Sunday, May 19, 2019

Managing Elections in India - Institutions, Helplessness, and the tale of a Presiding Officer

How does the institution called the great Election Commission of India makes it's machineries depend on the local politics? And what happens afterwards? By virtue of being a group a gazetted officer of "not so important" institution of public machinery I have been opted in for booth level election work since 2011. I do not mind it and nor I went to Courts or attempted to "manage" my name to be stroke off from the list of Presiding Officers ever. I knew I would learn and more importantly experience something unique about the grassroots politics, election procedure and democracy at large. In each of the duties in Patashpur, Nandigram and in Dumdum I have gathered something new and unique. With an exception to Nandigram, the rest two cases I have seen a helpless situation of the Polling party which the local political players capitalise on. I have written in details of the Patashpur and Nandigram in my forthcoming book entitled "People-Party-Policy in India". The generalised experience and how does a government employee generally behaves inside of the Polling booth under "pressure" has been written in a movie review "Newton".
Therefore, here I would only focus on my experiences in Dumdum constituency to show a) how gruesome the experiences can be, b) how the gruesomeness can be translated into the electoral benefit of the locally powerful goons and c) what happens when they fail to make electoral gains out of infrastructure deficit because of the strong resistance from the Presiding Officer?

The fear factor theory

Election duty happens to be the most feared and stressful duties that the government extract from their cadres. The fear factor is induced from the very training days. From the first training onwards, in each of the three places I got trained the fear factor is disseminated from the trainers, discussed among the trainees and percolated from the veterans to the novices. Trainers, themselves are often not allotted booth level duties and hence what they know is only some bookish and theoretical understanding of what can be done and how these are done. While, there are many success stories of polling team but as we know successful poll operation attracts people but fear factor has more realistic impact and instinctive responses.
Hence, in each of the training programmes you are made aware about the new addition to the already existing Everest size paper works and details of how to submit these papers and in what ways. They will clearly state "you will have the authority of a Magistrate but you know you are not a Magistrate, you people know how to tackle things and manage the poll peacefully." These sort of messages have multiple meanings and usual understanding of the people is a) we are helpless, we have to save our life first, b) we have to let them(political parties) do what they want to do, c) we can protest and stop it from happening if we are given adequate and ready to fight central force.

Infrastructure deficit and crippling chain of command

While the fear factor is more theoretically percolated than experienced, poor to non-existing infrastructure is regularly experienced. In most of the cases, the infrastructure deficit is 'managed' by the polling team from the local resources. Who are these local resources providers? Yes, locally influencial political leaders and their notorious cadres. While, the team carries bundles of papers, Electronic Voting Machines, Paper trailing machines (VVPAT) and some personal belongings in over crowded buses, it's not possible for them to carry buckets, tables chairs, or a 1000liter water tank and a toilet!  

A Presiding Officer is supposed to report about every discomforts to the sector officer. A sector officer is usually a mid level cadre of some public office who is given these additional duties during the poll.  They are equally helpless and often inefficient as well. Inefficient because, the kind of management skill these sort of service requires is not readily available to everyone.

Infrastructure of my booth in 2019 

I was given a club high plinth with a concrete roof, a large and completely open space where yearly Durgotsav of the club takes place. It didn't have a toilet or a water source. It was mid May with a temperature rising above 42 degrees celcius and 80 percent of humidity. The real feel was near 50 degree celcius. Another polling party was tagged with me who were supposed to conduct their poll in about a 8 feet by 6 feet club room packed with a few immovable furntures.
While both the polling party was already exhausted after a day of steaming inside the temporary structure of stuffy distribution centre crowded by a few thousands of polling personnel it was simply not possible for them bear anything any more. I called up the sector officer and he said he cannot anything about it. It's been decided by the district level officers and that he has repeatedly told them not to hold election in these centres. Then he said you kindly arrange things locally.
The handbook of presiding officers has clearly stated a polling party should not take any local hospitality as it might bring a conflict of interest. When I quoted he simply said "handbook has so many things to say brother" the phone was then disconnected. The next person to call was the central control room. After a few attempts they picked up the call and told me you have to do it there only as it's decided.

Local influencial masculinity steps in

I disconnected my phone only to see a bunch of boys belongings to the age group of 30s and 40s. One of them wearing a uttorio (a traditional long piece of cloth one keeps on his neck) clearly denoting their political identities. A person in white T-Shirt came and asked "this is the place where polling takes place, you tell me what you need, we will arrange."
Me- but you know we are supposed to get it from the commission.
White T shirt- take it from us. Which office do you belong to, where do you stay? (With an unmistaken authoritative tone).
Me- right now I am representing Election Commission of India here, I am a presiding officer and you are not supposed to know anything more than that.
White T shirt - visibly disappointed with my response replied ok. Tell us what is needed.
Me - tables chairs and cleaning staff and table fans, light a water source and a toilet!
White T shirt - yes central force also demanded that a bio toilet and water tank is on its way. White T shirt left.
One of my team mates while appreciating the way I gave direct reply to the white T shirt also worried about it's consequences. I told the central force not to allow anyone inside the booth without identity proof and the passes that I will issue on the next day. Meanwhile, the white T shirt came and told they have arranged for a couple of empty apartments nearby where we can stay the night and then come back in the next morning to start the election procedure with an assurance of every possible hospitality. I outright rejected the proposition and Central force followed. Meanwhile the bio toilet came - a stuffy, smelly small toilet for 14 people to pee, and to shit. I found myself completely dehydrated and discovered at about 12:30  in the night that the last time I peed was at my home at around 8:00am. Amazing, what a human body can do I thought.
We could finish the paperwork by 1:30 am and spend the night fighting with mosquitoes, heat and smelly toilet which was parked nearby. When we continued to fight, we watched Central forces people continue to guarding the booth on rotation. Unlike us they carried their mosquito nets. The senior most to the team held a fatherly gesture asking us to get some sleep before the big day. At around 2:00am a couple of boys came (one of them I doubt would be about 15 years old) to install a CCTV camera to the booth. What an intrusion to our already devastated night time privacy!
On poll day an interesting dimension was brought forth by the White T shirt "can we keep the mock poll (mock poll is an essential step of showing the machines functioning properly before th actual post starts) data and I will give you names and papers for that. It will speed up the process.
I took some time to digest that I was actually being told that. I won't do that was my conclusive reply. 

