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Bihar: The shocking story of Jungle Raj hidden in voter turnouts

Say it with me. Say those words with the shudder they deserve: Jungle Raj.

Bihar is voting today in the first phase of three-phase election. Across the state, men and women are lining up at the voting booths to exercise their franchise. When they go behind that partition and stand before the EVM, they can press any button they want. It doesn’t matter whether they are rich or poor, male or female, from an “upper” caste or a “lower” caste, Hindu or Muslim or Jewish. They can stand behind that partition and give the finger to the highest and mightiest in the land. It is the most sacred ritual of democracy.

The high and mighty wait outside, with folded hands. No politician or pundit can claim with absolute certainty to know the mind of the voter.

But there is one thing that every voter in Bihar today knows with certainty. Their vote will be counted.

But was it always like this? Were votes always counted? Here is the shocking story of jungle raj they never tell you.

In 2005, Bihar saw not one but two state elections. The elections in Feb 2005 threw up a badly hung assembly. After a spell of President’s rule, there were elections again in October that year. This time, the BJP+JDU alliance won a clear majority. Even so, both elections in 2005 were landmarks in the history of Bihar. India’s poorest state had just put “Jungle Raj” behind.

We know one basic symptom of watershed elections. Big voter turnouts. When people want to speak out loudly, they come to the booth in large numbers. It doesn’t necessarily have to be anti-incumbency. When the voter is fierce and opinionated, whether with the government or against it, they hit the voting booth.

So how much do you think was the voter turnout in the historic 2005 Bihar elections? 75%? Perhaps 70%? Surely, at least 60%?

What if I told you it was just 46%? In exact numbers, it was 46.5% in the February election and 45.85% in the October election.

What! How can such a famous watershed election witness such a low voter turnout? In the 2010 Bihar Assembly election, the voter turnout increased to a more respectable 53%. Again, in 2015, the voter turnout increased to 57%. This is in keeping with nationwide trends. Voter turnout has been increasing everywhere, in elections at all levels, showing the health and strength of our democracy.

But what about 2005 in Bihar? Why so low? Just 46% in such a historic election?

Okay, but low compared to what? Maybe voter turnout in Bihar used to be even lower and it got better in the historic 2005 election? So let us pull out the voter turnout figures from the 2000 Bihar election. How low was it?

Well, it was 63%!

Well, isn’t that mind blowing? On paper, the historic 2005 elections in Bihar actually saw a massive drop in voter interest. By as much as 17%! Forget Bihar, has it ever happened in any election anywhere in India that voter turnout dropped by 17% between two elections? That too in an election that supposedly brought in sweeping change.

Go back to the 1995 Bihar Assembly elections. Again, the voter turnout is 62%. What does that tell you?

You now have two options regarding what to believe. On one hand, you can believe that the historic 2005 Bihar elections had the least amount of voter interest in a decade. Not just by a little. By a lot. As much as 17% of voters who voted in previous elections were just too bored to show up and vote in 2005.

Or you could believe that there was widespread booth capturing in those earlier elections. So much booth capturing that it pushed voter turnout from a real figure around 46% all the way to 63%. This means that 17/63 or more than 1 in every 4 votes cast in Bihar could have been fake!

Say it with me. Say those words with the shudder they deserve: Jungle Raj.

No, there was nothing funny about it. Some privileged people in Delhi thought that the rustic sounding, quick witted man who headed Jungle Raj was a comedian. But he wasn’t. Few people remember today the historic triumph of the Election Commission in holding perhaps the first free and fair elections in Bihar, back in 2005.

But that’s okay. We are all proud of a stronger, better India that does not even remember the dark ages. Bihar is voting again today. Much of the electorate, mostly young people, have only seen free and fair elections as far as they can remember. It is a wonderful thing. And so the election raths are rolling across Bihar again. Some have promised to give 10 lakh jobs and others have promised to create 19 lakh jobs. Let’s see who the electorate chooses to believe. But I’m sure nobody wants to return to the era when kidnapping and ransom was the biggest industry that Bihar’s rulers had to offer to their people.

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or may not be an Associate Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  

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