While the arithmetic in the Bihar assembly elections seems tilted in favour of the Nitish Kumar-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), there is unease about the final verdict among key political players. This anxiety is not driven as much by the fragmentation of the political space, but by uncertainty about how voters will react to Covid-related difficulties, and how will this shape their behaviour, both in terms of turnout rates among different communities and their voting choices.
There seems to be a consensus that Nitish Kumar’s governance record in this term did not match up to his past record. This was compounded by the failure of his administration to provide adequate relief to the migrants who came back home after the unprecedented lockdown that started in March. Reports from the ground highlighted the hurt and rejection felt by them; and the fact that Bihar has the highest net migration rate in the country makes this salient.
While Nitish Kumar is leaving no chance to remind everyone that his government has made several efforts to compensate the migrant workers, the opposition has alleged that it was too little, too late. Ironically, the opposition’s effort in turning these grievances into campaign platforms has also remained feeble at best. Does the political class not fear any electoral fallout over the issue? The possibility of the migrant crisis having electoral consequences hinges on three inter-related factors.
First, while India has the world’s largest migrant population, work-related migration is relatively small. The Census figures are not reliable in accurately capturing the size of seasonal and temporary migrants (who form the bulk of work-related migration), though estimates suggest that the share of migrants within the eligible voting population is relatively low. Thus, as a voting bloc, the migrant population does not have much bargaining power.
Field studies have shown that long-term migrants are more likely to be from the upper segments of society while short-term migrants are from the bottom rungs. These two sub-classes among the migrants have vastly different engagements in the electoral arena. The lockdown has been hard mostly on the short-term or seasonal migrants and it is this segment which is likely to have more grievances against the political class for abandoning them. However, given their size and scattered nature, even if migrants collectively organise on the issues concerning them, they are unlikely to have a significant electoral impact.
This is related to a second factor. It is not easy for temporary migrants to enrol as voters at destination districts (where they work) as they often return home or migrate to a new location, either in the same city or another city. This electoral disenfranchisement of migrants has resulted in local politicians in the cities not taking enough interest in their problems. These politicians face almost zero electoral cost for ignoring the concerns of the migrants.
Though there is enough evidence to suggest that electoral participation of these temporary migrants is higher in panchayat elections at home, it is expensive for them to travel home to vote during assembly and parliamentary elections. For example, during our research in the district administration in Banda, Uttar Pradesh, during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, we found that more than one in every five registered voters in many polling stations was a migrant. Our analysis suggests that turnout in polling stations with high migration (25% and above) was three percentage points lower. They, however, participate more enthusiastically in the panchayat elections as this has a direct impact on their family’s well-being for a number of reasons, including access to welfare benefits.
Third, can migrants make themselves count politically despite this electoral exclusion? Existing research has shown that the political socialisation of migrants differs among members of their family, and in many cases, as the sole-earning members, their guidance is sought even in matters related to voting. Therefore, they seem to have some influence in voting decisions, and their motivations may well be different from that of the local population.
For example, survey data from Lokniti-CSDS suggests that households with at least one member living outside the state are more likely to consider the performance of the central government over the state government even during assembly elections. They are also more likely to own a mobile handset, a television, and have higher media exposure. Thus, if the families of migrants turn out in this assembly election with the grievances they suffered during the pandemic and in its aftermath, they could change electoral equations in a substantial number of constituencies with high out-migration.
Our knowledge about how the migrant population in India engages with electoral democracy is limited. The scale of their electoral exclusion is staggering, yet no systematic effort has been made to enfranchise these invisible citizens. We must reduce the information gap on migration corridors by making district-to-district mobility data publicly available (not released since 2001) to get a better grip on the changing nature of democratic politics in an increasingly urbanising India.
Rahul Verma is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi
The views expressed are personal