Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Vote-o-rama - What-a-Drama!

[Did you got the trendiest temporary tattoo?]
Elections, that magical time, which surfaces not every year, when the city seems cleaner, free from stupid politicians smiling away from even stupider banners, which are so rife with grammatical inaccuracies and errors that had William Shakespeare been alive, he would have willing buried himself, alive of course, the roads seem cleaner, for now the hopefuls work extra time, squeezing more hours out of the day than any other creature, to fool the fickle masses; when people seem more sensible and sober, thanks to the obligatory dry days, and there are freebies distributed all around; in some villages, they're as good as coloured television sets, even though the wily politicians haven't provided electricity or satellites to the simple (a more decorous manner of saying dimwitted) village folk.

However, with each round of elections, whether it is the general elections for the Lok Sabha, or the elections for the State Legislative Assemblies or the elections to the Municipal Corporations in various cities, there comes a plethora of problems and grievances, just like a cool summer breeze in Bombay or any other metropolis for that matter, providing respite from the heat, but bringing with it in the form of uninvited guests, dust, refuse and irritants. This time around too, when the elections were held in Bombay on Thursday, the 16th of February 2012 for the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, or Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (that's the Government's smart-arse way of keeping the same abbreviation even after changing the city's name from Bombay to Mumbai! Isn't it just lovely, and ingenious too!!), a lot of unwarranted noncore drama, brouhaha and outright weird incidents occurred. I was lucky enough to have some happen to me, to finally make me believe in all that is broadcast year after year by the media, to which, hitherto I lent partial credence.

Unlike a couple of the recent elections, when the fateful day is declared as a holiday, so as to coax people to come out and vote and avoid using work as an excuse, this time around it was like any other routine day. A majority of the offices conceded an hour at most, two if they were as generous as the Gates'. No matter how late I would reach that day, I was determined to make my vote count. I still haven't got a Voter's Card, even though I had applied three years ago. Not that I need it, I've got enough documents to prove my identity, and what does the card do anyway? It has a scary looking old black and white picture of yourself that even your stalker couldn't recognise, your date of birth is represented with Xs, only showing the year and it looks like a cheap article that the photocopy guy at the next street corner made for you. And as long as your name appears on the Electoral Rolls, it matters not. Each time before the elections, we receive a tiny nondescript piece of paper, what I think is a Voter Slip, mentioning your name, address, voter number, polling booth and the timings of the elections. This year, the slips that made their way into our house through the tiny gap below the main door confused, shocked and irritated me, not the fact that they crept through the daunting defenses of our house, no I've seen enough cartoons to be surprised by that, but their contents.

[Which is the correct one?]
We received five such slips, one for each family member. But as always, mine had to be the one that was special! Mine was different from the rest, not just in colour and design, but also my polling booth. While the whole family got a certain booth, mine was a different one. How is that even possible when we all live under the same roof and applied for our names to be included on the electoral rolls at the very same time? And while their slips had half of the contents in English and the rest in Marathi, I had mine completely in Marathi, but it escapes me why they continue to use Arabic numerals with the Devanagari script. Also, both the slips stated a Ration Card as an Identity Proof, even though a certain amount of time ago, it was struck off the list of documents that could be accepted as proof, for it truly is the weakest identity proof. All it contains is the name and age of members of a family, nothing more. Anyone ten years younger or elder to me could pose as me using that! But what was the most shocking was the fact that the ones my family members received had a counterfoil on the top that could be torn away and it had the advertisement from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), a political party which I most certainly do not endorse for their crazy destructive ways. Whatever happened to the code of conduct! When there is supposed to be no propaganda whatsoever since the evening from two days before the elections, I had some crook delivering these cards to my doorstep! Isn't this the job of the Election Commission or some department related to them and unrelated to any political party (though that may hardly be the case, but anyway...)? And how the hell did those goons get our personal details? Are they watching every move of ours?

