15 May 2004
The Election Commission wants to make voting compulsory. Wake up early morning, or stand in queues in the burning sun, or in the rain and cold, when it comes to the hills, to press the almighty button.
I met Tirtha Tamang, a 62-year-old local woman at Pashupati. This is the border town which was raided recently by the Maoist guerrillas, of course on the Nepal side.
On the Indian side there are only a few houses – they all possess a middle-of-nowhere look. Tamang had walked nearly two hours through the forest path in the morning to get to her booth. She complains of the long trek, but what makes her take all the trouble?
“Well, they say one must exercise the right to vote.” But to what purpose? Tamang fumbles for an answer; she has none. In the windswept cold Simana, not too far from the Pashupati, men reeking of liquor huddle in the fog, looking for their names in the voters’ list. The party men helping them also stink of cheap alcohol. Gun totting SSB men squat on the roadside in boredom.
At Sukhiapokhri, always grey with fog, a crowd has gathered in front of the police station. CPI-M men are complaining they have been beaten up by the GNLF in Chamong. Their local leader, face burnt by over consumption of alcohol, jaundiced eyes, and wearing a blue beret(possibly inspired by Che?), calls out. A frail looking, fine complexioned man, comes shakily out of the crowd. Blood has dried around his nostrils.
Another young man, still a boy, actually, around 17 perhaps, also comes to the centre of the crowd and starts turning round, and round. He is displaying blood marks on his second-hand, imitation Nike jacket.
At the edge of the assembly, a senior party leader sits inside a maruti van. He is writing the FIR. He tells reporters that his party will win if the turn out in the hills is under 50 per cent. “More than that and it will be very difficult for us,” he says without irony.
As the day progressed, the Congress candidate expressed happiness at the proceedings. Reason, according to him, 55 per cent had polled in the hills. “That’s a good figure. It means I will get at least 2 lakh votes from the hills.” That figure should be able to secure his victory.
We enter a picture postcard Patabong tea estate, just outside Darjeeling. My
colleague is apprehensive. Young men from here are regarded with fear in the town; they are held to be a murderous variety. In a public meeting the local councilor had warned any party, besides his own, from campaigning in this area. He has fantasies of wearing out doctors with autopsies. People at the booth in the tea garden stand quietly in queue; their faces reminiscent of that of the masked students in the Pink Floyd video “Another Brick in the Wall.” Not a single smiling relaxed face is to be seen.
The landscape of the area is movingly beautiful. Last year, couple of cable cars of the Darjeeling Ropeway had dropped on it. At North Point school, it looks like an invasion. Thousands of officials and hundreds of vehicles swarm about –to ensure that the biggest democracy remains the biggest democracy, no matter the quality of that democracy.
A friend – possibly the best computer wizard of the town - calls up. He has voted for the elephant symbol, wants to know to which party it belongs. “I don’t think many would vote for it. I felt for sorry for the candidate,” he explains his act. Later repolling was held at two booths where the EVMs were supposed to have malfunctioned. There were reports that the polling personnel who were manning those
booths were tipsy.
In a push of a button will all these things change? Do we need to spend couple of hours, walk maybe for two hours through the forest, just to say – none of the
above? The fact that half the population does not vote screams out the same fact. Let the EC, if it dares, rather make sure that only good men and women are allowed to contest. The recent ruling of the Patna High Court would be a good place to start the process from.