Field Notes: A Tense Silence In A UP Polling Booth


The question of how one predicts Indian elections remains one of the most vexing ones academics and researchers face. Large-scale surveys and statistical analyses continue to be considered the most reliable option. There was also the regular uptick of opinion pieces and predictions this election season by commentators of all political hues. 

An odd jumpiness and silence in one tiny polling booth in Gautam Buddha Nagar in western UP was, surely, no sign of anything at all. While not claiming to extrapolate anything—in terms of predicting electoral victories or even trends—from this brief participation in the defining ritual of electoral democracy, this account describes conflicting emotions and mundane interactions with the Indian state as central to an understanding of the electoral process.

Our trip to the polling booth on 26 April 2024 started off somewhat chaotically. We discovered that my father didn’t have any ID on him. A frantic search in my mother’s purse and a quick googling of the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) website of acceptable IDs showed that we did, in fact, have an ID that would work. 

Relieved, we arrived at the polling station we always went to, even though it was now a considerable distance from the flat we had lived in for the past decade. 

It still felt more like home than the impersonal high-rise apartment on the expressway where people didn’t talk to each other in the elevator or return your tentative smile on evening walks.

The polling booth is in our sector's club, which I continue to visit often because the library is surprisingly good. I dashed out with our IDs to the shamiana outside, where we get our “parchees” or slips. 

Scowling at the suspiciously saffron colour of the shamiana, I was relieved to see none of us had mysteriously disappeared from the rolls. Parchee in hand, we all went in.

While outside, several people were milling about and chatting with one another. The environment inside was oddly tense, or so it felt to me. Everyone was tight-lipped, silently queuing. There were security guards everywhere. 

We were directed to a particular room where we, too, went to queue silently. The first officer on the desk looked at my ID and parchee and then stared at me to say: “None of these pictures match. Mein kya jawab doonga sarkar ko (What will I tell the government)?" 

I glanced at my baby-faced picture on the election voter ID. The grimly contorted one on my Aadhar card—an ID I had steadfastly resisted getting until there was no option but to succumb to it—and the pale photocopy on the rolls. 

I smiled and said, “Lekin yeh sab log mein hi hoo. (I am the person in the photos).” He smiled back and said, “Sarkar ko aap par bharosa hai (The government trusts you).” I bit back what instantly flashed through my head: “Lekin mere ko ab sarkar par bharosa nahin hai (I don’t trust you).” I smiled politely and moved to the next man, who put the indelible ink on my left index finger.

I moved onto the electronic voting machine (EVM), hidden behind a recycled cardboard box screen, and froze. Not because I didn’t know whom to vote for but because all I saw was that dreaded symbol of hate, the party I would rather die than vote for. 

What if my vote went to them? What if this was all more rigged than it already felt like? I had spent hours in the past few weeks reading up on EVMs and was trying to convince myself it was all just conspiracy theorising.

But what if I accidentally pressed that button, given that this was all one had been hearing for months? Was this how the fate of India would be decided? By the simple pressing of a button? Something so simple but so intensely consequential, especially in that moment.

The rest of my family voted before me and was waiting outside. I was still standing in the makeshift booth, staring at the EVM. My mother looked at me quizzically from the door and mouthed, “Jaldi karo (Hurry up)."

The people behind me in the queue were also looking at me. The man directly behind me—who had smiled slightly when he saw the tote bag I was carrying with the preamble to the Indian constitution printed on it—caught my eye. There was something opaque in that gaze, but I felt he got it, unlike my mother, who was impatiently waiting for me. 

I pressed the button, waited for the VVPAT—the independent paper record of the voting machine—to light up, and saw that it was, indeed, the symbol of the party I intended to vote for. It was a relief to see a paper version of the vote; somehow, it felt more tangible and real to glimpse the vote in a material form. I turned to the man who had put the indelible ink sign on my finger. 

“Do I also get a copy of that slip?” I asked him, though I knew the answer. He smiled nicely and said, “No, that is for the EVM, even we don’t get to touch it.” 

I nodded and left.

I don’t recall this tense environment in the polling booth during the previous general elections that I had voted in. It was usually more festive and less tight-lipped. 

Nobody told me who to vote for or asked me afterwards who I had voted for—something that had routinely happened in the past. 

I have always admired how smoothly the Indian state works during elections. The same efficiency was evident on 26 April 2024, too. 

But for the first time in my life, I found myself suspicious of every step: Would they have struck me off the rolls given my overt politics? Would they accept my ID (hence, unlike my father, I had a slew of IDs, including even my passport with me)? Would the EVM function as it ought to? What was the election commission morphing into? 

I also found myself looking quizzically at my fellow compatriots and voters and wondering who they were voting for. It felt like everyone else was doing the same—silently regarding one another, as if gauging whether you were with them or someone else. 

Everyone was jumpy, I thought.

When I came outside, the mood was lighter, but still not as easy as I recalled. 

I spotted the candidate's sister-in-law, who was most widely expected to win from this constituency. While surrounded by a small crowd of people, even she looked unsure.

I watched in admiration as several senior citizens came in and out, many with severely impacted mobility. And I thought how, despite everything, we still had a stake in this electoral democracy. How do we pin hope to it, and how do ideas of citizenship emerge from this very simple act? 

It was all rather oddly emotional, especially as I found myself wondering if I would ever be able to vote again in a general election. Not because I had any plans to surrender my Indian passport but because this whole thing called democracy seemed so globally compromised. 

I have been eligible for years for a British passport, which would make my life—especially my travels—so much easier. But I just could not get myself to part with my Indian passport. As someone who had extensively written on the affective power of even the driest of bureaucratic documents, I just didn’t find this as surprising as many others did.

Coming home, I read about low voter turnouts and how hate speech has intensified because phase 1 hadn’t gone according to plan. I felt a tiny bit of hope surge, an odd sensation I had also felt fleetingly in the polling booth. 

I could not get the polling booth’s silence and jumpiness out of my mind. Surely, it meant something. Surely, people weren’t all voting one way as we were all being persuaded to do so 24/7 through every medium possible. 

One friend told me I was deluding myself if I thought the charged atmosphere and the unusual silence around that space signified a regime change. Most others said this was because everyone was scared now. Nobody dared speak on anything, especially on politics. 

This was New India, after all.

There are now several nuanced critiques of the celebratory accounts of Indian democracy that continued to flourish despite obvious and glaring concerns. For that brief moment in time, the space of the polling booth was a mishmash of all the hope and fear we now invest in India’s democratic present and future.

(Nayanika Mathur is a professor of anthropology & South Asian studies at the University of Oxford.)

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