Why my father, a politics enthusiast, voted for the first time ever at age 59

Expensive democracy.
Expensive democracy.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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My 59-year-old father’s dinner table conversations mostly revolve around politics.

Earlier, he would be glued to TV news (his favourite, besides Animal Planet or Just for Laugh Gags). When the loud, dramatic debates became too much to handle for the rest of us in the house, he moved to YouTube. He was soon spending more time before the laptop, watching politicians deliver speeches, comedians criticise them, and more. Even when it comes to movies, he shows another level of enthusiasm for political cinema like Accidental Prime Minister and Tashkent Files.

So when he got his voter ID a month-and-a-half ago—proudly showing his name Debashish Bhattacharya—I was shocked to realise that he had never voted before.

He has lived in Mumbai since 1976, with an eight-year-gap between 2004 and 2012. During this time, nine Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) elections have been held, besides this year’s.

I asked him why he hadn’t voted for almost four decades.

He said for part of the time, he was sailing the world with the merchant navy. Yet, whenever he was in India, he did want to cast his vote. He had tried from Borivali (Mumbai north constituency) in 1984 and twice from Koparkhairane in Navi Mumbai in the late 1990s. However, he never found his name on the electoral list.

“Election officers or representatives from some party would come home, take names, check your ration card—the only form of ID back then,” he told me. “But when you went on the day of voting, the names didn’t appear in the ledger outside the polling booth. Both your mother and I were never there on the list even though people did visit our home to cross-check.”

So, why didn’t you raise a ruckus and get your name added all these years?

“The systems were not as of today with things being available on the internet and computers. It was very disorganised,” he said. “Before the 2014 elections, too, I went around many election commission offices—in Vile Parle, in Bandra. Everywhere they told me my address doesn’t come under this ward. There was no clarity within the government staff as to where I should go for my application. It irritated me because there was no proper feedback.”

By 2017, my father had become proficient in navigating the web. He became an e-mailer crusader of sorts, be it reaching out to Amazon’s customer service over a delayed delivery or emailing the municipal authority with a rule-breaking bus driver’s number plate, demanding action. This was also the year he found out India’s voter registration could be done online. He filed the applications for both him and my mother.

The process wasn’t all smooth. His photographs were deemed inappropriate, so he submitted new ones. My mother’s were all good, though. The supporting documents they had submitted were all the same. Funnily enough, dad’s ID came through, but not mom’s—so she still hasn’t voted.

Voting day

At 11am on April 29, 2019, dad left home, crossed the road, and walked about six minutes into SNDT Women’s University’s campus. His assigned voting location was Sir Vithaldas Thakarasi College inside the campus. In his room, there was no line—he was in and out in a few minutes.

There was only one break in the flow for him. When he was looking at his electronic voting machine (EVM), he was stumped. He wanted to vote for one of the two headline-makers—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or Congress—but couldn’t find the symbol he was looking for. An officer came in and asked him what he wanted and instructed that he would need to vote for an ally because the party he was looking for didn’t have a candidate contesting in this constituency.

When he returned, having not voted for the one party he was rooting for, I couldn’t help but ask how he didn’t know they had no local candidate. Had he not done his research? Was the local candidate not important to him?

“No. Because it’s a Lok Sabha election and I’m more interested in the national angle at that point. I was sure as to which national party I will vote for, which in my opinion, would provide a stable and a secure government,” he said. “If it was an assembly election, I would go deeper into the candidate and what he or she has done.”

Well, whatever his decision, my father is a better citizen than me, my brother, and my mother—he’s the first and only voter in our family.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.