Sunday, May 14, 2006

Red reckoner

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

As a civil servant, I should steer clear of political discussions in public. I try to toe that line even in this space, where I am (supposedly) anonymous and (fortunately) faceless. Arnab, however, has no such constraints or compunctions, hence this debate over on his blog. Strewth! (One expects Bongs to get het-up over these things - in fact, we get het-up over damn near anything - but do note the paar-sawn phrom Waste-arn ishtet who’s got his knickers in a twist there.)

One particular coalition has formed the government in this state since 1977. This coalition has just won the Assembly elections for the seventh time in a row. In previous elections, there have always been allegations of rigging and intimidation. This time round, the Election Commission seemed to adopt a “French law” approach – guilty until proven innocent – and took unprecedented precautions to ensure fair polling.

Over the last two months, there have been endless discussions of how two EC initiatives would affect the ruling coalition. First, the rigorous correction and updating of the electoral rolls, whereby two and a half million supposedly “bogus voters” were struck off. Second, the pervasive scrutiny through the EC’s Observers and the security with para-military forces; in both cases the numbers were increased four-fold. The consensus was that this would totally rule out the coalition’s “scientific rigging” and therefore have an adverse effect on their poll performance.

The results - they now have 235 seats, up from 199 the last time. Regardless of whether this is a vindication of the Left Front, I am happy for a personal reason.


Over the last 17 years, I’ve worked in four major (Parliamentary / Assembly / simultaneous) elections and a slew of minor (municipality / Panchayat) ones. I am sick and tired of the assumption that the “administration” actively aids the ruling party during elections. The nudge-nudge-wink-wink, “so did you safeguard your job this time?”, “oh, you guys have the results ready before the polls open” – even though nobody has ever said this to my face, it rankles when I hear these insinuations about some friends and colleagues whom I believe in. Wonder what the same cynics will say this time?

The layman just sees the lines in front of the booths on poll day. Very few people appreciate the years – yes, years – of effort that go into the process, starting with the preparation of the electoral rolls and the voter ID cards (the latter an EPIC* exercise, ha, couldn’t resist that). And this is before polls are even announced. All hell breaks loose after the announcement of polls.

Indian electoral regulations must be the world’s most detailed. Every damn step from the publication of the rolls to the identification of the agents for counting of votes is covered by about 371 different rules. I kid you not. Even after the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines, each polling party carries a mind-numbing assortment of statutory and non-statutory “Covers and Forms”. They carry sealing wax, lanterns, file tags, spare ink. At the despatch centre, it takes them an hour or so to check off all the stuff against the list. In West Bengal, it’s a survival requirement – chances are that some polling agent will know more than them about dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s and if they don’t follow the procedure to the last detail, that agent will create merry hell in the polling booth. That’s one booth. No district has less than 2500 polling booths. If you’re the district officer in charge, would you take any chances?

That’s the other point about running elections in West Bengal. The level of political awareness is amazing. As a result, every political party knows the ins and outs of election regulations and makes damn sure the administration follows it. Far more so than elsewhere – on duty in another state, I’ve seen a 1 hour delay in the opening of the strong room and issue of EVMs on counting day, candidates and agents waiting without a clue, all because the Returning Officer in question couldn’t do without dyeing his beard on Sundays. In Bengal, that would have sparked a lengthy exchange of faxes and phone calls with the Election Commission, with detailed expositions of the penalties for dereliction of duty under the Representation of the People Act, 1956; there, it was dismissed as a minor procedural glitch.

All in all, election time is high stress and fatigue. It’s quite normal for the entire team at sub-divisional headquarters (even more so than at the district level) to go without sleep for three or four nights in a row, umpteen times during the election period. Allah knows what it does to our efficiency. One slogged one’s (rather too ample) fundament almost to the bone in the pursuit of fair and trouble-free elections (though to be quite frank, one was driven more by professional ego than by any devotion to the democratic ideal.) Wherefore, dear ladies and gentles, it bit like an adder and stung like a serpent when supercilious so-and-sos sneered at our impartiality. Many thanks to the Election Commission for doing an ISO-2001 and vindicating our efforts. Would that they had done it sooner.


I shouldn’t comment on development either. For nearly four years, I was a glorified traveling salesman for the State. Please note, a salesman for the State and not for the government. I believed in the product and still do, so my views are not impartial.

One phenomenon I have noted is that Bangalis outside West Bengal are the most virulent critics of this state. Very few of them will ever admit that there is anything of worth here. The standard response is “Okhaney kokhono kissu hobe naa!” (Nothing’s ever going to change there). I wonder why this is so. Perhaps the answer lies in a conversation three years ago with an honourable exception to this rule. He was quite clear about the reason. His fellow Bangalis on the East Coast of the USA, he said, sought to convince themselves that they were better off there than they ever could be back at home. Wherefore the criticism of all things in Bengal.

