Heatwave Politics: The Impact of Extreme Weather on Indias 2024 Elections

Heatwave Politics: The Impact of Extreme Weather on India's 2024 Elections

Severe heatwaves are reshaping India's political landscape ahead of the 2024 elections. As climate change intensifies, public demand for robust environmental policies increases. Politicians are compelled to address climate resilience, integrating it into their strategies to appeal to voters. Here we see how these extreme weather events are influencing political discourse and voter behavior in India.

The 2024 Lok Sabha elections in India were a significant event. Major political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Indian National Congress (INC), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and numerous regional parties, contesting for 543 seats. The elections were conducted in seven phases, almost six weeks long, from April to June, and intense political debates, rallies, and public meetings marked the campaign's duration.

However, these elections were marked by an unprecedented factor: extreme weather. A severe heatwave and red alert situation in Delhi NCR significantly impacted the electoral process, influencing everything from campaigning to voter turnout. According to several researchers and studies, the heatwave was not the sole reason for lower voter turnout. Abdul Samad Nomani, a Bangalore-based Independent Political Research Analyst, expressed, "It is also due to the BJP's overconfidence as well or the public's assumption that the BJP would win anyway, which compelled voters to stay away from the polls." Similarly, in the northern belt, considered a stronghold of the BJP, several voters treated the heatwave as a mere catalyst for not turning up to vote.

While in the first two phases in 2024, there was a 3% dip in voter turnout compared to 2019, voter turnout increased from around 62% in the fifth phase to 63% in the sixth phase in 2024. However, Manas Mahendra, an Independent Political Analyst and Researcher based out of Delhi, explained that the significant logistical challenges that doubled the impact of the heatwave and hindered the electoral process were high congestion, lack of shelters at certain booths, and lack of or no arrangements such as water or sheds for the voters. These challenges were observed to be grave in remote parts of the country. In the seventh and the last phase of the 2024 General Elections, the voter turnout stood around 58%, causing a 5% decrease from phase six.

The Intersection of Extreme Weather and Politics

The season's continuing heatwave saw temperatures soaring to a record-breaking 52 degrees Celsius. The Indian Meteorological Department issued multiple red alerts, warning of extreme heat conditions. This extreme weather coincided with the election season, creating a unique set of challenges for both voters and candidates. The unbearable heat deterred many voters from reaching polling stations.

In major states like Delhi, Mumbai, and Uttar Pradesh, voter turnout was 60%, 55%, and 57%, respectively. Between Phase 1 and Phase 6, Nomani highlighted that the overall voter turnout was 70.03%, 2.09% less than in the 2019 general elections until Phase 6. He added, "A comparison of temperatures on polling days in April 2024 with those from April 2019 reveals a rise ranging from 1 degree to 7 degrees."

Explaining the impact of heatwave on the election campaigning, Nomani established that candidates and their cadres had to navigate extreme temperatures, often above 40°C, while campaigning. This made outdoor activities challenging, especially during the peak summer months. In Karnataka, for example, temperatures in certain regions soared as high as 45° Celsius in April, with an average temperature ranging between 40 to 44° Celsius becoming the new norm. Apart from this, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, West Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra, West Bengal, coastal Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana were the most heat-wave-prone states or regions - making campaigning a challenge.

The Saga of Seats and Sweats

The 2024 elections faced logistical challenges due to an intense heatwave that gripped several states during the polling period. Nomani shared, "Constituencies in the southern and central parts of the country, particularly in Karnataka, saw voter turnout drop by over 5% in some areas compared to previous elections." The scorching temperatures and dry winds made it difficult for voters to wait in long queues, leading many to arrive early in the morning to avoid the midday heat. However, even the early hours provided little respite as the oppressive heat persisted throughout the day.

The heatwave also posed logistical challenges at the polling booths. There were reports of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) malfunctioning due to the heat, leading to delays and disruptions in the voting process. EVMs and their proper installation are the most essential tools and parts of any election. However, it was observed that in certain polling booths in the NCT of Delhi, mainly in the Chandni Chowk constituency, people had to wait for a long time to cast their votes due to the limited availability of EVMs per booth.

The extreme weather also affected the physical campaigning of candidates. Many had to reschedule their rallies and public meetings to early morning or late evening to avoid the peak heat hours. This resulted in a shorter campaigning window and less interaction with the voters. "In states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan, where the polling was scheduled amid scorching temperatures, parties shifted their focus to conducting campaigns during the cooler morning and evening hours. Door-to-door outreach was prioritised from 9 AM to 12 PM, avoiding the peak heat wave period. Indoor meetings were scheduled in the afternoon, while public functions were organised in the evenings to minimise heat exposure for attendees," Nomani shared.

To cope with the heat, candidates and their supporters used umbrellas, hats, and other protective gear, including the party flag, to shield themselves from the sun. Party workers were advised to wear protective gear like caps and carry drinking water, with provisions for refreshing beverages like lemon juice and buttermilk made available. Similarly, in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, the BJP and Samajwadi Party adapted their timings, with door-to-door visits conducted between 7-10 AM and small group meetings held in the evening. He further added, "Organisational meetings were scheduled indoors during the afternoon. The Congress party in Karnataka and YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh held group discussions and indoor meetings in the afternoon and scheduled door-to-door campaigning and bike rallies from 8 AM to 10 AM and later from 5 PM to 8 PM."

Climate Change and Future Elections

The heatwave's impact on the elections underscores the broader implications of extreme weather events on democratic processes. Climate activists and public health experts warn that such weather patterns could become more frequent due to climate change. There is an ever-growing intersection between climate change and politics, and it is clear that we need to adapt our political and electoral systems to be resilient in the face of extreme weather events.

The potential long-term and severe effects of such extreme weather events include alienating a certain part of the population participating in democratic procedures. Mahendra continues, "Weather conditions are a major catalyst in voter turnout. If the climate continues to deteriorate, there's a huge chance that a major part of the population that is either politically aligned with the ideology of the party in power, or upper class or indifferent, may not vote at all. And such situations in the future will only benefit whichever party is in power because it will get easier to prevail."

Heatwaves can significantly impact voter turnout, particularly among vulnerable populations, and make it more difficult for candidates to campaign effectively. It can also exacerbate existing inequalities and disproportionately affect marginalised communities, potentially skewing election outcomes. If these events become more frequent and severe due to climate change, they could undermine the integrity and fairness of India's elections, eroding public trust in the democratic process.

To mitigate these risks, Nomani suggested, "The Election Commission of India (ECI) and other stakeholders must prioritise climate adaptation measures, such as providing shade, water, and cooling centres at polling stations. However, these short-term solutions may not be enough to address the underlying challenges posed by climate change." He further emphasised that in the long run, India's political parties and leaders must make climate change a central issue in their campaigns and commit to concrete policies that address its root causes and impacts. Failure to do so could have severe consequences for India's democracy and the well-being of its citizens in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

This election highlighted the urgent need for integrating climate resilience into our political and electoral systems. It is crucial to ensure that extreme weather events do not hinder the democratic process. If one wishes to avoid countering the problem of climate change and make conscious systemic and policy changes, Mahendra suggested that the simplest thing to do would be to readjust the election dates by a few months.

As the frequency of such events is likely to increase due to climate change, it is imperative to develop adaptive strategies and policies. Amidst this, the role of political parties and candidates in addressing climate change needs to be emphasised. Their commitment to climate action can influence voter behaviour and shape the political landscape.

The 2024 elections have shown that climate change is not just an environmental issue but a political one. We need to integrate climate resilience into our political and electoral systems to ensure that democracy thrives, even in the face of extreme weather events.

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