Democracy, the jungle and the Asiatic lion

There were a number of reasons why it was annoying to hear the ANC in parliament refer to the vote of no confidence as an attempted coup. One of those reasons is obviously that it’s so infuriatingly inappropriate for a band of criminals to call criminal a legal effort to curb their criminality. If you’re a pickpocket and the cops come round to collar you, you can try run away or you can try saying, “It wasn’t me, I’m innocent” – that’s still playing the game – but it’s just downright offensive to indignantly accuse the cops of trying to kidnap you.

But it’s doubly annoying because one of the good things we have left, despite the best efforts of the Zuma gang and despite pressures and disruptions from some of the forces opposed to them, is a resilient constitutional democracy, one that operates through procedural safeguards and legal pathways rather than through violence and force, and if they carry on this way the ANC may some day have reason to be extremely grateful that we do. Procedural democracy may seem imperfect and frustrating sometimes – by “sometimes”, I mean when we disagree with the result – but it’s still one of the brightest and best ideas human beings have had. It’s flawed and imperfect but it’s still our only hope, so I went in search this week of good stories to tell about it.

An episode of Radiolab pointed me to India, the world’s largest democracy. At the last elections more than 800 million Indians voted at more than 930 000 polling stations, overseen by more than 11 million police officers. The Electoral Commission of India demands that no voter be required to travel more than 2 kilometres to vote, which creates a particular situation for a certain Guru Bharatdas Darshandas, who lives and works as caretaker in the lonely temple of Shiva, deep in the snake-infested Gir jungle in the westerly state of Gujarat. The jungle of Gir is lovely, dark and deep, covering more than 1400 square kilometres, and it’s the last known refuge for the Asiatic lion. There are more than 500 of them prowling the green shadows, yellow-eyed and hot-breathed like half a thousand four-footed Shivas, god of destruction, stalking wild boar and chital and chousingha, the only four-horned deer in the world.

On the evening before each election day a crew of workers from the Election Commission lace up their walking shoes and snake-proof leggings and slip anti-lion spray into their belts. They load an electronic polling machine on their backs and hike through the jungle to set up a polling station at the temple. The next morning Guru Darshandas will rise and take his breakfast then stroll outside to the polling station, where he will vote on the electronic voting machine and have his finger marked with indelible ink. As soon as he has voted, the crew will pack up and hike 35 kilometres back out of the forest. (If I were them I wouldn’t set up the booth right outside the temple, I’d set it up exactly 1.99 kilometers away, just for fun, but that’s just me.)

Oh, it’s a beautiful story, the lengths to which this vast democracy will go to ensure one man his vote, and Indians are rightly proud of it. Every election there are more feel-good stories featuring the grinning Mr Darshandas and his long white beard tied in a strange chinny ponytail.

And it’s good that so much hoopla is made about this voting station for one man, and how every vote counts, but closer examination does reveal that in fact Guru Darshandas is not quite as isolated as you might suppose. He drives an SUV, for instance, and when a BBC journalist completed the long trek to interview him in 2014, he wasn’t home – he had driven to the nearest town to have the air-conditioning in his car fixed. More importantly, he doesn’t live alone in the jungle. He has a cook and a bodyguard and a driver who all live there too, but they’re not registered to vote and aren’t allowed to speak to reporters. No one has quite managed to establish why they don’t count as voters, but indications are that it has something to do with the fact that they’re Dalits – the lowest social caste, the Untouchables. Every vote counts, unless you’re a Dalit.

Oh democracy. You’re better than all the rest, but sometimes the closer we look at you, the more you hurt our hearts.

The Times, 10 August 2017