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Nothing has changed in more than a decade.
During each election in India, election officials go into the forest of Gir, which is full of lions, to collect the vote of one man.
They are about five officials, accompanied by two policemen. They load all the electoral material, including an electronic voting machine.
After a long day, they set up a voting booth within a radius of two km from the residence of Guru Bharatdas Darshandas, according to the regulations.
The lonely voter, who is in the 60’s, takes care of a temple that is in the forest, in the western state of Gujarat.
“We were 45 living in this temple, we had a huge number of pilgrims, so the forest authorities started creating obstacles for people to live here, so they all left and I am the last voter left, ” he told the BBC in 2009.
Soutik Biswas / BBC
I am honored that the authorities have installed a voting booth just for my vote. “
The only voter in the polling station of Banej
Expect to see better roads in the jungle so that more pilgrims can visit.
“But it makes me feel good that the authorities come here to pick up my vote, I feel honored.”
The history of Bharatdas suggests the complexity involved in organizing India’s general elections . But it does not even show a bit of the big picture.
From the Himalayas to the coast
India goes to the polls again this April. With 900 million voters, it will be the largest election the world has ever seen.
But how does a country manage elections that involve 12% of the world’s population?
According to the electoral commission, it does so with the spirit of conducting “free and fair elections”.
The commission has to handle elections across 29 states and seven union territories . This includes “a large mountainous area in the north (the Himalayas), huge plains in the north and center of the country, a desert region in the west, forests everywhere and an extensive coastline that spans the peninsula in the south”, writes the former head of the SY Quraishi commission in his book “An undocumented wonder: the creation of the great election of India”.
Almost one million polling stations are installed to cover the vast territory. Some demand extraordinary logistics, to say the least.
Officials carry oxygen tanks, sleeping bags and food, in addition to the voting machines to reach some of the most remote polling stations “
For example, a voting booth in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh is considered the most inaccessible , at 4,400 meters above sea level . Electoral officials have to walk more than 20 km to reach voters, according to a local media report.
They carry oxygen tanks, sleeping bags, food and flashlights on their backs, in addition to the voting machines.
From helicopters to camels
The mission to reach each one of the voters goes beyond what one can imagine.
“In the beginning it may sound fun, but all forms of transportation from the most primitive to the ultramodern – elephants, camels, boats, cycles, helicopters, trains and planes – are used to reach voters and to move people and materials through deserts. , mountains, plains, forests, islands and coastal areas, “writes Quraishi.
Image caption You
Some 10 million officials will administer the elections on the ground this year. To put it in perspective: that’s almost the population of Sweden!
It includes a long line of paramilitary forces, observers, cameramen, government employees and teachers, in addition to the electoral officials.
All are assigned work areas through a random selection process to avoid bias . But they have one thing in common: the training and the determination to face the unique conditions of each state.
From violence at the polls to fraud
The officials who attend the polls are equipped to deal with complex realities.
The northern state of Bihar, for example, has a history of “capture of ballot boxes”: when the members of a party occupy a voting post by force and deposit false votes under the names of people in the electoral roll.
This tactic keeps voters away and generates a drop in attendance, especially among women, although it is not as common with the presence of electronic voting machines.
The number of officials displaced to handle the elections is almost equal to the population of Sweden.
The electoral commission manages the problem by extending the voting process through six or seven phases. That allows them to move the security forces from one place to another and ensure the security of each polling station.
On the other hand there is the threat of false voting in the state of Manipur, which was solved with facial recognition technology.
When they implemented the system, they discovered a woman “who came to vote more than 60 times in different costumes,” recalls Quraishi in his book.
Despite the precautions, there have been several incidents of deadly violence related to the elections in the 2014 elections. The worst affected states were Kashmir, Jharkhand and Assam.
The security staff is in a race against the clock to avoid similar mishaps in the upcoming elections.
In the eastern state of Jharkhand, antipersonnel mines placed by an armed guerrilla group of the left are retreating from the roads .
In Assam, security is increasing at polling stations that are at risk of insurgent violence or communal clashes.
In an election, a woman came to vote more than 60 times in different costumes. “
Ex-Chief of the Indian Electoral Commission
From dates to electoral symbols
This year, elections in India will run for six weeks, with thousands of candidates competing in 543 districts.
“We started to prepare a year ahead of time,” former electoral commissioner TS Krishnamurthy told. “With the exception of voter registration, this is an ongoing process.”
It was during one of those registration processes that the commission found one of India’s oldest voters : Shyam Saran Negi.
The retired school teacher has voted in each of the general elections since 1951. Now, at 102 years of age, he expects to place his vote again in the state of Himachal Pradesh.
It is said that Shyam Saran Negi has voted in every election since 1951.
Long before voters enter the voting booth, there are a number of tasks that must be completed:
- Get and transport electronic voting machines throughout the country.
- Select suitable electoral dates that do not coincide with festivals in any of the communities, or during the exam period, or during agricultural season or extreme weather conditions.
- Order large quantities of “special” indelible ink with which to smear the finger of each voter to avoid fraud
- Award symbols to each party and countless independent candidates so that voters can quickly identify them
This last task has interesting backgrounds.
In the 1990s, the man in charge of symbols, MS Sethi, sat with his team to discuss everyday objects such as a table, a telephone, a closet and a toothbrush and then draw them and give an identity to politicians.
The idea of using symbols was conceived before the first general election (which took place between October 1951 and February 1952) when almost 84% of the electorate could not read or write.
Several of these symbols have not been used so far, but they are available as part of a “free list”.
These tasks (and many others) are part of the core of the commission’s preparations before each general election in India.
From logistics to regulation
“But logistical work is not the most challenging part,” says Krishnamurthy. “It is the process of regulation of political parties.”
The attempt to buy votes with money and other gifts in anticipation of the elections is rampant in India.
One of the reasons is that politics has become fiercely competitive. In 2014, there were 464 parties in the race, 55 more than in the first elections.
There is also concern with the dark funding of the country’s political parties.
“We warn and reprimand the parties when there are violations, but we do not have the authority to disqualify or suspend candidates,” says Krishnamurthy.
“We can only withdraw its symbols in some extreme cases.”
All forms of transport from the most primitive to the ultramodern – elephants, camels, boats, cycles, helicopters, trains and planes – are used to reach voters “
Ex-Chief of the Indian Electoral Commission
To ensure that the vote count is fair, election officials conduct a mock vote at each post prior to the current process.
But sometimes the accuracy of the machines has been questioned. The parties, usually the losers, have frequently claimed that the machines can be “hacked” and the tickets adulterated.
The electoral authorities maintain that the voting machines can not be manipulated electronically and physical adulteration is easily detectable.
For now, they are rushing to address last minute needs across the country.
In the southern state of Telangana, a district struggles with a singular problem: the highest number of candidates for a seat.
The old machines can handle up to 64 names, but this particular district has 185. An urgent order has been placed to bring more modern machines on time.
Nevertheless, the electoral commission maintains confidence in its abilities.
“The electoral process will proceed smoothly,” says Umesh Sinha, a senior member of the electoral commission.
In fact, he believes that the state is on its way to making history.
“Telangana will be the first state in the country to use such a large number of units since the introduction of electronic machines.”
But will these measures result in higher attendance at the polls? And can they guarantee “free and fair” elections?
The world will have to wait until May 23 to find out.