This could be true. Against this, I offer the succinct summary offered by my friend who chucked up the fast track (INSEAD, Gothenborg, Harvard, Monitor Consulting) and came back – “The West may have a higher standard of living, but here we have the best quality of life”. Worth a thought.


There’s also one thread of the debate on Demented Mind that rubbishes Bengal and Bengalis for putting up with the same government for 29 years. Matter of opinion. I shan’t comment, since I’ve only voted once in my life and it wasn’t this time.

There are, however, some unfavourable comparisons with other states. Apparently other states have advantages that my state doesn’t. From within the system, I must admit that my state does lack in some sterling practises. To wit …

I have never seen or even heard of a politician in this state, let alone a civil servant, prostrate himself before a Chief Minister or any other politician. In seventeen years, I have heard of only one instance where a district officer was transferred and had to pack up and leave post-haste. Post-haste in this case meant about a week, not 12 hours, and this was not because of any differences with the ruling party but over a failure of the administration that stayed in the national headlines for some months (it has even re-surfaced occasionally over the years).

I have never heard of a senior civil servant having to prepare chewing tobacco for a politician’s delectation. I have never had to visit the office of any political party to “pay respects”, nor has this “lapse” led to any setback in my career. Party visit, hell, I can wager that there isn’t even a single picture of the Chief Minister or any political icon** in any government office in this state. This is in sharp contrast to my experience in another state, where I unwittingly stirred up a hornet’s nest by asking a Returning Officer to remove a 2’x3’ picture of the Chief Minister that hung behind his chair.

I have had differences (sometimes very “heated differences”) with elected representatives of all hues, albeit over specific issues. This has never brought forth any threat to damage my career, let alone any threat to my life or my family’s security.

Above all, in a state whose population has diverse religious orientations and the potential for “communal” conflagrations, I have never seen any political interference in any situation of communal conflict. On the contrary, my colleague has defused a potential riot by arresting a local leader (of “a certain community”) from his bedroom at midnight. And not a cheep from the Secretariat. A sharp contrast to the experience of my friend in another state, who was specifically directed not to interfere while the streets ran with blood.

This is something I feel strongly about. In a conflict situation, it is not the business of the government to sit in judgement and then back one side or the other. That’s not the rule of law. The government’s job is to ensure that the common citizen does NOT take the law into his or her own hands. If necessary, this should be done by scaring the s**t out of all parties involved. No harm in that if it stops Ate, who would otherwise “cry havoc / and let slip the dogs of war”.

And please, don’t drag up “pseudo-secularism”. I agree that our country is about as truly secular as the USA, perhaps even less so, but that is no justification for any government to stand by and watch its own citizens being butchered. Again, I accept that this has happened at different times against different communities and with the support of different political parties. I do not hold a brief for any particular party, I’m just proud that it does not happen in my state.

Wherefore, dear commenter on Demented Mind who extols the virtues of development, I am actually happy to live and work in my own state. There are problems, I don’t agree with my political masters on all points, there are obstacles to some of the things I want to achieve, but on the whole there is a level of civilized debate and no fear of pogroms.

As a some-time student of political science, however, I must point out that the biggest problem this state faces today is not power or infrastructure or unemployment. It is the lack of an effective opposition. Would any kind critic care to stand up and be counted by doing something in this regard? Put your money where your mouths and keyboards are, sires.

* EPIC – Electoral Photo Identity Card

** The exception is “Netaji” Subhash Chandra Bose, whose portrait (usually against a totally puke-inducing blue background) can be found in most government offices. While he was one of the foremost figures of the nationalist movement, he also founded the Forward Bloc Party which is one of the partners in the Left Front.

**** ****


Vivek Kumar said...

"Damned if we do, damned if we don’t."

Hmm.. that's like a one line summary of the post. Well written too.

Any gyan for newbie civil servants to survive the "system"? :D

Prerona said...

hmm. well written post. i like the way you say my state.

greatbong said...

Excellent post. It is indeed refreshing to see something from a civil servant/administration side: it is true that we always hear of "incompetent poll machinery" and "compromised poll officials"---but no one ever gives "their" side of the story. And yes valid points about the things we dont see in our state----including party manifestos that look like Amazon wishlists for voters.

Nirmalya Nag said...

I congratulate you for writing this great post. Being in the media, I too have some knowledge about the pressure you civil service people have to face.

And, echoing Prerona, let me say too that "I like the way you say MY state."

km said...


