Turnout plays a key role in determining results of assembly elections. Normally, higher turnout denotes anti-incumbency and desire of voters to overthrow the government. Lower turnout normally denotes voters are not enthused about overthrowing government and some disillusioned supporters prefer sitting at home. At the same time, NOTA has emerged as a powerful tool in the hands of the people to show their displeasure with any political dispensation.

Increase In Turnout Leads To Change In Government

An analysis of 17 big states which went to polls along with/after Lok Sabha elections in 2014 confirms this trend. Out of the 12 states, which witnessed an increase in turnout, 11 voted out the state governments/witnessed change of government. Out of the five states, which witnessed a decline in turnout, three incumbents retained the state.

MP And Chhattisgarh Don’t Follow This Trend

The two states, however, don’t follow the trend. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came back to power in MP in 2003 with an increase in turnout of 67.3 per cent versus 60.2 per cent registered in 1998. However, in subsequent elections despite an increase in turnout from 67.3 per cent (in 2003) to 69.8 per cent (in 2008) to 70.8 per cent (in 2013), the incumbent BJP has managed to retain power. Not only this, its vote share has also witnessed an increase from 42.5 per cent in 2003 to 44.9 per cent in 2013.

BJP stormed back to power in Chhattisgarh in 2003 with an increase in turnout of 71.3 per cent versus 60.2 per cent registered in 1998. In 2008, in line with the normal trend, BJP retained power when the turnout declined by 0.7 per cent. However, in 2013, despite an increase in turnout from 70.6 per cent to 75.3 per cent, the incumbent BJP managed to score a hat trick. Not only this, its vote share has also witnessed an increase from 39.3 per cent in 2003 to 42.3 per cent in 2013.

BJP Did Well In Regions Which Witnessed Higher Turnout In MP

BJP fares better in regions like Malwa North, Malwa Tribal and Mahakoshal where turnout was higher than the state average of 70.9 per cent in 2013. In Mahakoshal, BJP’s recorded vote share of 45.7 per cent, Malwa Tribal 45.8 per cent and Malwa North 51.8 per cent against a state average of 44.9 per cent. In regions such as Chambal and Vindhya Pradesh, where turnout was lower than state average in 2013, the party recorded a vote share of 37.9 per cent and 39.1 per cent respectively.

NOTA Is Increasingly Playing A Role As Well

The other factor which is increasingly playing a role is NOTA. Higher NOTA benefits the incumbent as it denotes that people are unhappy with it, but not confident whether the opposition will be able to solve their problems. Top four NOTA voting states since Lok Sabha elections have been Bihar (2.4 per cent), Gujarat (1.8 per cent), West Bengal (1.5 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (1.3 per cent). The common thread is that all returned incumbent governments to power.

In the 2013 elections in MP, the NOTA vote share was 1.9 per cent which is very high, and BJP returned to power.

In the 2013 elections for 24 seats, NOTA polled more votes than the margin of victory. Congress lost 13 seats out of the 24. Both parties are gearing up to convert the NOTA votes in their favour, specially the Congress. People of Bundelkhand have been demanding a separate state since long and denial of their demands may lead to boycott of polls or increase in the NOTA percentage.

Chhattisgarh holds the record for the highest NOTA score till date. In 2013 elections, 3.1 per cent NOTA votes were polled in the state affected by naxalism and BJP returned to power. On 12 seats, NOTA polled more votes than the margin of victory. Congress lost seven seats out of these 12. The southern region of Chhattisgarh, which has 13 seats, and is most affected by Maoist activities, polled 5.5 per cent NOTA votes. Considering the situation remains the same, we could see NOTA playing a crucial role again.

Turnout Has Increased Due To Close Nature Of Contest And Increase In Literacy Levels

According to the “rational‐voter model”, turnout tends to be higher where elections are closely fought, and literacy is higher. Elections in Chhattisgarh have been super close with less than 1 per cent vote share gap between the two parties in 2013. MP too has witnessed acrimonious contest between the BJP and Congress for almost four decades now. Literacy levels in Chhattisgarh have increased from 64.6 per cent in 2001 to 70.3 per cent in 2011, while that in MP from 63.7 per cent to 69.3 per cent during the same period.

Despite an increase in turnout, why has the BJP been able to retain MP and Chhattisgarh.

There are primarily two reasons I can think of:

Significant Erosion Of Congress Organisation

The BJP has a sizeable and strong organisation in both the states. The Congress party’s organisation is in shambles. The party is bereft of cadres. On the D-Day, you need volunteers at each booth to get out your supporters to vote. The Congress is clearly lacking the strength. The BJP is credited with having one of the best organisation structures in MP after Gujarat. It was among the first states where a BJP government was installed.

High Popularity Of The Government

MP became a BIMARU state under Congress rule with poor infrastructure, bad roads, erratic power supply, negative agricultural growth, etc. The BJP government’s single-minded development drive nursed the state back to health. Today, both MP and Chhattisgarh are amongst the fastest growing states in India. The social sector schemes have improved quality of life of the poor and the downtrodden. Generally, people are happy with performance of the governments and hence will come out in large numbers to vote for the BJP.

To sum up, as the BJP has mastered the art of booth management over the last few years, voter turnout and NOTA are likely to play a crucial role this time too in 2018. Can the Congress turn NOTA in its favour?

This post was first published in Swarajya.

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