Today is polling day in Haryana – and I could walk to my polling booth, cast my vote and walk back without any hassle. Gurgaon is a urban, middle class constituency and the area I live has a fairly homogenous voter profile. Since the voter slip had been sent to my house a couple of days ago, I knew that my polling station was at the South City Club House. Crossing the 6 lane highway outside my apartment complex, which has no over- under- or any other kind of bridge or marked crossing for pedestrian and no speed limit for vehicles, is impossible at any time of the day, on any day except Sundays and days like today. The polling opens conveniently at 7 am and I was already at the end of a fairly long line when I reached at 7.30 am. My polling slip indicated my electronic voting machine (EVM) number (there were 3 at this center), I joined the appropriate line which moved in an orderly fashion and in half an hour I was at the head of the line. The voting itself is a smooth affair, your name is ticked off a printed list, you are asked to sign at one place and then press your choice on the EVM, the last option after the 18 candidates being NOTA (None of the above) – all of it takes 2-3 minutes.
And as I was walking back home, I thought back on the voting experience over the years. In my younger days, in the 50s and early 60s, I do not remember my parents discussing politics or going to vote. The age for voting was 21, and for the first few years after attaining that age, I was either a student or in various stages of transition with no permanent address. Although, we were in a more stable state by 1974 in Chandigarh, the processes for registration as a voter was tedious. It was during the Emergency of 1975 that the need for participation was wakened and an effort was made to get ourselves registered. I don’t think our efforts were successful (or we did not try enough!!), but I remember the excitement of the 1977 elections and the disappointment that we could not vote in it. We were on the Frontier Mail from Delhi to Bombay when the results started to come out – those being the days of paper ballots, big heavy locked and sealed ballot boxes which had to be transported to and from the booths, manual counting – and how Subhash stepped out at every station through out the night to keep track of results.
I was in the US during the 1980 general elections that voted Indira Gandhi back to power. And I never got to vote in Chandigarh. Finally, I cast my vote for the first time in Mumbai for an assembly election, the local party workers having moved around and ensured that every ones’ name was on the registered voter list. In the early days in Lucknow, the right to exercise ones vote was a matter of luck. We, at the SGPGI campus, were the only middle income, educated group in a generally rural, poor constituency and so were of no relevance to the local candidates. Some politically active employees got our names on the rolls, and came to let us know where our booth would be – usually in one of the Govt schools in one of the villages near by.
Indian elections are defined as pre- and post-Seshan. T N Seshan was the iconic, strong-man Election Commissioner (1990-96) who changed the face of elections – brought in some order and respect for the system. Prior to that, most of the middle class were reluctant participants and supercilious ring side observers, being insiders but sceptical of their role if any. It was in this period, that the first effort was made to create a Voter card – we were photographed with a video camera, holding our name ID, much like you see the crooks in the identification parades in Hollywood movies. In the first round, the name IDs and the pictures got mis-matched by one slot and s0 I was Suman Kher (my neighbor) and Suman was Neera Jain (her neighbor) etc… And after some complaints, I was issued a card.
Having the voter card did not help matters a lot. This was in the pre-computer days and manually made voter lists were haphazard, with no system or order. You had to scan through pages and pages of poorly printed lists, hoping to see your name. It was a matter of luck if your name was found, some were there, some were not – as so I voted in some but not in other elections. Once, I remember that the campus names were distributed over 2-3 polling booths, and Subhash and I drove fro one to the other in hunt of the names, it even happened that his name was there and mine was not….. Since the photo ID did not become universal it could not be made compulsory and so things did not change, till I left in 2009. Of course, the robust and strong EC that Seshan and his numerous successors created eliminated many of the earlier practices such as booth capturing, mass intimidation etc. The introduction of the EVM in 2004 general elections made another quantum change, with little scope for fake voting.
And finally, the new Voter card has been introduced. It is still not mandatory, you can use other valid photo IDs if you are a registered voter, but automation of the system has enhanced transparency, lists make sense and the booth personnel are less hassled.
There is greater civil society engagement with elections, the EC website is user-friendly, there is much that can be done online. Many organizations have support systems in place to help people – things are a long way from the times when I struggled to get my name on the list or once on it, to locate it at the booth!! This has made the voting experience, like mine this morning, smooth – I hope I will also live to see the day when the candidates are as transparent as the voting system and we can make our informed choices with less cynicism.