Can I put in a request here? Can You please play "Jessie's Girl"..sorry, wrong request. Please post more on this subject (without interrupting the regular programming or jeopardizing your anonymity, of course)

I think most of us do not get a chance to hear the civil servant's point of view and to hear it articulated so well is just cherry on top.

Anonymous said...

1. nobody said that every polll worker works for commies. (yes, I use that word. Hail late Senator Joe McCarthy).
But there are administration folks who do help the ruling party.
After the election, one of our neighbours wh went to poll duty in the hottest constituency i.e. Subhas Chakraboty's east Belgachia seat said how the party and few administration people slowed down voting process in salt lake area (from where trinamool's base vote comes from) so that they can discourage oppositio voters from voting. whereas voting went on at lightning speed in CPM majority areas. talk about that!!
this is not rigging. it's nasty but legal. The ohio state govt. in the 2004 presidential elections used the same tactics to dicourage Kerry voters in mainly urban areas (the democratic party strongholds).

2. I have n great love for commies in my heart. but trinamool is no better. they are in fact more leftist than the current Buddha led administration. I voted for CPM candidate in my constituency (tollygunj), the unthinkable.

3. last of all, I don't think the lefts can be defeated in the 2011 or '16 elections. Not unless the muslim vote rallies against them or the muslims form a separate party. just look at the numbers from constituencies and you'll know why.

thank you. and you have a nice day.

neha vish said...

Great post. I could really relate to a lot of the post - My dad was with the Government before he opted for premature retirement, and a lot of what you wrote about found resonance.

Your perspective is just so refreshing in the middle of the all the bashing-up of usual suspects.

Sue said...

I couldn't go into the specifics I don't know, but I do know, after living here for 6 years, I still haven't encountered most of the bad stuff my parents warned me about when I returned to WB.

Most probashis do complain, but I think that also has a lot to do with the state they left. Which does not seem to be the state I'm living in. And I don't bother vindicating their case or mine because I was old enough when we left to remember how tough things were. We went to Hyd, and I remember being excited because whole days went by without a power cut!

Rohini said...

Great post. The Empire Strikes Back alnd all that :)

I totally agree with the friend on the quality of life bit. We keep cribbng about how life here sucks compared to the West but I wouldn't trade it for the world. Here I am top of the heap, can afford domestic help for ALL my housework and can call upon family help at the drop of a ha. Now that is a quality life for me...

Smith said...

truly illuminating....more of such please!!!

the Monk said...

Thanks. Now I will vote.

Bishu said...

J.A.P-da thanks to you for stepping your toe in the virtual world and giving us a picture of the real world from the civil servant point of view. On a different note I once had an argument with an upcoming DYFI leader saying that the admission in J.U Arts faculty is nearly flawless. Because after you are short-listed on marks basis, you have to write an entrance exam. A counselling process follows this. So this 3-step screening leaves very little room for back-door entries. The young leader laughed at me and said "And who are these teachers that correct the papers? " Maybe the elections can't be fully won by politicalisation of the administration but this trick still remains handy when it comes to maintaining the strong grip over the state.
I agree with you by and large absence of a strong opposition enables the lefts to score it all the time. Why the anti-left thinkers in Bengal have failed to unite under the banners of a political party is something that the able bloggers can shed light on. Most of them are out of Bengal or is in the payroll of Abhik Sarkar who himself is now rallying behind the lefts. But I am still hopeful that the confidence Budha-babu had instilled among the young Kolkatans will one day give birth to a leader who will accomplish this Mission Impossible task of forming the long dreamt opposition party. Maybe then Budha will be remembered as the Bengal’s parallel of Gorbachev.

Anonymous said...

"Very few of them will ever admit that there is anything of worth here. "

Not true - ...the food - oh the food !!! no where else in the world can you have fuchka for evening snacks (don't get me started on the abomination they call 'gol-gappas' in other Indian cities)...and Durga Pujo....

On a serious note, some ramblings on the 'Probashi Bangali' outlook.

IMHO for a lot of Probashis (in the US/UK) the 'criticism' is actually more of a lament. Lament for the decay and the good old days of 'what Bengal thinks today...' and such like.
Additionally, there is a very distinct difference in the outlook of people who came to the US/UK in the 70-80s versus those who left Bengal in the last ten years or so. The former generation grew up in a prosperous and dynamic Bengal under BC Roy, and then left at the cusp of Bengal's degeneration. This generation honestly believes that they 'escaped' and that Bengal will never regain the former glory (there is some measure of debatable truth in their thinking, buts that's a topic for another day). Whenever I have talked to these people about improvements taking place in Kolkata or India, they roll their eyes with a kind of 'yeah sure - humor me' kind of look.
Then there is our generation that grew up in the 'depression era' of the 80s and then witnessed the gradual liberalization of the economy from the early 90s. For us, the changes taking place, both physically and in the attitude of people, were somewhat expected as a consequence of the liberalization. Additionally, I think our generation, wherever we are located, is better tuned to the pulse of the homeland through internet, cheap long distance phone, Skype and all (you can see evidence of this from Arnab's erudite post on Bengal elections written from Maryland, USA). This lot is slightly more optimistic about Bengal, and India's future.

