Polling in the pandemic: A sedate experience, with mask in place and a sanitiser in the pocket

The magnificent neem trees lend a sense of calm to the Singanallur Assembly Constituency in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu as people gather there early to cast their valuable votes. Only, the chai wallah from the last elections, was sorely missed.

Pankaja Srinivasan
| Updated: April 6th, 2021

Photo: Pankaja Srinivasan

Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

Standing under the large neem tree on a hot April morning, with a face mask covering my nose and mouth, I wait my turn to cast my vote in the Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections today. 

I can’t help but remember the last time we voted here. It was the general elections in 2019, and my husband and I jogged there directly after our morning run. A chai wallah did brisk business as we waited to cast our vote. We sipped on hot sweet tea as we stood under the neem tree and speculated endlessly about who would win and why.

Things are so different this time. We walk at a more sedate pace, mask in place, and with sanitisers in our pockets. And sadly, there is no chai this morning.

Our voting booth is at a Corporation Middle School in a quiet road at Uppilipalayam, in the Singanallur constituency of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, about 506 kilometres from the state capital, Chennai. There are no children in sight at the school of course, but their benches have been appropriated by those on election duty, probably their teachers. 

The two neem trees branch out in a splendid canopy and in the morning of April 6, at 7 am, everything looks fresh, green and beautiful.

The magnificent neem trees lend a sense of calm to the Singanallur Assembly Constituency in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu as people gather there early to cast their valuable votes. Photo: Pankaja Srinivasan

It is for the first time that Coimbatoreans are voting during a pandemic. It is also the first time superstar Kamal Haasan is standing for elections from South Coimbatore. The city was aflutter as people reported spotting him often walking in the posh Race Course area of the city, or at the five star hotel there. WhatsApp is buzzing with news about how he would cast his vote in Chennai along with his daughters Sruthi and Akshara, and then fly down to his constituency in Coimbatore.  

Kamal Haasan’s election symbol for his newly minted party Makkal Needhi Maiam (founded by him in February 2018) is a battery torch. 

Posters of candidates with their respective election symbols. Photo: Pankaja Srinivasan

Nearly 63 million voters in the state will turn up to cast their ballot in one of the 234 Assembly constituencies in the state in the 16th Legislative Assembly Elections. According to a press release from the office of Satyabrata Sahoo, Tamil Nadu Chief Electoral Officer, there are 88,937 voting booths this year as compared to 67,000 in the previous elections. Home Guards, ex-service personnel and state police are deployed to maintain law and order. 

Sahoo also said that 104,282 postal ballots had been sent to voters aged above 80 years, and 28,531 postal ballots had been issued to the differently abled across the state.

In a collaboration with the Election Commission of India, the cab services of Uber are also offering concessional rides to people over 80 years of age, and those with disabilities, to enable them to get to their voting booths and back home.

Nearly 63 million voters in the state will turn up to cast their ballot in one of the 234 Assembly constituencies in the state. Photo: Pankaja Srinivasan

Who should we vote for? The candidates and their symbols are on posters everywhere, and I wonder what is the significance of the symbols. What does the pressure cooker stand for? Domesticity? Ease of cooking? What about the whistle? I scratch my head and think of all the whistles I have encountered. We used to get lurid pink and green whistles when I was a child. I think they came with sticky candy floss somewhere. 

A farmer stands with arms folded with two tall sugar canes growing behind his shoulder. I learn this is the symbol of the Naam Tamilar Party which provided equal seats to men and women in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and once again, this time.

Our voting information slip says, ‘3rd classroom south facing’. My husband, Raju, who is good with such things, peers up at the sky to determine where the sun is coming up and then he points to a classroom right ahead. That is ours. Just in case, I cross check with gloved and uniformed policeman who nods towards the same classroom. I ignore Raju’s eye-roll and stand decorously in a women-only line.  

It is mostly ‘seniors’ who have turned up to cast their ballots so early in the morning. They shuffle up the line, and ‘Covid Volunteers’, every now and then remind them to maintain a distance. Volunteers keep a sharp eye out and offer sanitisers, gloves and take temperatures of every new person who joins the queue.

It is eerily quiet. The lady in front of me drops her voter ID card. I tap her on her shoulder, she starts, then when I point to the card on the ground, she picks it up. I can’t tell if she is smiling. We are all behind our masks. Several classrooms in the neem rich school have lines snaking up towards them.

I step inside the classroom to cast my vote. One lady checks my voter ID card, notes something down and asks me to sign. She calls out my name and serial number that is quickly noted down by a gentleman sitting a little behind. I go to the next desk where I am instructed to place my finger on an ink-smudged paper. My finger is inked and I move behind a screen to vote! I press a button, verify my vote on the VVPAT (The Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail), and come away.

Inked finger. Photo: Pankaja Srinivasan

I bend down and pick up some neem flowers that are strewn on the ground that will go into a sweet, sour and bitter pachchadi (a kind of a relish) next week on the occasion of the Tamil New Year called varsha poruppu or puthandu. The pachchadi is a metaphor for life – a combination of the sweet, sour, spicy and bitter, something like the outcome of these elections. Who will win the Tamil Nadu elections? Results will be announced on the evening of May 2.

Polling day is a special experience. We witness India’s democracy in all its splendour as people, rich and poor, and from all walks of life descend to the polling booths to cast their vote. 

Every time we cast our vote, India wins.