The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Under a blazing sun, winding queues with expectant faces

If one so desired, one could spend the whole of a West London election day drinking beer in the World's End Pub, Chelsea. If it took your fancy, you could slip out between pints and cast your vote at the polling station down the road in all of five minutes. The election is but a minor, passing disruption to the Londoner's daily routine.

The notion of getting a drink in a bar in Calcutta on Thursday was about as plausible as David Beckham turning out in East Bengal colours. Even if one were able to grab a drink, the prospect of queuing up in the brutal April heat with a headful of alcohol would be too gruesome for even the most enthusiastic of drinkers.

The average working Londoner will cast his vote either before or after work. Such a dilemma could not affect the majority of Calcuttans, as the city became a virtual ghost town on election day.

Calcutta, on Thursday, seemed to shift into a completely unique gear. The normal urban energy I have come to associate with the city four months into my stay here was replaced by a mood of mid-week slumber. Shutters went down on shops, one got a seat on the Metro at midday, College Street was deserted and it took all of five minutes to go from CR Avenue to Alipore.

Speaking of Alipore, one noticed both the National Library and the large Calcutta University campus opposite it occupied by the election army and so many schools turned into polling stations.

That would be unthinkable in London, where election day is certainly not a holiday for schools and colleges. In my last year in school, I remember hurrying from my last lesson of the day to ensure that I would be able to vote Labour ' a bit of a mistake, retrospectively, one is forced to admit.

The polling sites are very different in these two cities. In London, supervisers are usually students or pensioners who give the process a very relaxed feel. Calcutta, on the other hand, was turned into something of a war zone on Thursday, with lots of bored-looking soldiers and policemen at the entrances, with rifles slung at all kinds of inappropriate angles.

Yet, men and women waited patiently in separate queues under the blazing sun, a look of expectation on their faces.

If the voters were very visible, so were the candidates. In London, the odd leaflet might drop through the letter-box and candidates might canvas occasionally. But they would draw nothing like the crowds that gathered around a Tapas Pal or a Biplab Chatterjee ' two actors slugging it out in Alipore ' on Thursday afternoon. The very notion of Chelsea's MP Malcolm Rifkind causing such a commotion on King's Road is almost amusing.

But while London's laid-back approach to elections is, perhaps, indicative of a growing apathy to politics, the poll process in Calcutta is surely alive and kicking.

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