A public spirit

Last week, Mumbai folks, inspired by genuine political engagement, lifestyle choices or perhaps suitably chastened by the bristling moral harangues of their Facebook friends who wanted them to leave India or at least leave their Facebook friends list if they did not vote managed a 13 per cent increase from last time’s turnout.

This time voting was easier than the previous years, but the drama associated with it remained unchanged. Pic for representational purpose only

Voting was easier than in previous years, yet not without some dramas. As usual people could not find their names on the list or found them inexplicably deleted. In the usual comedy a lady next to me found that both her daughters had the same picture of a young bearded man against their names. My name couldn't be found on the list, so after some moaning and pleading, I was sent off to the centre in my area where other hapless souls like me, red-faced from the April heat were making plaintive enquiries.

Many of us located the information we needed through very helpful election officers. Riding back to my local polling booth I saw tables with voter lists every half a kilometre, many without an umbrella to shield them from the April sun.

From what I experienced every officer had not been well informed or even super effective — but on the whole everyone had been pleasantly helpful to the best of their ability. I could see, not everyone had received the training they needed and in an exercise as massive as the Indian elections, this much is to be expected.

But I felt impressed by them all — many of them municipal school teachers — who had to spend their holidays doing public work. We all know municipal school teachers don’t earn much, work in terrible conditions, sometimes without even a usable toilet in their schools and, we could all do without extra work. So, a salute to these people, is in order.

Earlier this year, when teachers from private unaided schools were asked to be part of election duty, they refused. A High Court order was passed to ask them to do so. They might, fairly say, why are only teachers supposed to be available for this kind of public work? Private employees have the choice — and this is how they choose.

Actually, it is possible for anyone to volunteer for this kind of work — census taking, election duty — but few do. We think voting is the sum total of our public responsibility.

It would be wrong to say that there is no spirit of volunteerism around us. After all large parties have large cardres - many young people without prior political activism experience did volunteer for AAP during the elections. But volunteering not for party work, but for public processes related to the entire country, irrespective of our ideological leanings, does not happen a whole lot.

This was an election where the ideological name-calling reached a deafening pitch while the quality of discussion between people remained ignorant and borderline abusive. A lot of what we heard about people’s choices seemed to be affected by a vague sense of what might benefit them (more privatisation, for instance) or a vaguer idea of a stable government resulting from voting for whoever is likely to win. In essence private political discussions often remained around the idea of power, but not really public progress.

If the meaning of political engagement could be expanded to mean that we can come together for certain civic purposes, irrespective of our political identification, we might find a way to speak about the political away from our identities; we might find a public spirit that is not only about power and identity.

Now that would be a really critical election.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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