Well - that was the humble 2 paise from this probashi, whose heart is firmly in the bylanes of Gariahat, Golpark, Keyatala, Triangular Park....

Btw, loved the comment on quality of life versus standard of living - but eventually, I think it is a matter of personal preference.

Finally, superbly articulated post (as usual). Thanks for the 'insiders' view.

Tabula Rasa said...


the gent over at greatbong's was of more than entertainment value after all (that remark about the bananas and tick powder had me laughing for a couple of days).

Rimi said...

Brilliant post. And sustained brilliance, at that.

However, we shall pretend I did not say that, since you see fit not to reply to my pleas for help. Hrrump.

Teleute said...

khub bhalo laglo post-ta.

[ekhaneo bolte bolle, tai bollam. :D]

Anti-establishment Inc said...

Very well written post. However, I have seen a few instances of malpractice in places other than kolkata. I am sure you have heard of Mr. Adhir Choudhury and the likes. I guess the only reason why the "commies" have won time and time again is because the opposition have usually failed to do their duties..:)

P.S ( Tearing ones own sari in public does not get one votes.)

Cyberswami said...

From the point of view of someone in Delhi trying to keep tabs on what is going on around the country, I think I agree with you for the most part.

We don't get to hear anything from WB until a couple of months this side or that of elections. And then it usually follows the same CPM domination theme.

I agree with you when you say the problem is the lack of opposition. Dear old Mamata doesn't do the trick.

I also agree with you when you say WB has avoided the great plagues of the last decade, unlike say Gujarat. Low profile is good profile, I suppose.

And I agree with you when you say that quality of life here is better. And it will only get even better.

And perhaps this time it is a mandate for Buddha to continue on his path of reforms. What problems he encounters from within remain to be seen.

What became of the Bangladeshi controversy, by the way? There was a plan to grant all of them citizenship, but then I heard nothing else on the subject.

I am however a little doubtful about the elimination of corruption this time. You can never get rid of it, but I suppose the fact that the CPM increased its seat count despite the EC's intervention just shows how popular they really are.

Super post, and like virtually everyone else has said, it is great to read this particular point of view.

Plumpernickel said...

I just have a minor point to make about the 235 seats and all. IMHO, didi's (and her acolytes) made such a spectacle and public nuisance of herself, and with the lack of any other candidates, are the results surprising at all?

jhantu said...

nicely written post. liked the passion

thalassa_mikra said...

JAPda, here's a probashi who begs to differ :). My parents left Bengal to live in Delhi in the mid 1970s, purely because my father obtained a position with better career prospects than what his job in Bengal afforded.

There was no resentment or bitterness towards the social or economic situation in Bengal at the time. When my parents spoke of Bengal to their friends in Delhi, they always spoke with a lot of pride, and perhaps to an extent, even downplayed the negative aspects of life in Bengal in the 80s (never mentioning CPM thuggery for instance).

Call it nostalgia or what you will, but reminiscences were always of the "good old days" kind. But then, my parents are from Barddhaman, which never saw the sort of break-down of law and order or acute economic distress that may prejudice many other probashis from other parts of Bengal.

And they managed to transmit their belief in the inherent strength and resurgent character of Bengal's institutions, which is why I am incredibly optimistic about development prspects there.

Veena said...

JAPda: One feels like substituting Bongland for Malluland and making the same post. Works, don't you think?
And we have a great opposition!

Anonymous said...

Good analysis JAP . As a citizen , I can say that the quality of life in terms of safety and secularism is more benign in Kolkata than in other states .And I speak from the perspective of one who has not spent all her life in Kolkata .

A and A said...

My first visit to your blog and a very good first visit t'was too! A very well written, lucid post I must say, but then you get that all the time I'm sure. But some of your other posts had me in splits!!! LOL! Will keep coming back! Cheers! :)

Anonymous said...

I visited your blog first time. Well analysed. I also agree and I love West Bengal no matter whoever is in power. I directly participated in several election process under the direction of ECI and in my twentyfive years of experience in govt. service, I never found any civilian violated the ECI norms. Partymen of all the political parties particularly in West Bengal are also very much aware of the ECI norms.