Something remarkable happened in the first phase of voting in the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections on Monday: 76.28% of the total number of voters exercised their franchise in the 18 seats that went to the polls. Of these, at least 12-13 seats were deemed to be sensitive because of the stranglehold that Maoists have on the region. However, defying all speculation and belying initial reports of low turnout, Maoist affected areas like Bastar and Antagarh, among others, recorded voting percentages as high as 83.51 and 74.45, respectively. Such was voter enthusiasm that reports are coming that in the Maoist “bastion” of Antagarh, even though voting was scheduled to end at 3 pm, people stood in queues right up to 5 pm to cast their mandate. This is highly commendable considering the call of election boycott given by the Maoists. This newspaper had reported not too long ago that the left wing extremists were visiting Bastar’s villages and putting up posters threatening residents that their fingers would be chopped off if the mark of indelible ink was found there. But obviously, the threat did not work and villagers defied the Maoist diktat by the thousands. This was sheer people power on display. Here was proof, if proof was needed, about how democracy runs in the veins of this country. There is a message here for all those who romanticise Maoist insurgency as a revolutionary war being waged by the poor to overthrow the government. The message is that the poorest of the poor would choose the rule of law over extremism any day, if given even half a chance. The poor do not pick up the gun for want of better options, it is the brainwashed who pick up the gun, or are coerced to pick up the gun, and they could be either poverty-stricken or belonging to the affluent sections of society.
The administrative machinery too needs to be congratulated for making conditions conducive to brisk polling. The presence of state and Central paramilitary forces strengthened the hands of the Election Commission, which carried out an extensive poster war celebrating “Vote Pandlum” (festival of votes) to counter the Maoist posters. Reports are that the state government roped in women’s self-help groups to communicate through them the importance of voting, while the security forces used surveillance drones to track Maoist movements. The extent of the risk undertaken by all those involved in the polling process can be gauged from the fact that just two weeks ago, Maoists killed two policemen and a Doordarshan cameraman in Dantewada; and another five people, including a CISF jawan in an IED blast on 8 November, again in Dantewada, the district which went to the polls on Monday. But then this is what makes this country tick, its people and their firm faith in democracy.
The EC has been doing an extraordinary job of conducting elections and, as an aside, it must be mentioned that it is time to put the electronic voting machine controversy to rest. To accuse the EC of helping the incumbent government rig elections in a mass scale with the help of EVMs, is ridiculous and best consigned to the dustbin of conspiracy theories. India cannot go back to the age of ballot paper, when ballot boxes were stuffed by political goons, mass rigging was the order of the day in certain lawless states, and any smooth conduct of polls in insurgency hit areas, the way it was done in the first phase of Chhattisgarh elections, was next to impossible.
Indians in general, especially the poorer sections, are eternal optimists, the reason why they genuinely believe that the electoral process can deliver them a better life. Voting is their power over politicians. The politicians may think they are their subjects’ lords and masters, but it is the reverse that is actually the truth. So the people turn out in election after election, voting for their lives and livelihoods. This is a study in contrast with the cynicism of the well-heeled urban population in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru in particular. These places struggle to notch up a 50% turnout even for Lok Sabha elections. Election day is a holiday for a large section of the “rich”, but then they do not need to vote for their lives, or even livelihoods, so they can afford to give voting a pass.