I was furious on seeing those, like the time in 2009 when during the Lok Sabha elections I got an SMS from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) soliciting my vote and it stated that if I wanted to unsubscribe from the list it would cost me 5 Rupees! It's not a question of how immaterial the amount is, but about them cheating us. How can someone irk and irritate you and ask for money in return for your peace of mind? Yoga and meditation camps may do that, but not political parties, no way sir. It's a question of principles, and sadly no political party seems to possess those in a long long time. However, that did not deter me from my decision and I got ready early to go cast my vote, for I expected a queue. As I stepped out of my house, I stepped on a piece of paper. On closer inspection it turned out to be another voter slip, but this time around it resembled the ones my family had received, with a impolitic Raj Thackeray beaming. Urghhh! His silly face further steeled my resolve.

In India, you always end up opting for the lesser evil. Commuting is a horror, so you opt for the mode of transport that's the easiest to bear, universities aren't that great, so you apply to the one that has made the news the least number of times for the wrong reasons, every area seems polluted, so you reside where it is the least, .... you never select the best, but you always go for the least worst! Hence, you choose the best amongst the worst. O sweet Oxymoron, is this how you treat us for ignoring you in grammar lessons? I am glad that in recent times the media has created a great deal of awareness about the Rule 49 (O) in The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, wherein a person can 'Refuse' his vote, by voting for no candidate, if he deems them all unfit to be elected. The discernible reasoning behind this is probably to prevent misuse of votes and election frauds by manipulating the uncast votes if this Rule were absent.  This allows us to not subject ourself to the perplexing question each time, 'Is it the Devil or the Deep Sea?' or rather 'Which Devil is it?'

I had decided to cast my vote under this Rule. Until just today, I was under the misconception that if the number of votes cast under this, exceed the winning number of votes, then there will be a Re-poll and those candidates cannot stand in the Re-election, for that was the rumour doing the rounds. If only that were true! This rule is more about making a statement and trying to penetrate the thick skulls of politicians that they are not as loved as they think. Now that's weird! But what's even more weird is that there was no separate button on the EVMs (Electronic Voting Machines) for 'Refuse to Vote' or 'None of the above', like it is in certain countries. You have to disclose your intentions to the Presiding Officer, who shall then take your signature or thumb impression on a separate 49 (O) form. I don't know how that would tantamount to secret ballot, but then as I have stated earlier, you opt for the lesser evil, an open ballot is better than no ballot!

When I arrived at the Polling Booth, which was accommodated in a tiny garage in one of the neighbourhood buildings with had hardly any security save a policeman with a rifle that I'm not sure even worked and two others with lathis as weapons and daunting stomachs as bulletproof vests that bounce off bullets better than Rajnikanth, I found a three person queue which aroused mixed feelings; I was happy, I knew I would be done soon, but saddened and appalled by the disinterest showed by the people. Anyway, when I made by way inside the booth, I found another lady arguing and insisting that she be provided with the 49 (O) form, and that she wouldn't mind waiting there for however long until she gets it. That should have given me an indication that it was going to a long day! The Presiding Officer, Vinayak Jayatu Khare, said there were no forms and asked us to sign a scrap of paper and leave the booth, but we insisted on the Form and so he called the Zonal Officer, Adeep Parab, who was impolite and hotheaded and could not tackle the situation. He stated that in his twelve years as a Polling Officer, he had never even seen the Form or met anyone who needed one, and so that implied the uselessness of the form! When I told him he was 'ill-equipped', he heard that as 'irritated', I don't know how, and got even more rude and frustrated. He called the local Inspector of Police, A. K. Sonawane, and the Assistant Returning Officer, a certain Ganesh N. Ahire, as he could no longer 'control' us. The two arrived, but were all the more thick. The latter could barely speak anything but Marathi and did not understand a  word, or at least pretended to, and kept on reiterating 'I don't want to hear anything' with the worst Marathi accent ever, sounding like 'I dan't wan-t to ear an-e-thing'. He was so stupid he went on to say that such a Form does not exist, rather than accepting the fact that they did not have one! When they were shown with a copy of the Times of India and Mumbai Mirror newspapers which had detailed articles on the same, both him and the inspector went on to state that the newspapers print rubbish and faulty news and do not have any authority on law! What a preposterous load of crap! How much more moronic can they get?! And when I asked him to give it in writing to us that they did not have the Form, he walked away.

