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An election-day experience

This happened a long time ago, in November 1991 to be precise. However, the events were so novel, interesting and forceful in nature that the memories are still vivid and fresh in my mind, and it does not really feel like more than a quarter of a century has elapsed.

India is touted as the world’s largest democracy, and one of the favourite hobbies of us Indians is to criticise our politicians and our political system. As a true Indian, I have also willingly participated in this national pastime. However enjoyable this activity was, deep down I always felt like a hypocrite, since the right to criticise coexists with the duty to participate in the political process. And till that time I had never been even remotely involved actively in political processes of any kind — whether it was school or college union elections, municipal elections, building society elections, leave alone State Assembly or parliamentary elections. This was partly due to apathy. It was also because, having lived a very peripatetic existence I was always an outsider in every social milieu I inhabited.

This dilemma had been gnawing my innards till the time I reached adulthood, and all my efforts to rectify this deficiency in the essential experiences of civic life went in vain. By the time I got myself enrolled as a voter in a town, I had to move to another before elections were called. In this profound dilemma I was suddenly offered an opportunity to be directly involved in the election process.

It so happened that a byelection was to be held for the Barh Lok Sabha constituency near Patna, and State government employees who are normally co-opted for conducting this exercise were unwilling to take up the challenge. Therefore, the Government of Bihar sought volunteers from among bank staff and I seized the opportunity and gave my name as a volunteer. All my friends chided me for taking the foolhardy step, explaining all the dangers and pitfalls of such a (mis)adventure. Tales of booth-capturing, shooting of polling officials and other difficulties were described to me in all gory detail. But I had made up my mind and the secret Walter Mitty kind of feeling kept my spirits up; I could not be dissuaded. Finally, the parting advice of my friends and well-wishers was that I should not try to become any kind of a hero, and if booth-capturers or other village musclemen wanted their way I should let them do whatever they wanted. After all he who runs away will live to fight another day!

As part of election duty I was given the rank of a Static Magistrate, and allotted an ultra-sensitive booth in a village about 40 km from Patna. The underlying logic was that the police would need written orders from a magistrate before they are permitted to shoot, so each police party had to have an accompanying magistrate.

Two days before the big event, we were briefed on our duties by the local Superintendent of Police. It basically was an exhortation not to be afraid in performing our duties and on the need to take care to evaluate the ground situation before giving written orders for any police firing. Easy things to say from the air-conditioned environs of the briefing room — which in this case was a local cinema.

One day before election day, I reported at the place from where the exercise was being coordinated – a large field which looked and felt like the venue of a village fair. After some effort I succeeded in locating the person I was to report to.

Thereafter I was attached to a police party consisting of a sub-inspector and four armed constables and asked to proceed to a particular village. I did not have the foggiest idea where this village was located and how to reach that place. But the sub-inspector with me took charge immediately. I forget his name, but faintly recollect that he referred to himself as “(Something) Singh Tiger”.

Tiger proceeded to locate a police vehicle which was going in the general direction of where we had to go. This vehicle then dropped us (the accompanying five policemen and myself) at a village some 4 km from our final destination, by late in the evening. This was the nearest point with an all-weather, paved road from the village which was our ultimate destination. Tiger promptly sought out the village sarpanch and directed him to make arrangements for our overnight stay and evening meal. The sarpanch arranged for us to sleep on straw mattresses in the village school and also for our dinner (delicious litties and chokha).

The next morning Tiger woke me around 4 a.m., since we had to walk the remaining distance and reach the polling station before polling started. It was a stiff hour’s walk through unpaved village paths and through fields, partly barren and partly planted with wheat and vegetables. We reached the village well in time, and he was satisfied with the location of the polling station. It was the village school, or to be more precise, the ruins of the village school. The building had only two walls standing and no roof! (I understand things have improved much in Nitish Kumar’s Bihar.)

Tiger was happy with the location since it was on slightly higher ground from the rest of the village, a little away from the village, and one had a clear line of sight in all directions for at least 200 metres. This was important, he explained, since one would have enough time to prepare in case we were attacked. It seems that during the previous elections the booth at this village was located inside the village and it was attacked by armed men. There were a few casualties.

