July 25, 2021
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Voting In The Time Of Corona: The 'Bhot' Did It!

You might almost call it a non-event – afterwards I found none of the usual groups loitering on street corners, the roads around Gariahat were in almost lockdown mode, peppered with bored policemen.

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Voting In The Time Of Corona: The 'Bhot' Did It!
TMC And BJP Party Flags Festoon A Calcutta Street
Sandipan Chatterjee/Outlook
Voting In The Time Of Corona: The 'Bhot' Did It!

I knew that Assembly elections were round the corner. The flags had been battling it out on the tramlines, a flutter of lotuses one day and grass flowers the next. Because the colours were the same you had to wait for the wind to hold them out before you could be sure what was what.

My galli was on the corner of Gariahat and Rashbehari, very much in the thick of things. Any dialogue on the crossing floats through my windows distorted by the south breeze - though shouts of Jai Shri Ram and Bande Mataram do manage to cut through the hoots and the shouts of the hawkers. Coronavirus or no, it was business as usual – rival rallies, Chaitra sale, since Baisakh was round the corner, with high profile TMC members jack knifing from one side to another. All very well and of no concern barring a few sniggers at the teashops.

Then a police SUV with UP number plates started materialising next to my front door. Two commandos armed with AK-47s appeared one afternoon at the extreme dead end of my lane. I asked one of the hawkers who was being arrested but was told that they had come to visit someone. He kept his expression carefully blank when he answered. My driver told me impressively that very important ex-TMC leader had moved in.

By then corona was taking out its own rallies and shooting down people far more effectively than any political party --- without minority discriminations. All kinds of conspiracy theories surfaced, including one which declared that the spike was engineered to hijack the elections and which began to take precedence over the wheelchair-for-sympathy one.

I was tired of arguing that an import from Wuhan was not possible besides which judging by the way the Battle for Bengal for going, no one was going to let a virus get in the way. I was also beginning to be secretly worried about the voting business because, judging by the way figures were spiking, going anywhere that involved people was likely to be injurious to health. Places like art galleries were fine – they were the most isolated spaces I knew. Nursing homes where I went to take my jabs had to be tolerated. But election booths?

“Don’t,” my Naxalite friend told me firmly. I felt that was sort of letting the side down - in any case certain election chants were doing bad things to my blood pressure and something had to be done about that. I remembered having seen N95 masks on sale and wondered whether I should invest in those.

As the Rashbehari elections drew close, a white car with a Member of Parliament number plate appeared in my lane and more commandos and AK47s --- who were often deep in conversation with my driver and Bihari sweeper. By now I had a name for the man who was staked out at the end of my galli – though no clue as to his constituency or why he was there.

Then the N95 arrived and the party slips and there was no more time for speculation. “Go early in the morning,” everyone said, “As the gates open.” I thought that if everyone did that, there was going to be quite a crowd. Nonetheless, on my morning walk, I swung by to check out the situation with the N95 augmented by a dupatta wound hijaab style over nose and mouth. Thus prepared, I walked down to find two generous groups in shorts, flip flops and jeans with a few saris thrown in lined up on either side of the gate. The Rashbehari bhadro voter population of my area was out in morning force.

No go, I thought, did an about turn and embarked on Plan B. That entailed going to vote at high noon and high noon was scorching, so scorching that when I reached the centre my temperature was high. “Can I vote?” I asked the commandos doubtfully. The ladies on duty told me to wait till I cooled down then handed me a glove and I walked into the booth, was thumb printed, pressed the button and was out in five minutes. Though I do confess to a fit of irrational panic when I looked at the EVM.

You might almost call it a non-event – afterwards I found none of the usual groups loitering on street corners discussing who was giving biryani in exchange for votes or who was paying Rs 500 for a phone shot of a finger pressing the right button, conversations I had heard in other, less volatile years. The roads around Gariahat were in almost lockdown mode, peppered with bored policemen.

Well, the die is cast, the button pressed. “There was no milk today,” my cook announced gloomily in the evening. “The voting stopped it.” A taste of things to come?

(Anjana Basu is a Kolkata-based author and columnist. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)

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