An Exercise In Democracy
I was in Bombay on November 4th watching the US elections through an Indian lens as the historic selection of the first black president unfolded. So five months later I felt there was a certain symmetry to be in India again right at the midpoint of the month long election process in the world’s largest democracy.
With over 700 million voters spread over 35 states and union territories, the logistics behind this monumental undertaking are staggering. To manage the process, voting is carried out over five days starting on the 16th of April and ending on the 13th of May. Over 4 million officials are deployed around the country to ensure safe and secure execution of the election process. Over a million voting machines are distributed to 800,000 plus polling stations. A thousand different parties ranging from the two main ones, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to smaller splinter groups and regional special interests contest for 543 seats in the lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha.
Despite its size and complexity, India has had a history of peaceful elections. Recently the voting process itself has become increasingly sophisticated. As one of my friends pointed out with a big laugh, “India has a completely electronic voting system unlike the one you guys use in USA. Maybe you should outsource your voting to us?” The truth is that India has a universal electronic voting machine that is compact, secure and used in almost all states. Battery powered with multiple security features built in, it smoothes the polling operation while reducing the need to print tons of paper ballots in multiple languages.
In Mumbai (Bombay to old-timers) where I was based, there was an additional level of intensity that was almost palpable. Since the brutal terrorist attacks on November 26th (26/11 as the locals called it) there has been a groundswell of political activism that I had not felt before. Several grassroots citizen organizations had sprung up to harness the feelings of resentment and disgust at the handling of the terrorist attack and to channel it to effect change in government. The staid Times of India launched a Lead India campaign to motivate people to get out and vote. Youngster Rahul Bose went door to door in the posh Bombay localities of Malabar Hill and Peddar Road in the days before the polls urging the complacent well-to-do to get out and make change happen. Working with Jaanagraha, a grassroots citizens NGO, they showed prospective voters how to find their polling station using an interactive online map. On the day of the polls heartthrob John Abraham was shown leading old ladies to the polls. The entire Bachchan clan was photographed coming out of the polling station ‘giving the finger’ but in this case proudly displaying the indelible ink mark that signified that they had done their civic duty.
At home, my 90 year old dad was determined to make the trek to the local booth. As someone who had been active in community service and local politics all his life, he had instilled in us a sense of civic responsibility. My wife, Shiamin, and I decided to accompany him to the polling place. Fortunately it was around the corner in a municipal school. “Saab, go in the afternoon after two”, advised our driver, “it will be less crowded and you wont have to wait as long”. A well intentioned piece of advice given the sultry 100 degree weather we had been experiencing since our arrival.
So shortly after 2 on Election Day, we drove down to the polling station with my dad. A gaggle of policemen were keeping all traffic away from the main school gate. Given my dad’s age, we had to convince them to let us drive him up to the main door. We got his identity verified with his voter card, only to find out that the polling station was on the next floor and up a steep flight of stairs. Not to worry, the local election official said. In no time a couple of wiry chaps came up to the car with a makeshift device consisting of a plastic chair slung between two bamboo poles, constructed specifically for assisting physically challenged voters. They hefted my dad and began the precarious journey up the stairs. We followed, fingers crossed, half expecting the entire group to come tumbling down.
There were about a half a dozen people at the polling station, all very polite and businesslike. One person read out his name from the voter ID, another wrote the information down in a journal and had him sign it, three others were making notes in the background while yet another official daubed my dad’s left middle finger with indelible ink. He was handed a slip which he had to promptly hand over to yet another official who waved him to a table on which sat the ELECTRONIC VOTING MACHINE, shielded on all sides with cardboard blinders. My dad walked over, looked over a list of over a dozen names and symbols, and pressed a blue button next to his choice. And just like that the lever of democracy had been pulled. Coming down was an equally precarious process in reverse with the makeshift palanquin. The entire process took less than five minutes.
Back home from the sweltering heat, we scanned the TV news as they showed various celebrities exercising their civic duty. Somehow voting had become a glamorous thing this time around. A who’s who of actors and actresses were making it a point to advertise their civic consciousness.
There had been high expectations that this year the election process would somehow be different and attract a higher turnout of a more engaged populace. However the next day the baleful headlines all pointed out how Mumbaikars seemed to have been interested in things other than voting. The estimated turnout was just 41.24%, the lowest since 1977. The talking heads had a field day dissecting the reasons for the low level of interest floating suggestions ranging from the oppressive heat, to the four day weekend (as Mumbai celebrated the 50th anniversary of the creation of Maharashtra on May 1), to the lack of liquor.
But in our corner of Mumbai we were happy that once more we had participated in that precious exercise in democracy.
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Bollywood voted big time!
Rahul Bose gets out the vote.
Actor John Abraham lends a hand to elderly voter.
John Abraham shows the finger.