It was a glorious day in mid-November with lovely blue skies, perfect weather and low humidity level and temperature. I really looked forward to spending the day in the village and experiencing first-hand the process of real grassroots democracy in action.

By about 8 a.m., the polling started. First, the tribal and so-called Dalit inhabitants of the village came to cast their votes. Men and women came in a very disciplined manner, quietly formed a queue and cast their ballots. It was explained to me that this group votes en bloc for the Indian’s People’s League (if I remember correctly) and was coordinated by volunteers of the communist parties. I was impressed by their discipline and demeanour. There were 100 to 150 voters in this group and they completed their voting by about 10 a.m. Over the next couple of hours people kept coming in groups to cast their votes.

By midday, Tiger had made arrangements for my lunch at the house of the village chowkidar. An old, dark and wizened man in a dark-blue kurta with a shirt collar and white dhoti. It was simple but tasty fare. While sitting at the man’s house (a hovel by any standards), by way of small talk I asked him who he had voted for. He unhesitatingly and with a certain pride replied that he and his family always voted for the Congress. I asked him why. The logic of his answer was simple and direct and in the form of a counter-question. He asked me, “If Gandhi Mahatma had not come, would you have had eaten food in the house of a harijan?” (Agar Gandhi Mahatma nahin aaye hote tho kya aap mere ghar ka khana / pani khatein?) The answer stunned me and I had nothing more to contribute to the conversation.

By this time it was about 1 p.m. and I went back to see how the polling was progressing. I noticed that the same set of people seemed to be hovering around the polling station. The regular line of people coming to vote and leaving was missing. As a Static Magistrate my work was not to ensure fair polling, for which there were polling officials. My work was only to sign the order permitting firing if any untoward incidents took place. However, I was intrigued and tried to find out what was going on. It was patiently explained to me that it is not individuals who support and vote for a particular candidate, but families. As such, if there were 15 people in a family it was difficult for all 15 to come and cast their votes. In fact it was considered unnecessary for all 15 to come. So one or two people came and took the ballot papers for 15 people and voted on their behalf. This practice seemed strange to me, but appeared to be accepted wisdom by all the participants, including the polling agents.

Polling was to continue till 5 p.m. as per rules, but some time around 2 p.m., Tiger came and informed me that he planned to get the polling wound up latest by 3 p.m. He explained that after the polling was over, it was our responsibility to escort the sealed polling boxes to the nearest police station. The polling boxes were to be manually carried over a distance of about 4 km on the heads of labourers specially retained for the purpose. Since the way was through fields, with no roads, and it would be dark by 5 p.m. it would be highly unsafe if we failed to reach our destination by that time. I was more than a little sceptical about being a party to so blatant a deviation from the rules. But even this problem was solved by the intrepid Tiger.

He called together all the polling agents (of the different political parties), and assorted hangers-on and subjected them to a series of questions. First, he asked them what the total number of registered voters for that particular polling booth was. The answer was 800, a number to which all agreed. Then he asked them what number had been cast till that time. The answer came to, say about 400. Then he asked if it was true that if the voting percentage was over 80% there would necessarily be a re-poll, and were the people there agreeable to such a re-poll. The unanimous response was that no one wanted a re-poll.

Then he came to the crux. Eighty per cent of 800 (the total number of registered voters) came to 640. Since 400 people had already cast their votes, a maximum of 240 votes could still be cast without there being any risk of re-polling. Then he proceeded to ask the assembled poll agents how many votes each could command, and then went on to calmly distribute 240 blank ballot papers to them based on their agreed strength. There was very little disagreement among the poll agents or the village big-wigs over this distribution. Finally, the polling agents stamped these ballot papers in favour of their individual candidates, which were then handed over to the poll officials to be stuffed into the ballot boxes!

This was an eye-opener for me on how Indian democracy works at the grassroot level. I wonder how the same process is carried out in the present-day conditions of electronic voting machines!

sushilprasadassociates@gmail.com


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Printable version | Jun 9, 2021 5:44:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/an-election-day-experience/article27033684.ece

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