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March 12, 1998


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Manjula Padmanabhan

The black dot

The first time I was eligible to vote, in 1977 in Bombay, my registration was cancelled and I couldn't exercise my democratic right. That was the historic election in which Indira Gandhi lost, but of course at the time that the country went to the polls, no one knew she was going to lose. I remember how peeved I felt that I wasn't going to be able to do even the little that I could, as a citizen, to ensure that her chaotic misguided rule came to an end.

The only thing left to me to vent my ire in the readers response column of The Indian Express. My letter was published on the morning of the election and several people told me that they had read it on their way to their polling booths and that it had strengthened their hands as they cast their votes. It seemed to have been an effort well-spent.

Twenty-one years later, when I finally got around to earning the black spot on my left index finger, conditions had changed so much in the country that I could barely recall the optimism with which I wrote that distant letter. I would be nervous now, in today's reality, to stick my neck out even to that modest extent. There does not seem to be anything historic or memorable about the electoral process going on around us and, yet, it is quite possibly going to be the axis around which the wheel of our many destinies will turn. Cinema has taught us to associate dramatic action with stirring music. But, in real life, the most extreme events take place with no accompanying soundtrack.

The morning dawned soft and grey, waxing into warm sunlight by 11 o'clock. I set off for the polling station at which I am registered, with a friend and her two beautiful daughters. A primary school in our area had been requisitioned for the poll and, when we got there, a mild hum of activity was in evidence. A few security personnel, a handful of tables with party workers, citizens dressed up for the occasion and that was about it. Inside, there was a short queue. It seemed that we would be deprived of even the basic inconvenience of a long wait! It took us all of five minutes to enter the little room where polling officers were sitting around with their lists and registers.

Since this, despite my advanced age, was my first experience of voting, I was trying hard to feel solemn and portentous, but the mildly festive atmosphere made this impossible. My friend's two daughters were looking forward to their first experience as voters but one was disappointed. She had not yet been registered on the lists!

The remaining three of us had our voter's ID cards and our names had been printed up. One of the men sitting behind the tables looked like an elderly dandy in a Wild West film, wearing a fawn three piece suit and rhinestone jewellery, complete with glittering bolero tie-clip. His function was to hand out the actual stamping device used for marking the ballot sheet, after having carefully inked it on both sides. I was delighted by his appearance and wished privately that all polling officers be made to dress in uniforms appropriate to their duty.

A young man carrying a video camera on his shoulder ambled in sporting the studiedly bored expression typical of his breed. Why do we rarely see any video cameramen who actually enjoy their jobs? This one trained his lens in our direction, filling up his quota of footage showing "leddies" exercising their democratic rights. Too bad none of us were in a burkha, or else he could have gone home satisfied that he'd done his tour to duty. No election day media coverage is complete, after all, without the mandatory shot of Muslim and/or tribal women queuing up at the booths.

Our responsibilities discharged, we returned to my friend's home for the real business of the day, a cup of coffee and a long lazy chat. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, an Algerian diplomat's wife was busy savaging Sagarika Ghose over a parking dispute. The papers have since reported the incident from both sides. Astonishingly, the amazon appears to think that she had enough provocation to assault Ghose, as if violence in public places in the obvious and natural solution to life's little problems.

Clearly, she hasn't spent very long in India! Our solution to problems is to hold elections. Of course they're not very effective. But then, neither is violence; the news reports don't mention who actually won the coveted parking place at the end of hostilities, but it sounds like no one did.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Manjula Padmanabhan