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Letter from... a polling booth in the UK

Let me start by painting a comprehensive picture of the chaos that took place around my house in Bromley in the weeks and days leading up to Thursday’s UK elections: One guy put up two Theresa May placards on a tree outside his house. 

The end.

That is it. C’est finis. That was the single most overtly political thing you would see anywhere in the neighbourhood of my house. And this morning, as I walked back home, after the morning school drop, I noticed that the two placards have already been taken down. 

If a tourist had landed in London on Wednesday morning, and stayed off news channels, she would have virtually no idea that one of the great, iconic democracies in the world was engaged in an electoral campaign that many consider the most venomous in recent times. 

Elections in the UK, at least when seen through the prism of the Indian political experience, makes absolutely no sense. While it consumes endless reams of newsprint, gigabytes of website space and incessant chatter on social media, in day-to-day life UK elections lack the vitality that makes it such an engrossing aspect of everyday life in India.

Almost nobody brings it up in conversations. Placards, billboards, posters and flyers are nowhere to be found. The only campaigner to even try to pitch a candidate to me was a member of the Green Party who handed me a flyer outside Bromley South station a few days ago. I took it—I take all flyers from everybody—and then read it fully while waiting for a bus. Only to realize that the lady handing out flyers was the candidate herself.

But to truly convey a sense of the singular oddness of British electoral and political life we must start with the basics. 

*** 

Shortly after moving to the UK in 2010, within the first few weeks itself, I was quickly faced with two infuriating hurdles: banks that wouldn’t open an account for me and telecom companies that wouldn’t let me subscribe to a mobile phone service. Banks wouldn’t open an account for us till we had a host of paperwork in place. And telephone companies treated us with extreme prejudice because we didn’t have a credit history in the UK.

The former was a problem that would solve itself over a month or so. As soon as we found a place to stay in, activated utilities and signed a rental agreements. The latter problem proved to be…a bit bonkers. 

Let me explain. And listen carefully. To get a mobile phone contract in the UK you need to be able to pass a credit check. To pass a credit check you need a good credit history. So far so good? Good. Now to get a good credit history you needed to get a credit card, use it and then pay all your debt off in a responsible manner. Thus proving that you are credit-worthy. Good? Good. The problem is that to get a credit card in the UK you need a good credit history. 

You see the problem with this? You need a credit card to build an attractive credit history. But you need attractive credit history to get a decent credit card. 

Now do you see why this and only this country could have produced Monty Python or Fawlty Towers? How these guys built an empire, I will never understand. 

Eventually I was able to obtain a credit card from that stalwart of the British financial sector: the Post Office. (Jokes aside they are excellent fellows. I highly recommend. Also they have a lot of stationery. I love stationery.) 

But that was not enough, a friend told me. You have to do many more things to get a rock solid credit rating. You also have to enrol to vote. 

Wait. What? 

*** 

According to the Your Votes Matters website, you qualify to register to vote if you are: 

• a British citizen 

• a qualifying Commonwealth citizen resident in the UK 

• an EU citizen resident in the UK 

A qualifying Commonwealth citizen is someone who has leave to enter or remain in the UK, or does not require such leave. 

I wish to draw your attention to the second type: a qualifying Commonwealth citizen. (Essentially someone who is from one of the Commonwealth countries and is legally resident in the UK. So no tourists please.) 

Let us set aside, for a moment, the historical reasons behind the Commonwealth vote. But the very idea that a country lets citizens of another country vote in their elections is something that many Indians will find utterly bizarre. I mean, India is a country that breaks out in apoplexy every time time someone suggests that NRIs should be facilitated to vote. (Because, of course, there is an hierarchy of Indian citizenship. On top there are farmers, followed by soldiers at Siachen, then other soldiers, then people in non-AC rooms, then people in armchairs in non-AC rooms, then people in AC rooms, and then NRIs.) 

And no doubt there are thousands upon thousands of Indian citizens ordinarily resident in the UK. And all of them get the vote. Crazy. And crazier still is the fact that many of them sign up, like I did, because it improves their credit rating. 

But still, I thought, surely there must be tiresome paperwork involved in registering to vote? 

Laughing out, as they say, loud. 

First you fill a form online. This form is automatically forwarded to an office in your local council government. Who will then send you a little envelope to post a few basic documents: proofs of address, citizenship, residency. You post the envelope back. And boom. You can now vote. For anything. 

That is it. No phone calls, police verification, not even a friendly visit from the council to make sure you are not indulging in some kind of electoral fraud. 

Many months later, ahead of some election or the other, I received a slip in the post. This slip, I believe, is sent to every registered voter in the country with details of your polling booth and timings. 

Uh oh. They had spelt my name wrong on the slip. 

Catastrophe. 

*** 

“Oh, that is OK,” said the kindly old lady at the polling booth. “It happens all the time.” She said this as she slowly drew a line through my name on the printed electoral roll. This she showed to a similarly elder man next to her who gingerly tore a piece of paper from a stack of sheets gummed together on one side. Like an oversized pack of Post-It notes. 

I looked at him quizzically.

“This is your ballot. There are pencils in the booths.” 

Wait. What. Where are the EVMs? The sophisticated fraud-resistant ballots? What the hell is this? The 1950s? 

But in fact, that is it. That is how a British election works. It was all a bit anti-climactic. I put a cross in a box. Folded the paper in half and then slipped it into a ballot box. While I was doing this the polling booth officers were engaged in some conversation. I could have slipped anything into that box—ballot, banana, badger—and they wouldn’t have noticed at all. 

I recall the first time Mrs Editor and I came out of the polling booth. 

“Is that it?” she asked. 

“I think so,” I said. 

*** 

You see this is what all democracies are going to be like when they get advanced enough. It is going to be a boring, quiet, low key thing without placards or billboards or rallies or shady types hovering around booths secretly canvassing. People will vote, and then get on with their lives. Because politics is at the service of our lives. And not the other way around. 

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend. 

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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