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Omar Khayyam had famously written,

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

These lines suddenly flashed in my mind as I was queued up at the polling booth on June 1, waiting to cast my vote for the parliamentary election. Quite unusually, at the age of 60, I shared the excitement of the huge band of teenagers who were exercising their voting right for the very first time. Having joined the National Defence Academy at the age of seventeen in the year 1981, I have rarely exercised my franchise – maybe just once, if my memory serves me right. I do remember some postal ballot exercises being carried out during these four decades but one was never sure if those papers reached anywhere. It was only much later in my service life when we, as part of the Navy’s leadership, encouraged our officers and sailors to enrol as voters so that they do not forego this basic right of a citizen to choose their lawmakers.

Armed forces members have a peculiar problem of ‘belonging’ in a sense. This is exacerbated if one is a second or third generation officer or enlisted person. Because of the frequent transfers and people settling down in different parts of the country, the average armed forces person does not really belong anywhere, unless he or she takes special measures to ensure that this does not happen. Every document that is considered bonafide proof of existence in this country has a different address; and this is never a ‘permanent’ address. A Delhi driving licence, a Mumbai voter’s card, a Kochi Aadhaar card and a Visakhapatnam house allotment order is common in naval life. The Army and Air Force would be no different.

Things are definitely much better today with a large percentage of armed forces members registered as either general or service voters. Every effort is made to afford time off or leave to them so that they can exercise their franchise and complete their national duty. Fortunately, after retirement, one eventually belongs somewhere and thanks to some forward planning and superbly efficient staff during my last assignment in the Navy, my wife and I had our voter cards in our hands within a month of my retirement. We were finally general voters in our home state.

Cutting to the chase – I realised that if one has to exercise this choice dispassionately and with responsibility, it requires much more than getting influenced by WhatsApp chats and political rhetoric in the run up to the voting day. Maintaining a balanced perspective in these times of name calling and hate speeches has not been as easy as I thought. More and more, our political environment is becoming a zero-sum game, a black or white decision, while in reality, there are more than fifty shades of grey in between.

This election in particular, has been hugely empowering for some and terribly disempowering for others. Pre-poll claims of development, progress and cultural revivalism, accompanied by chest-thumping and back-patting by the ruling dispensation as well as their prediction of winning over 400 seats in a 543 member Lok Sabha contrasted sharply with the apparent lack of cohesion and disarray in the opposition ranks. The latter has also been trying to put up a brave front and rubbishing the 400 plus seat expectation of the ruling combine as a pipedream. The foundation of their poll-plank has been negative, that is, undoing everything that the ruling dispensation has done if they come to power. In my view, neither approach has gone down too well with the ordinary voter.

So, how would average voters have exercised their franchise? Those clearly agreeing with the ruling party’s ideology would have voted for them. Those sharply against would have voted for the opposing combine. At the moment, we do not have any party or combine trying to walk the middle path. It is almost as if doing so would be a lack of commitment in this fiercely polarised polity. A sizeable section of voters were stumped in the bargain. Would they have voted for a combine that helps it to get a massive majority with which they could make sweeping changes in the way the country is administered? Or would they have preferred to prop up a weak and fractured opposition, knowing fully well that they are not backing the favourite horse in the line-up? Would they have put party politics aside and voted for an individual known for character and sincerity, again knowing that their vote may get totally wasted? Disempowering choices unless one is firmly in the first category.

Exit polls are almost unanimous in predicting a win for the ruling combine, though margins differ. June 4 is judgement day as it will decide the fate of this country for the next five years, internally and externally. A reassuring formula in a modern democracy such as ours is a stable and grounded government that does not harbour notions of invincibility and a sharp, strong opposition, both of which enable the existence of robust institutions, unfettered media freedom and individual liberties, as these are the mechanisms that can keep excesses in check. As much as the government is the choice of the people, so are the others.

May India, that is Bharat, be the winner!

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