They were the least interested in us casting our votes and said you can vote or go away, they couldn't care less. What was strange was while my finger was inked, with what appeared to be a regular marker you can buy off the next stationery shop (It turned out to be actually indelible. I still have my mark even after two weeks), that of the lady who also wanted to 'refuse' her vote wasn't, even though technically we had voted. But the silver lining was that she turned out to be a crazy firebrand social activist and the next day we met up with a whole bunch of police officers and the Commissioner of Police, got our grievances heard and I made some new valuable contacts, thanks to her. If anyone wants to make a complaint about anything related to the elections they can write to the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), Neela Satyanarayan, at stateelectioncommission@maharashtra.gov.in or stateelectioncommission@gmail.com or contact the CEC on 022-22886950, 022-22045075 or 022-22045589.

But we weren't the only ones that day to have encountered problems. Each year thousands of people have issues, some have their names misspelt, genders wrongly recorded, pictures that don't resemble them, names in multiple lists and of course those bizarre incidents where proxy names of famous people pop up here and there and so do fancy names like Mr. X or Mrs. ABC. The regular petty, yet always amazingly humourous office gossip revealed some interesting stories. As per 'reliable sources', in a colony of buildings somewhere which is adjacent to L.B.S. Road, at midnight on the night before the day of the elections, one of the political parties (which is in power in a huge number of states in India) came and offered each building a certain sum of money, which after negotiations stood at Rs. 30,000, if everyone in the building voted in their favour, and early morning on the day of the elections another political party (which has been ruling the roost in Bombay for some time) came and doubled the offer. The smart building people accepted both the offers and went home with Rs. 90,000, that's about Rs. 2,500 per person! But who can believe that the political parties would go campaigning and throwing money, on days when they aren't allowed to peep out of their palatial offices built from scam money. Another raconteur stated that in another colony in Kandivali, when the residents went to vote at about 9 in the morning, they found out to their utter consternation that someone had created fake identity cards and voted for every single person in the colony at 7:30 in the morning! Now that is something! I don't think it would be possible without a motley crew of cunning crooks of the administration being hand in glove with those villains. Oh and about 15,000 cops who were out on election duty could not vote, because they were ensuring that others can vote. Did no one think of that before allotting them their duty? Seems like those who drew the plans haven't heard about a thing called shifts!

Why is it that the average honest guy is always the one who is taken for a ride? Why don't people care any more? Most of the people I know did not cast their vote; and the reason nearly every single one of them gave - What difference is my vote going to make? If everyone thinks like that, then we've had it. And every vote does count, there have been cases where the winner in a constituency won by just a handful of votes. The turnout in the elections was a dismal 46%, which today's newspapers said the corporation revised to 50%, owing largely to repetition of names and non-deletion of names of citizens who have moved or passed away. Contrary to common beliefs and expectations, it was the lowest in areas with the best literacy rates and areas where the most affluent people lived, and the highest in the slums and other backward areas. If you come to think of it, it sort of makes sense because these well to do people have not much to ask for from politicians; they do not care which loser wins the election, for it wouldn't change their lives one bit, while the poor are fighting every second of their despondent lives for basic necessities and turn to such politicians for that, so for them the right candidate matters more than anything else. We do take a lot for granted, don't we?

Maybe voting should be made a compulsory activity, inviting a penalty on every able voter who does not vote, like it is in countries like Australia, Brazil and Argentina, among others. Or it would probably help if voting was held over a period of time rather than a single day, to enable people who are unable to vote on that day due to things beyond their control and are tied up with things like falling ill or being out of town or any other unavoidable circumstance. Hope the government does something to encourage and motivate people to vote, but more than anything else, people themselves realise the importance of their vote and come out in hordes to exercise their most important right as well as duty, without waiting for another 26 July or 26 November to awaken from their slumber,  and play their part as compliant civilised caring citizens.

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