A version of this article was first published on Newslaundry. You can read the original piece at https://www.newslaundry.com/2020/02/03/as-delhi-prepares-to-vote-an-indian-reminisces-about-voting-in-britain
On December 12 last year (2019), my wife and I voted in the general election in England, where we work. Interestingly, we could vote despite being Indian citizens. It’s a curious fact that UK residents from Commonwealth countries have voting rights. It may seem odd but it’s only fair given that our ancestors made a massive contribution to the UK’s wealth in the colonial times. In fact, it’s our (from a historic concept of commonwealth-ians being “British subjects”) that gave us this right.
It was around 9 am and my partner, Chhaya, had to catch the 10:52 train to London to attend her classes. We had decided to vote since it was billed as one of the most seminal elections in the history of the United Kingdom. However, she was worried that if she stayed back to vote, due to the expected large crowds, she might miss the train. The election day in the UK is not a public holiday!
It so happens that being a student in the UK has voting privileges. A student can register to vote at both their university and their home, and later decide where to cast their ballot. Chhaya could have registered to vote in London as well as our small town of Loughborough in the East Midlands. It was a little late to do that now. The other option was to get back to the voting centre before 10 pm. Voting centres in the UK usually stay open from 7 am to 10 pm. However, that would have meant cutting it too close for her return train from London.
The polling notice that we had received by ordinary mail provided the details of our polling centre – a community centre about a 10-minute walk from our home. We were in a scramble to find the polling cards. We also reckoned that we should keep an ID with us and hoped that we return in time for the train.
To understand this concern, we have to recount our experiences of voting in India.
It was the early 2000s. Chhaya was a young woman voting for the first time, in a municipal election in a small town in Punjab.
Chhaya and her father went to the voting booth in a government school. There, people of all hues and classes stood patiently in a queue in the afternoon sun. Polling officers sat on a table crossing names. When it was Chhaya’s turn, the sheets said that she had already voted.
She and her father meekly protested but to no avail. Most young people hardly ever vote, so it seems that their votes decide to cast themselves. As with other numerous things on an average Indian day, she had to accept this as an act of fate and, after a two-hour ordeal, head back home without voting.
It was in the late 90s that I voted for the first time, in a parliamentary election. It was in Gurgaon, now known as Gurugram. Not a single shopping mall existed then and the place was, almost true to its name, really just a gaon, that is a village.
The voting centre was a short walk from my home and rather organised. There were benches outside with party representatives ticking off voters from their lists. The centre itself was a sparse room sitting by itself at the edge of the Officers’ Colony.
I didn’t really know who I was voting for or why. I was voting because my uncle was voting and he had asked me to vote.
I remember standing in a queue for a few minutes, showing my voter ID, which was compulsory to the booth officer, getting a long paper on which I stamped my vote in a curtained booth, folding the paper, putting it into a box, and getting the famous indelible ink mark on my left index finger. In India, the indelible ink mark is used to make sure the same person doesn’t vote again – a medal of honour for having participated in keeping democracy ticking.
Indian elections have moved on since in terms of technology and systems, with voting done on electronic machines and celebrities parading their inked fingers to mobilise voters via Twitter. The task of organising the largest election in the world is in itself a big responsibility and it is well organised. Like Cricket, which the English introduced too, India has now taken elections to another level.
Wikipedia tells me that the indelible ink was first used in 1962 in the erstwhile Mysore state, and I doubt any technology is going to replace it soon.
To address the question of the voter ID, I did a quick search for the polling notice and found it in the papers on the piano. The card said, “You do not need to carry this card with you.” Bewildered, we also discovered that one does not need to carry any ID to the polling station.
With that out of the way and a comfortable cushion of an hour and a half for the expected long queue, we headed out to the community centre. It proved hard to find. There were no benches or agents around, only a simple board that said “Polling Centre”.
Inside, there was a bench with two polling officers engaged in a relaxed conversation, and no one else. There was no semblance of a “once in a generation election”.
We went to the table and gave our names. They crossed out our names from a list of registered voters and gave us a sheet each. On each sheet were the names of the five candidates in the fray and the names and symbols of their respective parties. We were directed towards the voting area. There were pencils on a bench and we put a cross in a box next to our preferred candidate.
We folded the small sheets and slid them into the ballot box. We waited for the indelible ink but it never came. Was there no real concern about people coming back to vote a second time?
We were done with the whole voting experience in around five minutes. It was such a big contrast from our experience of voting in India.
Polling ended on December 12 and counting began overnight. The results came out on Friday the 13th. Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won with a big majority everywhere, except in Scotland. The country is still trying to make up its mind about how prescient the superstitions about Friday the 13th are!