At around six in the morning on the 1st of May 1997, I was on Magdalen Bridge in Oxford, listening as the Magdalen choir sang in the summer, while the sun came up from behind and shone brighter with each clear note. I then walked slowly to the polling station near home, gathering friends along the way, and cast my vote in a historic election: a landslide victory for Labour, a resounding defeat for the Conservatives after eighteen years of Tory rule. I could vote in the national polls because I was a member of the Commonwealth, and in the local elections because I had been resident in Britain for over six months by then. It was a deeply satisfying, if quirky, event for an Indian to participate in: an acknowledgment, if you like, of the crooked and sometimes unexpected pathways of colonisation, the bound histories of coloniser and colonised.
I’ve thought about those elections a great deal in the past few months, and particularly yesterday. Not in the least because much of that process was about the overwhelming support for Tony Blair, amidst Labour slogans of ‘Enough is Enough’ and ‘Britain Deserves Better’. Personality is key to political victories of this kind, and I can only hope that Obama’s course in history will not end up feeling like betrayal, the broken promise of Blair.
There is much to be critiqued, and even more to be analysed, about these American elections. Including the irritating - and dubious - notion of US exceptionalism when it comes to electing a black man as President. As some of us felt last night while watching the results come in, it wasn’t only ‘Yes, We Can’, and ‘Yes, We Did’, though these were powerful thoughts. For the rest of the world, it was also a sense of ‘Yes, About Time You Did’.
But let those analyses be for tomorrow. For today, I was privileged to be part of an extraordinary moment in a nation’s history, even if as visitor not citizen. The weight of that history came home to me not while listening to the somewhat fatuous commentaries of the news anchors, but through the tears of Congressman John Lewis - a man who was left beaten and bloody on an Alabama bridge forty years ago, as he marched for the right of African Americans to vote. He called it “a wonderful night… a night of thanksgiving,” and I thought to myself about another elections in 1994, when apartheid was dismantled in South Africa, not blow by blow, but vote by vote.
A South African poet, Adam Schwartzman, wrote this poem at that time, and it rings true for first time voters across the world, and for those, like me, who invest in the notion of participation, who spend years, months, days, working and waiting for that opportunity. Lucky to be born as a voting citizen in a complex country, I try not to take that destiny for granted; in my first elections in India, I went to nearly 20 polling stations before I found my name on the rolls (and Yes, It Wasn’t Easy).
However flawed our democracies, however complicated our experiences of citizenship, casting our vote is a moment of arrival, as well as of continued journey: as voters, as citizens, we bear witness to both.
I could hear our air over the radio, being everywhere
differently, belonging to no man. I cried for you
—you dumb girl—standing in line with the naughty, safe emigrés,
too far from my home and thinking how you might be now—
water in Retief’s Kloof, night on the Malutis,
silence in the suburbs. When I was a boy I
had you. We were growing ready, learning to be blessed
and slightly forgetful for the time we’d grow away.
I’ve waited to do this with you. I saw the very last day
out with one soft cross. It was my first time too.
Adam Schwartzman (from The Good Life. The Dirty Life. and other stories, Carcanet 1995)
London, 26 April 1994