Thoughts & Ideas

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Election

This happened a long time ago, in November 1991 to be precise. However, the events were so novel, interesting, and forceful that the memories are still vivid and fresh in my mind and it does not feel that more than two decades have elapsed.

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

This dilemma had been gnawing my innards till the time I reached adulthood and all my efforts to rectify this deficiency in essential experiences of civic life went in vain. By the time I got myself enrolled as a voter at any town, I had to move to another city by the time 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 by-election 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 Govt. of Bihar called on volunteers from amongst bank staff and I seized this opportunity and gave my name as a volunteer. All my friends chided me for taking this 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 gory detail. But I had made up my mind and the secret Walter Mitty kind of feeling kept my spirits up and I could not be dissuaded. Finally, the parting advice of my friends and well wishers was that I should not try and be a hero, and if the opposition in the form of booth capturers or other village musclemen wanted their way I should let them do what ever they wanted. He who runs away one day lives to fight another day!

My election duty involved my being given the rank of “Static Magistrate” and being allotted an ultra sensitive booth at a village about 40 km from Patna. The underlying logic being that the police need written orders from a magistrate before they are permitted to shoot and so each police party has to have an accompanying magistrate. Two days before the big event, we were briefed on our duties by the local City SP which basically was an extortion not to be afraid in performance of our duties and the need to take care in evaluating the ground situation before giving written orders for firing. Easy things to say from the air-conditioned environs of the briefing room (a local theatre).

One day before the Election Day, I reported at the place where the elections were being coordinated from – a large field which looked and felt like a village fair. After some effort I succeeded in locating the person I was to report to. Thereafter I was allotted 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 as to where this village was located and how to reach that place. But the police sub-inspector allotted to me took immediate charge. I forget his name, but faintly recollect that he referred to himself as “Something Singh Tiger”. Tiger proceeded to locate a police jeep which was going in the general direction of where we had to go. This jeep then dropped us (me and the accompanying 5 policemen) at a village about 4 km from our final destination by late evening. This place was the nearest point having an all weather metaled road from the village where we had to reach. Tiger promptly sought out the village sarpanch and directed him to make arrangements for our night 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).

Next morning Tiger woke me at about 4 am, since we had to walk the remaining distance and reach the polling station before the polling was to start. It was a stiff 1 hour walk through village unpaved 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 remains of the village school. The building had only 2 walls standing and no roof! Though I understand things have much improved in Nitish’s Bihar.

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

It was a glorious day in mid November with lovely blue skies, perfect temperature, and little humidity. I really looked forward to spending the day in the village and experience at first hand the process of real grass roots democracy in action.

By about 8 am, 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 much disciplined manner, quietly formed a queue and cast their ballots. It was explained to me that this group’s vote enblock for the Indian’s People’s League (if I remember correctly) and was coordinated by volunteers of the communist parties. I was impressed with their discipline and demeanor. There were about 100-150 odd voters in this group and they had completed their voting by about 10 am. Over the next couple of hours people kept on coming in groups to cast their votes.

Some time by mid day, Tiger had made arrangements for my lunch at the house of the village chowkidar. An old dark wizened man in dark blue kurta with a shirt collar and white dhoti. It was very simple but tasty fare and, while sitting at the old man’s house (a hovel by any standards) by way of making small conversation, I asked him as to whom had he voted for? He unhesitatingly and with pride replied that he and his family always voted for the Congress Party. I asked him why? The logic of his answer was simple and direct and in 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 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 pm 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 that fair polling was taking place 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 as to what was going on. It was very 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 unnecessary for all 15 to come. So 1 or 2 people came and took 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 regular participants.

Polling was to continue till 5 pm as per rules, but sometime by about 2 pm, Tiger came and informed me that he planned to get the polling wound up latest by 3 pm. 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 kms on the heads of labourers specially retained for the purpose. Since the way was through fields, with no roads, and it would become dark by 5 pm it would be highly unsafe if we failed to reach our destination by that time. I was more than a little skeptical about being a party to so blatant a deviation to 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 was the total number of registered voters for that particular polling booth? The answer came to about 800, a number to which all agreed. Then he asked them as to what number of votes 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 no one was interested in a re-poll. Then he came to the crux of the position. Eighty percent of 800 (total number of registered voters) came to 640. Since 400 people had already caste 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 in agreeing on 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 I realized is how true Indian democracy works at the grass root level. I wonder how the same process is carried out in present day conditions of electronic voting machines!


  • At 8:27 PM , Blogger Sacha Singh said...

    Very very interesting. Did not know of this experience of yours. This Tiger chap has clear leadership potential. Pity you dont remember his full name - would have liked to track him (now that I am in Patna for a few weeks)


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