Eleven years of living in the US and I’d forgotten that election day in India feels like a holiday.
When I stepped out of my apartment this morning, New Delhi seemed a little drowsy. It was 10 a.m. and the streets, otherwise choked with traffic were mostly empty, with just a few motorcycles, cars and buses.
Shops and offices were closed and they’d remain closed for most of the day to give employees and owners alike the time to go exercise their basic democratic right.
It was only when I went inside the neighborhoods, that I saw people lining up at polling booths to cast their ballots.
It’s been 67 years since India became independent and this is the 16th parliamentary elections, but the word on the street is that this one is different.
For one, the average Indian, especially the urban middle class appears to be more politically engaged.
“The political discourse is changing,” said Nidhi Misra, 26 and a first time voter. “I think people are becoming more politically aware. I see more people saying you know, we’re going off track, being hit by inflation and bad policies, and we want to change that.”
This probably has a lot to do with the waves of large scale protests and movements in the country in the past several years, especially the anti-corruption movement led largely by two activists, Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, who heads the new Aam Admit Party (AAP), or the Common Man party.
There’s a growing sense that an individual can make a difference. Take 59-year-old former school teacher Neelam Rai.
She lived abroad for most of her life, but moved back to India with her husband 12 years ago. She had never voted until Thursday morning. She hadn’t felt like her one vote could make a difference.
“But this time I felt from my heart that yes, every vote matters,” she told me after casting her vote, “I heard once on TV recently is that these elections are going to be a turning point, for India as a democracy, and India as a place in the world. So, something about those words shifted something inside of me. I was surprised myself when I said that today I’ll go.” She voted for the AAP, because she believes they stand for change."
And ‘change’ seems to be the keyword for this election. Regardless of who they voted for, most people said they were fed up with status quo and were desperate for a new chapter for the country; one without rampant corruption but better lives for everyone.
I talked to many people today, young and old and from various walks of life. Everyone I met or saw beamed as they stepped out of the polling booths and happily showed off the ink mark on their index fingers, a sign that they had voted.
Only one group of women at a polling booth were crestfallen. After at least a couple of decades of casting their ballots at this very booth, their names had miraculously disappeared from the list of voters. And officials had no explanation for them.
Their disappointment, juxtaposed with the sense of accomplishment of the others made me ashamed for not voting.
Somewhere during my many moves in the US, I’d lost my voter ID card.
Since returning to India, I simply hadn’t gotten my act together to get the residency paperwork ready in time to apply for a new card.
Now, I take solace in the words of a 19-year-old I spoke to Thursday. Her name is Heeral Nagpal. Our duties as citizens don’t end with election day she told me.
“It’s not just about voting for a party.”
We can’t expect our leaders to solve all our problems, she added. Change has to come from within, with each individual and how they live their lives.
I know she’s right. So I’m hoping I can still make up for having missed that precious opportunity to create the changes I’d like see.