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Exercising franchise

Some people would go any distance to cast their vote, no matter where they are or what it costs them

Exercising franchise

Indians take to elections as ducks to water. They seem to be in our blood - elections, not ducks - and we drop everything and go forth to welcome them, as we do bridegrooms on the wedding day. We forget everything else, even the fact that we are broke and there is no cash in the bank account, the refrigerator has conked out and junior needs a new set of clothes. Everything must wait, but the show must go on.

I was standing in line on polling day - though I was told that as senior citizen I could go straight to the head of the queue and press the button - when I saw ahead of me an elderly gentleman with a flowing white beard as if he had just come from the Himalayas. He had apparently come all the way from Kabul to vote as a naturalised Indian, though an Afghan by birth. He had blue eyes, just like Raj Kapoor's, and he said he would go back the very next day and wait until the next poll for another visit. The election was costing him a cool ten thousand rupees, but it was apparently worth it.

When I reached the head of the line, the lady took my hand and looked soulfully into my eyes, brown, not blue, and I thought we would go around the fire seven times as they do in Bollywood, when suddenly I was asked to sign a register and my finger was daubed with the tell-tale ink. "Go and press the button," she said, and that was that.

Next day, one paper said that a man had flown all the way from Shanghai to cast his vote and would go back, like my Afghan friend, immediately afterward. See what I mean by election fever?

Years ago, my uncle who is always involved in election, was standing for a panchayat post or maybe for a place on the local temple management committee, phoned me to drop everything and rush home, for I too had a vote and it would make all the difference.

I went home straight from the airport and cast my precious vote as the temple bells rang daintily across the valley and my uncle beamed from cheek to cheek, until the votes - all twenty-five of them - were counted and he was declared the winner. It seemed he had fulfilled his life's ambition, though it had cost me quite a fortune.

I have only once taken part in the elections, way back in 1942, that is, 70 years ago, when I was just a boy, my seniors believed I showed promise in such things. They put me up for a post on the college management committee, not president or general secretary or anything like that, but a humble editor's post. What was the poor editor supposed to do? He would do what editors do everywhere else, from New York Times in New York to the local rag. I was supposed to go round and collect some writings from our budding comrades and get them printed in the college magazine. The college authorities would do everything else.

Unfortunately, we had chosen a wrong time for such activities, because writing of any kind was taboo in 1942, the year Mahatma Gandhi had chosen for his 'Quit India' movement. We did some posters and stuck them on walls but the principal, an Englishman, had them removed. He summoned me to his office - itself a scary move - gave me a long lecture on this and that, and warned me, though not in so many words, that some of us who were a little too enthusiastic about such things, were being kept under watch.

That did it. Our little magazine - and my editorship - became the first casualty of Gandhi's movement, and when we put up some flags in the college compound, some of us were picked up and taken to the nearest police station and detained. There were no elections and there was no committee. Three or four days later, when we were let off, we made straight for the railway station and went home. But that, as they say, is another story!