The blue blot on my middle finger
Three hours of running from pillars holding up tin sheets to police posts, which provided security cover to shacks that had cropped up as polling booths, made me realise how frustrating the whole process is when the world’s largest democracy goes to vote.
But, it all changed post the November 26, 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Although we skipped the candles and the drama outside the Gateway of India near the Taj, which saw a protracted gun battle between armed militants and Indian security forces, one cannot deny the impact the attacks had on our collective conscience.
My wife said we cannot just sit back and accept whatever that happened as part of the new reality – terror can strike anywhere, anytime.
For her, it was the “jaagore” moment. For me, after doing my bit of reporting and producing news on India and South Asia for around 10 years, including an overnight vigil outside the Taj Mahal hotel till the miltants were finally eliminated, it was more like “we’ll see.”
My wife said we need to register our names and, if nothing else, at least vote in the elections. As a citizen in a what many call a dysfunctional democracy, she felt that’s the least one can do. For me, that meant “work”. I realised my cynicism will be put to the ultimate test.
This time around, my wife was willing to do all the work. Hail Activism!
She logged on to jaagore.com, registered our names, kept herself constantly updated on the progress of our application and had become quite an expert on voters’ rights, at times embarrassing me with her level of awareness.
The Electoral Registrar’s Office said the onus was on us to prove that our names were not on any other voters’ lists. This came as a bit of a shock and surprise as the voter registration form also allowed us to submit that all other existing registrations, anywhere in India, may be cancelled.
We should have known that such a facility would have to be backed by technological support from a central database of eligible voters where the authroities could monitor and track migration of voters within the country. Maybe, Govt of India and the Election Commission will embrace technology before the next general elections, hopefully not before 2014. By then, we should have the option of voting via SMS or even over the Internet.
Back on dharti Mumbai, reality had bared its fangs.
The officer said we’ll need to file an affidavit, duly notarised, stating that “as far as we are aware, our names does not exist in any other voter list anywhere in India”. After spending a thousand rupees and half a day in a Mumbai court, amid lawyers in black coats that reminded me of my failed attempt to become a legal eagle, I did wonder – How will this “notary public” know if I’m telling the truth at all?
Till the last day, our names never showed up on the voters list. Neither did any of the parties or their candidates come to us seeking votes, as is the case in smaller towns like Thiruvananthapuram and Jhansi where we grew up.
On election day, April 30, 2009, we decided to give it a shot by going directly to the polling booth. We saw that a large open space in front of our house had been converted over the past one week into a polling station with multiple booths made of tin and plastic sheets and bamboo poles.
After spending about an hour there, we figured out our names were not in the voters list at that polling station. The kind policemen on duty directed us to another polling station which was about half a kilometre away. There too, the result was the same.
I realised even the party polling agents didn’t have a comprehensive list. Trust me, if even one of them had helped me, I would’ve voted for their party candidate. I knew there was a voter helpline that was advertised. But, you can call it only from an MTNL line.
For us, it was a race against time. We’d left our two-year-old son sleeping at home, with our Man Friday keeping vigil, and the 5 PM deadline for polling to end was fast approaching. We scooted around in taxis to two more polling stations in Wadala area before finally zeroing in on one polling station, this time in a govt school near the Wadala Fire Station. I was all fired up.
As we stood in line waiting for our chance, we scanned the list of candidates put up outside the booth. The customary party symbols were all there – hand, elephant, lantern, bow and arrow etc etc. I felt awkward. The symbols were familiar, but we didn’t know any of the candidates.
For her part, my wife had already decided. But, I was not so sure. Some of the parties I’d voted for in the past did not even bother to field their candidates in my constituency. But the bigger trepidation was whether I’ll get to vote this time.
Once inside, we found the first trace of efficiency in three hours and the polling officer there promptly helped us with our registration numbers. After my wife voted, it was my turn and the same symbols started smiling invitingly from the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM). I realised it’s a marvellous piece of engineering and decided to cast my vote in favour of Rohan Gawru Tambe, an independent candidate. His symbol “pressure cooker” swung it for me.
I felt it was apt given that I was steaming in the sweltering heat and grime. It was indeed a pressure cooker situation as I managed to get the blot on my middle finger at 4.55 PM. I’d joined the august company of Bollywood A-listers and Mumbai industrialists who voted in the third stage of this mammoth electoral process, although early reports suggest the turnout in this bustling city of dreams was barely 40 percent. It has surprised some that all the activism post-26/11 did not translate into votes.
Columnist Vir Sanghvi summed up the disconnect quoting MJ Akbar who’d famously said in 1984 “Bombay has a chance to establish diplomatic relations with the rest of India”. Sanghvi said Mumbai failed then, and have failed yet again.
But, we were excited that we got the chance and had to scurry back since our child was waiting. On to our fourth taxi and I asked the driver if he voted. He said “vote se zyaada zaroori mera pet hai” which translates to something like “my stomach is more important than the vote”.
I did suggest there were worthy candidates like my man, Tambe. But, the taxi driver’s priorities were clear. He couldn’t care less about who stood and who won. I realised he shared an apathy which was similar to mine, but his was fashioned by a need to survive.
On our way back, we went past voters, some proud of their participation, others convinced of their candidates’ chances. It was indeed the dance of democracy.
Once we reached home, my wife showed me a notice on the bulletin board. There was a blood donation camp in our housing society. Wonder if I should have gone there instead?