Mumbai Notebook

Anil Dharker is a journalist and former editor. He is an Open columnist
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The V Day

I HAPPENED TO BE in London two years ago when the UK held its general election. Out of journalistic curiosity, I accompanied a friend when he went to vote. We drove up to his polling station, a school a few minutes from his house. I walked in with him (no security there)—into a large empty room where two ladies greeted us. Was I voting? I was asked. No, I said, I am a visitor. It took all of five minutes—no inking of fingers, no queuing up, no 100-m parking regulations, no security guards, no fuss. Can our elections be like that? No way, and we all know why.

First of all, there are the sheer numbers: this year, over 900 million people have registered, including 15 million new voters. In the UK’s 2017 election, the total number was under 47 million. Then read these two stories from my own experience, the morning after voting. Our maid proudly showed her left index finger. “I voted,” she said. “For whom?” “Congress, of course,” she said, “Our family always votes Congress. So I pressed the ‘kamal’[lotus] button as someone told me to.” The other was a friend’s driver, “I voted, sir,” he said, confirming, if nothing else, that the importance of voting has now been drilled into everyone’s head. But, I said, there’s no mark on your finger! “Yes,” he told me, “I am not registered in Mumbai; I am registered in my village—my brother voted for me.”

Considering everything, the job done in conducting our polls by the Election Commission is quite an incredible achievement. Two things that contrast with the British election still mystify me. First, London had no visual, virtual, aural sign that an election was on. Where were the hoardings? Where were the leaflets slipped through the door and the advertisements? Where was anything, in fact, that told us that the world’s oldest democracy was about to re-elect its government? The British, unlike people in their erstwhile colonies, obviously don’t believe in spending money on electioneering. What a difference that would make to our black economy! Cash would disappear overnight.

The other difference was that work went on as usual in the UK. In Mumbai, all offices were advised to shut down for the day. Agreed, voting is important, but most people have a polling booth minutes from their homes: give everyone two hours off, and they will not only cast their vote but grab an extra forty winks as well.

Voting in Mumbai was on a Monday, so it became a long weekend for people whose conscience was easily stilled by thoughts of leisure. All neighbouring tourist spots were fully booked, which is what made resort-owner Manoj Hadawale stand out: ‘Dear Friends from Mumbai,’ his Facebook post said, ‘you may go to another place. It may cause a loss to me, but for the nation, we can at least do this much.’ Saying this, he shut his tourist getaway for the weekend.

PRANNOY ROY AND Dorab Sopariwala make an engaging pair: the former has a light touch and is given to witty one-liners, while the latter looks like a dour academic, but speaks in precisely worded sentences. Their combined knowledge of the Indian electoral scene is formidable, as I learnt at the launch of their new book, The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections.

They talked of India’s heterogeneity and why it makes the country a psephologist’s nightmare: inthe US, for example, an opinion poll would have a sample size of 1,000 to 2,000 respondents. In India, that number would have to go up to 20,000 to 35,000. In fact, for exit polls, which are the easiest and cheapest to conduct because they involve no travelling, just catching people outside polling stations, pollsters push that number to nearly 150,000. Apart from the size of exit polls, we were told, they are more accurate than opinion polls, because having finished voting, people have nothing to hide.

Another surprising revelation was that the growth in the numbers of women who vote has outpaced that of male voters. Surely they follow their husband’s/father’s diktats on who to vote for, especially in villages and urban slums? Apparently not: not only do women make up their own minds, they do so openly and fearlessly, their choices dictated not by ideology but by sheer pragmatism: what will this political party do for me?

An important factor, so important in fact that most political parties have myopically ignored it, is IOU, the Index of Opposition Unity. Through chapter and verse, Sopariwala and Roy showed that if the opposition could put up a united front, they would always win. So, like true democrats, our opposition parties go their own way, and let the ruling party romp home.

Newspapers were exulting in the fact that voter turnout in Mumbai this year was 55.1 per cent much better that recent years (in 2014 it was 51.6 per cent and in 2009 41.4 per cent). But look at it another way: 44.9 per cent registered voters, for one reason or another, did not vote this year. Why is that acceptable? Don’t the nearly 45 per cent of the city enjoy the same privileges as us? Don’t they grumble as much as we do? So why do they leave to us to choose their rulers for the next five years?