We use celebrities because they are able to reach out to their fan base and convey our message,” says an Election Commission official. “We usually choose malls for our programmes because our target audience is the young and middle-class people. Last weekend, we had to reschedule our programme because Team India was playing in the World T20 final and we knew that the people would stay indoors. It’s the same thing with polling day. If we hold the election during the weekend, the turnout will be lower. We have to keep many such things in mind.”
The most interesting initiative taken up by the Delhi Election Commission is to make sure that migrants in the city don’t feel left out. On 7 April, students from the northeastern states living in Delhi gathered at Nehru Park for a concert along with Delhi’s Chief Electoral Officer Vijay Dev. Thanks to another such initiative, nearly 7,000 students and professionals have been registered to vote in Delhi.
“Everyone is aware of the discrimination that we face in the national capital,” says J Maivio, president of the Naga Students Union’s Delhi chapter. “But there are no measures to protect us because we don’t have voting rights here; we are not a vote-bank to be placated. However, now many of us have registered here, and I will cast my vote here. I tell my friends from the Northeast that it is important to be registered here, because if we vote in Delhi, then the representatives here are responsible to us and we can demand action when something goes wrong.”
Such initiatives are not confined to urban Delhi. On the outskirts of the national capital, bordering Haryana, lies a semi-urban village called Khera Khurd. Home to 25 national-level athletes, the Election Commission is targeting this village for 100 percent turnout in the Lok Sabha polls. At a recent event, Election Commission officials felicitated local and national athletes — mostly exponents of kabaddi and wrestling — who exhorted the locals to get out and vote on polling day.
“During the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) election in neighbouring Ladpur village, nobody turned up to vote because of a poll boycott,” says Shailendra Parihar, the additional district magistrate of Northwest Delhi. “As part of SVEEP, we organised a kabaddi tournament and brought 22 teams from across the country. Many people turned up to watch the tournament and we asked them to make a pledge that they would vote. In last December’s Assembly election, Ladpur saw a voter turnout of more than 70 percent.”
Addressing the crowd, Parihar asked, “Will you vote? Will you make history by enabling a 100 percent voter turnout?” The villagers responded with wild cheers.
Apart from creating a lot of buzz on the ground, the Election Commission is also using social media for its outreach programme. There are a number of online campaigns and initiatives, the most interesting being that of the Meghalaya Election Commission, which came out with a music video called Just One. The video features members of the Shillong Chamber Choir, who convey the message that every vote counts.
If the turnout during last December’s Assembly polls is anything to go by, SVEEP has been quite successful. The voter turnout in Delhi was up by 10 percent and the ratio of women voters shot up from roughly 750 to well above 800. So did the voter turnout in Rajasthan, as youth and women voters turned out in large numbers, pushing voter participation up by around 7 percent. The story was similar in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
While it remains to be seen whether the voting percentage will rise during this year’s General Election, officials are leaving no stone unturned in not only planning and executing a massive man-management exercise to ensure democracy, they are also trying to push a complete democracy, where everyone votes.