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A farce called democracy
April 26, 2004
Right now I am one helluva pissed off Indian sitting at my computer.
It is election day where I live, and while there are throngs of people heading to the polling booth, I have been unable to vote.
For no fault of mine.
For weeks I have been among those Indians pounded by propaganda urging Indians to go vote. The pleas are by no means unwarranted. Roughly 50 percent of the electorate prefers to stay at home on Election Day, never mind it is a statutory holiday just so to enable the citizenry to exercise its franchise. Despite the multimedia bombardment this year, I would be surprised if there is any significant surge in the voting percentage.
I have never needed to be coaxed into voting, I believe the vote is the ultimate privilege of being a citizen of this country – sceptics need only ask citizens of other countries in the region to be convinced of this.
Between the previous election and now, I had moved home and despite the daunting prospect of dealing with officialdom afresh I decided to brave it all and get myself registered with the Election Commission. NGOs like AGNI did their bit to help those of us who were put off by the thought -- they provided us with names and addresses of where to go, what to do etc to make the task easier for us.
I still remember the day when I went to get myself registered. It was a hot March morning. First I had to go back to the area where my vote formerly lay, have it cancelled, get the necessary paperwork for it, go to the polling office in the new locality, and get myself registered. Voila, it all sounds so simple. It could be simpler if one could do it online from the comforts of one's home or office, but in the new wired India that is being tom-tommed as an achievement by this government that clearly is not a priority.
Living in a beguiling city like Mumbai, how do you know India is not shining? The citizen in you realises the reality when you bang your head against babudom.
First stop: deletion of the previous vote. The office is one of those typical government setups, lined with the bureaucracy's favourite weapons of mass destruction. Tables, chairs and files. There is a crowd outside the shuttered door through which we are being dealt with, some need to register, some like me need to have the name transferred.
After haggling through the iron grille, with the hot sun beating down on us, I am told there is no need to get my name off, some helpful official has already removed my name.
"Huh, how is that possible? I have voted before in that address," I remonstrate. Turns out that the electoral rolls with him are based on the census information, and if I was not living at that address when the census folk came then my name would have been removed from the rolls.
So now what? Nothing, I am told, go to the new office, and get your name in. It is really simple, I was told. Fill Form 7 -- was it Form 6? -- and submit it along with proof of residence, and that's all it would take. Thrilled at the prospect I head to the new office to get myself enrolled.
First downer: the sight of the election office. It is located in a wing of the veterinary hospital. I walk into the operation theatre by mistake and find not aspiring voters but people lugging along animals. At the adjoining wing also the lot is being like a bunch of animals. It is a sight that will quail the most ardent citizen. At a row of windows you are expected to queue up, collect the form, fill it there, and submit it. All under the open, merciless sun.
So I join the line to collect my form, and am told that I need to fill it, have it photocopied, and submit both the copy and the original (why both, one is not told) along with proof of citizenship. And, the nearest copier is a couple of kilometres away.
The cynic in me is out in full strength by now, but I still tell myself I will not be put off by all this. If this is the price to pay for exercising my citizenship right, I will pay it. And suffer the long lines, again, at the copier since everyone from the polling office has come here as well.
I return to the office, submit both the copy and the original duly filled while standing in the open, and I believe that will be it. But no, the officer at the counter needs my 'yaadi number,' I will be darned if I even knew what it was. Civic ward number maybe? No, this is even more micro, possibly the polling station number. I was not the only one to not know this crucial detail, I was happy to note that at other windows to my right people were having the same difficulty. 'Yaadi number.'
At least in my case the officer is a little courteous, goes through his records looking for my housing complex, and locates the number, enters it on my application, tears off my part of it, stamps it and hands it over, with a caveat: "Shaayad naam nahi lagega (your name will still won't make it on the list)." It has taken me four hours from the time I set out in the morning. Anyway, I choose to disbelieve the officer, and wait for D-day, which is today.
This morning brings more of the Kafkaesque. At the table and chair put up so helpfully by various party workers near the voting booth, I realise that my few votes from my housing complex have made it to the final list. "When did you register?" asks one helpfully. March first week, I tell him. "Ah, then forget it, your name will get on the rolls for the next election." Five years later??? "Nahi nahi, bhool gaye kya (No, no, have you forgotten)? Assembly elections are due in a few months, and you will be able to vote in that." I go to other tables, and everyone tells me the same thing.
Sorry, if you registered in March your name would not have made it. I was not alone to suffer this sorry plight. All those from other new buildings in my colony who were inquiring after their vote, were all turned away. Same reason: March registrations did not make it to the rolls. So what does a concerned citizen do?
If you are fortunate like me to have a forum, you can vent your gripe, but what about the thousands of others like me who want to vote, who took time off work, went through the bureaucratic wringer to register as a voter, go hunting for one's vote on polling day, and get turned away?
Where do we go, what do we do? Where is the democracy for us?
For the record, I and thousands like me will be among the dubious 50 percent and more of the electorate that the Election Commission will announce later today as not having voted, the people who don't give a damn. Don't we?
What redressal does the Election Commission -- the august body which presides over the nation's administration during the pendency of the Model Code of Conduct -- have for those citizens who, despite doing everything they are legally required to do in order to vote today, have been turned away? Shouldn't the option of a repoll apply to Indian citizens like us as well?
Saisuresh Sivaswamy is the Managing Editor, rediff.com and India Abroad