White T shirt - we are doing so many things, can't you do this little help to speed up the process.

Me- no, if politics is a profession you need to work hard and I am not going to bend any rule even an inch. 

White T shirt left and the polling agents came I could start the poll on time.

The story under the influencial masculinity

Local ruling party's representative of my neighbour booth told me on the previous nifht that he will bring all other polling representatives and they will sit together, talk and enjoy the largest festival of the democracy. I was sceptical but then I saw that was actually happening. Both the booths had representatives from TMC, CPIM, and BJP and it was possible because of a few people from the ruling TMC who ensured that the other parties do represent at the booth. This might be a subtle political strategy for the peri-urban sector, but what that TMC representative told me is important. Previous night at around 10:30 he told me in an informal conversation that we don't like these party difference to percolated into our local relations. We have tried to ensure that. Earlier CPIM used to call us to represent our party inside the booth, even they used to sponsor our foods and refreshments, now we do that. Referring to the white T shirt as (I have referred to earlier) he said it's people like him that attempts to destroy our social fabric. He is the husband to the local counsellor and has earned a bad name by intimidating people and doing illegal transactions. It's people like him we are being scolded by our wives that why should we continue doing party politics.
That might be an outcome of their faction I thought, but the informal atmosphere made me feel some genuine and honest feeling in those words. It was a very hot night and I had hundreds of paperwork pending that compelled me to put my ethnographic self at rest! Yes it's sad, but I had to.


As the white T shirt could not make us surrender to his offer of hospitality and then subtle threats "we are offering so many things and can't you do this little much for us?" During poll I started getting some peaceful requests like a) kindly allow those not bringing their identity cards; b) let us caste a few votes for our friends who couldn't make it; c) those old uncles and aunts who wanted us to vote for them and the like. I peacefully rejected them simply saying "I won't do that", "why earn a bad name of the locality for a few votes" and once a little harsh "stop this unhealthy competition among the booths you people are earning more bad names than votes." The atmosphere remained friendly till the poll was over. However, I got phone calls repeatedly asking if everything was peaceful as there were reports of voilence from other booths nearby. By the end of the poll each of polling agents and my team became friendly enough to share some family details, possible career choices of their sons and daughters, likes dislikes and other details. Unless they are saturated with hatred filled from outside two humans in any given day won't fight with each other - I thought.

Masculinity comes back

Around 6:30 the white t shirt along with one of his followers came riding a bike shouting in some booths because of the presiding officers polling is still continuing and there are instances of violence. A few of my friends were doing their duties nearby and one of them being very close to me was not picking up the phone and I was tensed.
I ask him where did it happen? (Never imagined he was that angry on me)
He didn't reply but repeated the sentence about violence and fault of the presiding officer. I repeated my question.
He came to me with all his aggression and shouted "did I repeat the question about your residence and service identity when you refused to give me that"
I said "oh, really! A.    N.    D?
He shouted "this is bad presiding officer guys, don't let him go before you are satisfied with the paperwork. If he makes any mistake lock him up! He over do things."
A person sitting outside the booth belonging to the same political party asked him to leave.
I laughed sarcastically and told the agents hey guys you check with form 17C the one I am supposed to give to you and wanted to say something to the white t shirt but he left as the central force was there and they came near and looked at me.
As an obvious effect my party was a bit tensed. We are in an unknown territory and one of the local goons was angry on us, more particularly on me. Just to encourage and finish the pending tasks swiftly, I said, don't worry if he touches me his political career will be finished! He will be arrested.

Underlying the masculinity

My agents and the other agents from the neighbouring booth repeatedly said that they felt bad for the incident and that it should not have happened. In fact the one representing the same party in my booth was visibly disappointed and said "i never thought something like this will be said to you". I smiled and said most of the unthinkables are actually done by the humans.
As we left the place several people including  the agents from different parties waved their good byes and best wishes. We knew the last part of the struggle awaiting us at the Receiving Centre where completely exhausted people from all corners will quarrel among themselves to deposit hundreds of documents and machines.

A few questions before I end it inconclusive

While it is true that there are places where a serious shortage of public buildings is noted, but does that warrant the Election Commission to push their officers towards a complete disaster without preparation?
While it compels each of the teams to compromise the rules framed by the institution itself, doesn't it question the very integrity of the institution itself to it's public image?
While, we heard much about the polarised public sphere of West Bengal along the party line, (and more recently along the identity line as well) the place we have experienced election indicates the value of social fabric and also the nature of practice at grassroots. I have seen completely opposite picture in many places in West Bengal, but this too exists and no exception.

The polling booth one on the high plinth used for durgapuja and another one on the righthand small warehouse like structure.

A few voters came as early as 5:30am

The bio toilet (blue structure), and water reserver.