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Closely observed drains (and secret tunnels)

Mahatma Gandhi once described American journalist Katherine Mayo’s book Mother India as the “report of a drain inspector” for its criticism of child marriage and widow burning (“killers of goats,” she grumbles after viewing a Kali worship ritual in Kolkata).

world Updated: May 11, 2010 02:20 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

Mahatma Gandhi once described American journalist Katherine Mayo’s book Mother India as the “report of a drain inspector” for its criticism of child marriage and widow burning (“killers of goats,” she grumbles after viewing a Kali worship ritual in Kolkata).

Tables were turned briefly when a group of ‘observers’ turned up in Britain from 13 Commonwealth countries — some from the poorest parts of Africa — to observe the conduct of last week’s general election, and left behind their own modern version of a drain inspector’s report.

Exciting and smooth as the election was, a few polling booths were unable to cope with a sudden spike in voters. Said to number in their thousands, voters who arrived just before the 10 pm closing were turned away as polling papers ran out. There were unprecedented dharnas at polling booths.

“The number of seats the Tories needed for an absolute majority is not that high — this could have made the difference,” said Kenyan MP Ababu Namwamba.

Another observer was astonished to discover the absence of identity checks. “It was a massive shock when I saw you didn’t any identification to vote,” said Marilyn Jalloh, an MP from Sierra Leone. “In Sierra Leone, you need an identity card and also to give your fingerprint.”

The observers could also have done with a guided tour of the venues that have been hosting post-election political negotiations, including ancient secret rooms, corridors and tunnels.

Talks are taking place in the Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall Street in central London, next to the prime minister’s office-cum-home at 10 Downing Street. Since Friday’s verdict of a hung parliament, hundreds of reporters have camped outside the Cabinet Office.

But with their entry barred into a building whose stone steps lead to passages, secret rooms and indoor tennis courts built by Henry VIII, television news channels have deployed helicopters for aerial views – just in case politicians try to escape unnoticed through the many narrow alleyways connecting Whitehall offices.

On Sunday afternoon, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was seen scurrying out of his office into the foreign ministry building. At around the same time a passerby noticed Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg making his way for what turned out to be a meeting between the two.

If Brown really wants to make a getaway, he can always use a secret tunnel that connects the Cabinet Office with 10 Downing Street, through a secret door with a push-button lock.

The Commonwealth observers may not know this, but English rulers thrive on the preservation of mystique.