NOTEBOOK Comment

Democracy, Bihar style

Ballot boxes. File   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The year was 1989. The Bofors scandal had gripped the nation. V.P. Singh was a household name. And in the Congress citadel of Bihar, Lalu Prasad was making waves.

When the general election was announced, we rookies in the newsroom were eager to go out and capture the drama in Bihar. To add to our excitement, a BBC crew came to make a documentary on how Indian elections are covered. The sight of a ‘foreign’ team created quite a buzz, with curious onlookers following them as the crew followed my colleagues across the State.

Those of us on the desk, who seldom got a chance to go on the field, were not left untouched by what was happening around us, both inside and outside the office. I too wanted to get a first-hand experience of reporting from the field. At the best of times Bihar was not, and is still not, considered safe for women to be out and about alone. Would the boss say yes?

On election day, after some persuasion, I was allowed to accompany a reporting team to Vaishali, a semi-rural constituency not far from Patna. Be cautious, the boss warned. And we were off. Since 1952, the constituency had been represented in Parliament by Digvijay Narain Singh of the Congress. He quit in the aftermath of Emergency and won in 1977 on a Bharatiya Lok Dal ticket. Kishori Sinha of the Janata Party broke his uninterrupted run in 1980 to become the first woman MP from Vaishali. She won again in 1984, this time as a Congress candidate. She now faced Usha Sinha of the Janata Dal.

Driving towards Vaishali, we saw a very mela-like atmosphere, with people heading to the polling stations in groups. However, several centres were deserted. Reports of violence and booth capturing from a neighbouring constituency trickled in.

As we headed to the interiors, we spotted a booth just off the highway. On an instinct, we stopped the vehicle and got down. Perhaps it was the sight of a woman alighting from a jeep, or the fact that I was wearing a khadi sari, a couple of polling agents rushed out to greet me. “Madamji yahan sab manage ho gaya hai aapke paksh mein (Madam, here everything has been managed in your favour),” they said. We went in and I was stunned to see a group of men with a bunch of ballot papers, stamping away furiously and stuffing them in the ballot box. The polling officer was sitting in a corner, helpless.

I had just witnessed a classic instance of booth capturing.

Before we could ask any questions, someone had spotted the sticker on our vehicle and shouted “Yeh log press se hai (These people are from the press)!” As the men became aggressive and a crowd started gathering, we managed to escape. To this day, election time revives memories of that eventful day.

Bihar kept up its reputation of violence, with blasts, shootings and deaths reported from across the State. It would be another year before T.N. Seshan became Chief Election Commissioner and changed the way elections are conducted. It would be several years before electronic voting machines were introduced. It would be several more years before people managed to go out and vote without fear.

And regarding the result, Usha Sinha won. The elections threw up a hung Parliament and V.P. Singh became Prime Minister.


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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 5:43:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/democracy-bihar-style/article26946277.ece

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