Indian Decade

Tamil Nadu’s Heartening Turnout

The turnout in Tamil Nadu’s recent state elections was encouraging. Have voters decided enough is enough?

For better or worse, turnout at regional elections in India can often hold surprises.

Following the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, the city headed to the polls as part of the April 2009 Maharashtra assembly elections. There was a naive hope back then that November’s tragedy might prompt the city's middle class to finally shed its political apathy and elect a government competent enough to secure its territory. A number of ‘non-politico’ types including famous doctors, corporate bankers and regular citizens even jumped into the electoral tussle as honest, well-meaning candidates who could truly represent the people.

But sadly, when polling day came, a dismal 43 percent of eligible voters turned out—about 4 percent less than for the 2004 state elections. Clearly, the trauma the city went through hadn’t been enough to catalyze changes in behaviour.

With this in mind, it was really encouraging last week when the state of Tamil Nadu headed to the polls to vote in a new state government. Turnout for the poll was a record 80 percent overall, climbing to a whopping 85 percent in some areas.

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Tamil Nadu's state leadership is notorious for political manipulation and deep-seated corruption. For example, the DMK government headed by M. Karunanidhi has been in the spotlight over its alleged role in the 2G spectrum scam.

It isn't like his main political opponent, AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa, is a bulwark of integrity in public life. Still, a desire for change—or at least a desire to shape one's own destiny—is clearly the prevailing sentiment among Tamil Nadu's voters now.

So, what's driven Tamil Nadu's electorate? Is it possible that we've finally understood that the collapse of governance and the omnipresence of corruption in everyday life top any national tragedy? I certainly hope so.