Universal Adult Francise? A Reality Check: Reena Gupta
Guest Post by REENA GUPTA
When polling began on the morning of April 10, our team coordinating the Aam Aadmi Party campaign in Bawal was expecting to respond to complaints of money and alcohol distribution. During the jan sabhas throughout the area, Yogendra Yadav, the AAP candidate for the constituency, had made it amply clear that, “na toh hum shraab bechenge, nah hum bikne denge.” We had spent days training booth volunteers who would be available to assist voters with information and monitor elections throughout the 200 odd villages in Bawal. Our mobile teams would document any violations of the electoral code and lodge complaints with the requisite authorities. Having campaigned in the Delhi elections for AAP, I knew firsthand that the secrecy of the ballot gave people the chance to rise above external pressures and inducements. After the hard yards of campaigning, voting day seemed set to be relaxing and I occupied myself with preparations for lunch for the numerous volunteers who were streaming in and out of our office.
Bawal is less than 100 kms from Delhi and is one of 9 legislative constituencies that comprise the Gurgaon Parliamentary constituency. In fact, Bawal falls within the National Capital Region and has been proclaimed as soon joining the constellation of Delhi’s satellite towns. There are already hi-tech factories strewn along the Delhi-Ajmer Highway and then there’s the buzz about the upcoming Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. Of course, the symptoms of lop-sided development are visible right behind the façade of big industrial complexes. With one quick turn off the highway, the roads fall apart and you are welcomed to villages with virtually non-existent education and public health infrastructure. However, I realized the extent of the distance between Bawal and Delhi only after our phones started ringing on the morning of 10th April and we set out to see for ourselves the manner in which citizens are allowed to exercise their electoral rights, in the world’s largest democracy.
At 9 AM, we got our first call from Khandoda, one of the 214 booths in Bawal, that our volunteer had been beaten while trying to protest the casting of fake votes. We rushed to the reported booth, located at a local government school, and found ourselves an idyllic rural image. A group of men were sitting in the lawns, chatting away, smoking their beedis, and playing cards. We tried to ask the policemen on duty about a volunteer being beaten up but they didn’t recall anything amiss, besides some drunken man being taken away. We are assured that ‘sab shanti se chal raha hai aap chinta na karo’ [polling is very peaceful and everything is normal, don’t worry.]. After a few hushed enquires, we managed to trace our booth agent, who was in two minds about registering an FIR. He told us that BJP workers were casting votes of families whom they knew were away. His anger at being slapped by the upper caste goons, was tempered with the recognition that his survival in the village depended upon the patronage of the dominant caste. By the time we recorded his interview for filing a complaint with the EC, we had received numerous similar calls. The message was clear: rigging was rampant. More worrying was the realization that it was accepted as par for the course by both the villagers and the election officials on duty.
In most of the thirty polling stations that we visited, there was no privacy inside the booth. While local strongmen loitered around the polling stations, several people inside were peeping to see who was voting for whom. There was a palpable atmosphere of intimidation. There was no room for questioning of established malpractices. In a country where citizens can only access their entitlements through their social networks and allegiance to strongmen, violation of the secrecy of the ballot makes a mockery of our individual voting rights. After our complaints with the ERO, things would become a little better for a few minutes only to “normalize” once the flying squad had left. While I had regarded the Election Commission to be one of the most powerful government institutions in the country, its last mile officers looked disempowered, tired and disinterested in ensuring just and fair polling. They just wanted to get over with the day and go back home.
The most staggering revelation for me, though, was the total disenfranchisement of women. It isn’t that women do not come out and vote as the catchy slogan doing the rounds on the airwaves these days ‘When women vote, women win’ might seem to indicate. Instead wherever we went, women were being herded to vote. With elections being conducted right during peak harvest season, women voters repeatedly mentioned that “they were brought to the polling stations” by certain political parties in their vehicles. We met a few of the on the highway as they were going back after casting their votes, the vehicle that had fetched them had broken down. During te course of the conversation they mentioned, “hum toh lavani kar rahe thay, rao sahib ne gaadi bhej di toh aa gaye (we were busy with the harvest, Rao Sahib, sent a vehicle so we came to vote” Rao Sahib is Rao Inderjit Singh a three term MP who has moved from Congress to BJP in the current election). At the polling station, either a male family member or a local strongman would walk up to the electronic voting machine with them and press the button for them. When I protested to the presiding election officers, we were informed, “madam, yahan toh mahilayon ke vote aise hi padte hain… unko akal nahin hai.” Unhappy with our interventions, we were even physically threatened by some of the local goons and told in no uncertain terms that city breds like us were not welcome here. They even had the audacity to tell the flying squad “Yahan sab shanty poorvak chal raha tha, yeh logon ne mahaul kharab kiya.” Maybe it wasn’t audacity; maybe they actually thought we were disrupting what were ‘normal’ proceedings.
The whole environment around the polling stations had an air of coercion. Local strong men were loitering around the polling stations. And even if they did not explicitly direct people to vote for a specific party, their numerically significant presence and demeanor was enough to intimidate someone from marginalized groups like women or dalits. Their not-so-subtle message was: Vote as we have told you to or else…
If this is the reality in an area adjoining Delhi – right under the noses of our Election Commission and media houses – it is disquieting to think of electoral practices in far-flung regions. Booth-capturing and electoral rigging are not phenomenon from the past but merely realities from which we have turned our gaze away. Ironically, in this most heavily media-broadcast campaign, everyone seems busy reporting on star candidates and their events rather than showing the hard realities of the electoral process. Far from investigating electoral malpractices, one would be even hard-pressed to find even a mention of these incidents in our print and television media. We are told to take at face value the fairness of our elections and rubbish all reports as stray incidents.
If my experience in Bawal (and that of my colleagues in Mewat) is anything to go by—and I do fervently hope this is just an anomaly— there is disturbing gap between the reality and rhetoric of India’s claims of being the world’s largest democracy with universal suffrage. It is time we took notice of it…
(Reena Gupta is a researcher-activist who has worked on issues of rural development and volunteered with the Aam Aad