In disgruntled countryside, no votes are the way to protest

P Anima | Updated on May 03, 2019 Published on May 03, 2019

Bumpy ride: With successive elected representatives doing little to mend or build new roads, villagers of Bijona and Sikharan decided to boycott elections   -  BusinessLine

Small groups of villagers have struck a dissenting note this election by refusing to vote

Babli Singh does not step out of her house when strangers knock at the door. Instead she stands in the shadows of a long corridor and talks. And she speaks with conviction. “The urge not to vote came from the heart,” she says in Hindi. She had always voted, for every election, but this time was different. “I do feel sad. The vote is our only right, and we’ve let it go.”

Along with most villagers of Bijona and Sikharan in Aligarh district, Singh “boycotted” the Lok Sabha polls on April 18. That, the people reason, is the only way they can make the administration sit up and take notice of a complaint they have been voicing for years.

Broken roads bind the two western Uttar Pradesh villages that lie adjacent to each other and are hemmed in by ripe wheat fields. With successive elected representatives over the past two decades doing little to mend or build new roads — an old demand of the villagers — the people decided there would be no votes without roads. Over 1,200 voters are registered in the two villages under the Hathras Lok Sabha constituency and their decision had the district administration swooping down to mollify them on election day.

Singh, a 32-year-old mother of two, says the villagers were pushed not to vote. She points to the muddy, uneven road outside her gate and emphasises how difficult it is for students to be transported to school. The government primary school is right across the road, but she sends her children to a private school about 5km away. “A bus comes to fetch them. But not everyone can afford the school bus. The small vans get stuck in slush during monsoon and children end up missing school for days.”

Outside Singh’s home, sitting under the shade of an expansive tree, the men narrate how they decided not to vote in this election. “Our village does not figure on any map,” says Yathish Kumar Singh, who lives in Bijona. The men, most of whom are farmers, say withholding the vote was their last option. They had met their elected representatives many times, and requested the roads be mended, but no action was taken. “If our village is not on your map, why should we vote?” asks Yathish Kumar.


The Lok Sabha poll winds into its fifth phase on May 6. Fifty to 100 constituencies went to vote in each of the last four phases. But in every phase, sections of villagers across the country struck a dissenting note by refusing to cast their vote. Some boycotted, others threatened to do so. In almost all instances, they sought to draw attention to the severe lack of amenities — from proper roads and bridges to drinking water. The exercise was not just people not voting but stating — loud and clear — that they were together turning away because governments were not listening to them.

In Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, villagers refused to vote as their demand for a bridge had remained unmet for years. In Navi Mumbai, voters demanded property cards (a document on land ownership) and withheld votes. In two booths in Kannauj, UP, villagers refused to cast their ballot citing lack of development. Those in the water-starved Bundelkhand region threatened a boycott if the scarcity was not addressed. In Uttarakhand, villagers in multiple regions spoke of a boycott, citing ill-connected road networks.

Clearly, people are protesting what they see as apathy directed at them. “It is a worrying sign,” says Sanjay Kumar, director at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Kumar, who has co-authored Measuring Voting Behaviour in India and Changing Electoral Politics in Delhi, says poll boycott is a sign of intense disappointment and anger in the voter, which both the candidate and political party should take seriously. “It is a worrying sign that people have been so unhappy that they decide not to poll. It is a dangerous moment in Indian democracy,” Kumar notes.

In an event as long-winded and complex as the Indian election, the refusal of a few to participate does not cause a stir. But the ones boycotting say that is the only way their voices may be heard. “We don’t need anything else from political leaders,” says Omkar Singh, a farmer from Bijona. “It’s enough if we get roads and water.”

The villagers stress that they take their franchise seriously and Bijona and Sikharan often register high polling. Traditionally the panchayat that comprises the two villages has been a Bharatiya Janata Party stronghold. The two villages are dominated by the Thakur community and belong to the Hathras reserved constituency.

The decision to boycott, they hold, emerged from a deep sense of betrayal. “Bar bar yeh humein dhokha dete rahe (they keep taking us for a ride),” says old-timer Naresh Pal.

The boycott was not chalked out in detail, or led by anybody, the villagers point out. “We just decided among ourselves,” Pal adds.

On polling day, the district administration realised there was something amiss when the booth in Bijona remained quiet through the morning. The district magistrate (DM) arrived by late afternoon, met the villagers and urged them to vote. “No one had voted till about 3.30 pm. The DM requested us to vote and told us to have faith. We’ve trusted him. He has come here for the first time. We’ve to trust somebody,” says Yathish Kumar.

