My Unsettling Experience as a First-Time Voter in West Bengal

The world’s largest democracy is electing its new Parliament. If you are not living under a rock, I suppose you know that this is the 17th Lok Sabha election. With almost 900 million eligible voters, some are calling it the biggest celebration of universal suffrage. But under this glory lies the disturbing reality of our electoral process.

As a first-time voter, when I got the opportunity to cast my vote on April 23, I experienced the harsh reality behind elections in West Bengal – one of the most politically charged states in India. I realised that the picture at the grassroots level is not as merry as it seems.

Brief history

I am from the eastern part of West Bengal. Yes! the state which used to be the bastion of Left politics. After over 35 years of communist rule, which was also the longest running elected communist regime ever, people of Bengal decided to taste the winds of change.

In the 2011 assembly elections, voters in Bengal uprooted the mighty ‘baams’ (left front) and planted the jora phool (Trinamool Congress Party’s election symbol). And since then, the Left has been slipping into the cracks of oblivion while the Trinamool Congress and its firebrand leader – Mamata Banerjee –  rules the state. Okay, enough about the past. Now cut to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

These elections carry a different meaning altogether.

The ruling BJP is expecting to come back to power as they did in the 2014 general elections, when they swept a majority in the lower house of Parliament. At the same time, the jittery opposition is trying to redeem its lost ground among the electorate.

Hence, on election day, I couldn’t stop myself from going to my local polling booth. I wanted to be a part of this historic election.

Alas, an unsavoury incident

I had researched the whole election process for the umpteenth time but was quite nervous as I entered the polling booth – my village’s primary school.

The walls were painted with graffiti and plastered with various posters explaining the whole procedure. Although I already knew, I couldn’t stop myself from asking an experienced voter about the whole process. He was standing next to me in the queue. He told me that I don’t really need to worry about anything. I just had to go inside and the person standing there would cast my vote.

I was quite shocked. “But that’s wrong,” I said. He just laughed at my naivety. It took me a moment to actually realise what was happening.

When I went inside, I saw a woman standing beside the Electronic Voting Machine. She wasn’t casting votes or anything. She was just standing there. But then, when another woman went there to cast her vote, she very calmly suggested to “press the second button.” She gave her a pleasant smile and a firm handshake and the woman, who went to cast her vote, presumably obliged. I wondered whether this is how the procedure was supposed to be.

Then, my turn came.

I looked at her and she looked at me. I wondered if she was going to hover over me too while I pressed the button. I went inside the box and tried hard to cover myself. I gave her a stern look but she unflinchingly asked me to press the second button too. And I did. Not because she told me to, but because I wanted to press that button. But I wondered – and sometimes I still do – what if my choice was not the one she intended from me? Would I have been able to confront her?

After casting his vote, my brother very optimistically said “don’t worry, there will be a re-election”.

But this was clearly a case of booth rigging and there must be measures in place to prevent such incidents in the future. I talked to some elders of my village and realised that this incident was neither shocking nor something new. They told me that this has been quite prevalent West Bengal elections. Some of them have accepted it as the new norm.

After going through endless media reports and television bulletins, I realised how flawed my idea about this election was and how ignorant my privileged mind was. The reality of these elections is different from the posters calling it a celebration of universal suffrage. Although I can never know if this is how elections are conducted all across India, I can surely say this is how I gave my first vote.

Imtiaz Uddin is a student at Jadavpur University, who likes to talk about politics and his passion is to write fictions. He is also an amateur blogger and he likes to write as it helps him rediscover himself.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty