Fifth and last phase of polling

By Geeta Padmanabhan

I cast my vote today

I went out and voted in the fifth and last phase of elections (2009) to the Lok Sabha. I thought I would be there before the 107*F summer heat kicked in and reached the polling booth at 7 am , the opening hour. Many, I found, had had the same idea. Each entrance had at least thirty voters. Only the election staff wasn’t ready. We had to wait at least a half hour before they opened the proceedings.

“Will they extend the timings?” asked the man behind me. “They weren’t expecting a crowd,” said a woman. “Anyway, they are adept at cramming the votes into the last hour (a reference to what happened in Thirumangalam).”

The large voter turn-out wasn’t really a surprise. In the last week, wherever I went, I had a flyer thrust into my hand. They all had this one message. “Go out and vote.” Each carried the name of an outfit – Liberal Association, Ekta, Election Watch – loosely constituted NGOs whose only aim seemed like they wanted to stir “public conscience.” Musical bands have been belting out similar messages on TV. There were celebrity endorsements for voting. The general slogan was “If you don’t vote you have no right to criticize”.

Mine is a very middle class constituency. So what does the higher voter turnout mean? A sense of despondency? Anger? (Plenty to be angry about, price-rise, power cuts, lack of a proper garbage removal system, construction of bad and unnecessary overhead roads, shrinking of walking spaces and sidewalks). They might be thinking: “If I don’t vote, I’m doomed. I’ll have no voice in what’s being done to my environment.” Voting out of anger is not a new phenomenon. If that brings them to the polling stations, it is very welcome.

Considering the magnitude (mind-boggling numbers) the Election Commission had done a decent job. There were ramps and voting papers in Braille. Policemen were helping voters find their way. Names and symbols of candidates were prominently displayed. Form 49-0 was easily available. The print media have been carrying regular reports on the “How to” of using the electronic voting machines.

But there are serious problems – systemic ones – in the voting process. To set them right, we need electoral reforms.

Voting is not compulsory and the day is a paid “holiday”. People just take off. Why should it be a holiday?

I have no say in who the political parties choose as their candidates. On what basis are they given “tickets”? Caste? Influence? Money power? Winnability? I am forced to vote for the party (and its supremo) and not for the candidate. This limits my choice.

I could vote for an independent candidate. My constituency has Sarat Babu, an IIM-A guy whose mom educated him on the earnings of her small roadside idli shop. Another independent is Venkatraman who has a long history of working for the disabled in these parts. But then, there are 35 others contesting for this south Chennai seat. Do they stand a chance at all? Do people even know about them?

My neighbour and his family were turned away because their names were missing from the voters’ list. They had voted in the last elections. If it is any consolation actor Kamalhasan wasn’t allowed to vote because his name went missing too. How did this happen?

A couple of days ago, my husband and I were given a “voting slip” by an anonymous caller. The slip carried our names, the name of the voting venue, and our voting register number. Those who did not carry this slip were barred from voting, even if they had voter IDs. No slip, no vote.

The shocking part is that the slip was not a plain innocuous one. It had, prominently printed on it, the election symbol of the ruling party. A pamphlet highlighting the “achievements’ of the party was attached to it. We almost looked for the pinned cash. Why is this piece of paper indispensable for voting?  Why would a political party spend on it and the election officials insist that we have it at the time of voting?

We also saw those infamous black-trousered-white-shirted guys around the polling station. They were constantly on their cellphones. We heard a guy say, “The bundles are with so-and-so.” We thought of the worst. Why can’t we cancel the candidatures of the contestants caught distributing cash or kind?

It will be good to have an age limit for the contestants. It will be good to make voting compulsory and open a “help booth” to sort out problems at the venue. It will be good to see 100% voting. Good to see proper vetting of “independent” candidates. Why would they contest, knowing well they would lose their deposits?

Each candidate is allowed to bring two observers. It is an open secret that many independents are dummy candidates to facilitate the presence of musclemen.

But I voted and I’m happy about it.

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