Out of Bijona’s 418 voters, 239 cast their vote just before polling closed. “Our voting percentage usually is around 80-90 per cent,” says Omkar Singh.

Babli Singh did not vote. She is tired of all electoral promises. “Each time they tell us to cast our vote and that the road will be taken care of,” she sighs.


Talking point: The condition of the village road is often the subject of discussion when villagers gather under a luxuriant tree in the primary school courtyard in Sikharan   -  BusinessLine


Sikharan, the village across a few fields from Bijona, saw only 10 per cent voting. Post election, the discussion still veers around to the need for roads. Whenever a handful of villagers gathers under a luxuriant tree in a primary school courtyard, they discuss the condition of the village road.

School principal Rajani talks about her daily trek from Aligarh, some 20km away. “I have been posted to many schools, but never been at one that does not have a motorable road on any side,” she says. The monsoons, she points out, are especially difficult. The roads become sludgy, and two-wheelers and small vehicles ferrying schoolchildren often get stuck in the mud.

Rajani had no idea about the impending boycott when she helped set up the polling centre in the school the day before. “Nobody said anything. On the day of voting, I got a call in the afternoon from a colleague on duty who said no one had voted,” she says.

Usually, election days are busy. But this one was different, says a polling booth aide from the village. “People vote in huge numbers here. But this time, I just sat the whole while, the police officials waited outside. Voting began after 5 pm,” the aide says. Seventy-nine of the 798 registered voters finally voted — and after officials requested them to do so.

“It was the decision of the community to boycott and everyone agreed with it,” says Shivdan Singh, a village elder.

It is not the first time that Sikharan and Bijona are trying to raise their voice by not voting. Arun Pratap Singh, another villager from Sikharan, says they did so during the 1996 Assembly elections. The reason then, too, was the road. “Relatives refuse to visit us, citing the road condition. We have to pay ₹300 more for school transport because of the state of the road,” he adds.

Mahinder Pal Singh joins the small group of people chatting under the tree. “There is no tax that we don’t pay. Yet we get no facility. Every time we enquire about the road, we’re told that the tender has been passed and work will begin soon. But nothing happens.”

The villagers are happy with the impact of the boycott. The move made local news and the DM visited the villages. And this, they stress, would not have happened if they had taken part in the election and pressed the NOTA (None of the Above) button — an option for voters who reject every candidate.

“Would anyone come (asking us about our demands) if we had voted NOTA,” asks Jayaprakash Narayan, a schoolteacher.

Sikharan and Bijona are back on the map. The villagers hope things would change, but they also know if it doesn’t, they cannot do much else.

At the end of the day, boycott and after, Sikharan polled 10 per cent votes. But a few booths in Malkangiri district in Odisha hit the headlines when they registered zero votes. Elections in the district — a volatile region dominated by ultra-Left insurgents — have often witnessed violence.

“Every election over the past 20-25 years, be it local, assembly or parliamentary, has been disrupted by IED blasts, EVM snatching and violence,” stresses Manish Agarwal, DM, Malkangiri, over the phone. Though no voter turned up at 15 booths in the Chitrakoota constituency, Agarwal considers a peaceful election in the region a step forward. “We had made all preparations. Nine polling parties were airdropped into the region. I consider the absence of any kind of violence a watershed moment,” he adds.

People have their reasons for a boycott, but Kumar points out that this kind of a protest has its drawbacks. Poll boycotts hardly ever make an impact on the electoral outcome. “They are considered isolated instances both by the candidate and the political party,” he points out.

Its limited impact, however, does not take away from the warning it is meant to be, he adds. “Most of these boycotts are not because people don’t like a candidate or a party. It emerges from their deep unhappiness about what the government or elected representative did not deliver,” Kumar says. The voters often want basic amenities — road, water, power. “They don’t boycott an election asking for highways or big industries.”

The effectiveness of the method can only be gauged by the response it evokes, he points out. Does it prompt elected representatives to listen to them and act? Even when a DM visits protesting villagers and hears them out, it is more an instance of an official going out of his way to do his duty.

“A returning officer can say that my duty is to only ensure free and fair polls and not get people to vote. A DM who reaches out is responding as an individual with a sense of duty. It is not the response of a system,” says Kumar. Boycott, he adds, is occasionally the last resort of the voter.

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Published on May 03, 2019
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