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India Prepares for Parliamentary Elections - 2004-04-14


In India, elections to choose a new parliament will be held over five days between April 20 and May 10. Four Indian states will also elect state legislatures. It is a gigantic task to elect leaders in the world's second most populous country.

The voters add up to a staggering 675 million - the approximate population of the United States and Europe put together. It is no surprise, then, that the elections are spread over three weeks.

The country will choose 543 members of the lower house of parliament. More than 700,000 polling stations are sprouting in some of the world's most crowded cities to tiny settlements in remote areas.

Deputy election commissioner, A.N. Jha, says polling officials have to drive, trek and even ride camels to reach every voter.

"We have the hill areas, where you only have 25 voters and people have to trek for three days to reach those 25 voters," he explained. "You have the deserts of Rajasthan, where again you have to move three to four days in advance, they go on camel back."

The logistics are so massive that it takes some four million polling staff and one million security personnel to oversee the voting.

Law and order are huge concerns. Federal troops along with local police are deployed to cope with varying challenges - from musclemen hired to intimidate voters, to a host of rebel groups in Kashmir, the northeast, and central India who have threatened to disrupt the polls.

For the first time the traditional ballot paper will be replaced by electronic voting machines, which have been used previously on a limited scale in state elections.

The move seems appropriate in a country that is a frontrunner in high technology. But only a fraction of Indians have computers, and nearly 40 percent of the population is illiterate.

So the election commission is conducting awareness programs to make people and polling staff familiar with the new device.

Election officials say electronic voting is a huge step forward. It will eliminate the need to print 10,000 tons of paper, cut down staff needed at polling stations by almost one million, and reduce vote-counting time from several days to a few hours.

But even better, says Mr. Jha, the machines popularly known as EVM's are expected to reduce incidents of fraud that have traditionally marred elections in areas such as Bihar state. That included thugs throwing away votes in favor of a rival candidate or using guns to "capture" polling stations.

"Earlier people would run away with the ballot boxes, or they would try and stuff them with votes by forcibly taking over a polling station," he said. "But with EVM's the presiding officer can close down the machine with the press of a button, and no bogus votes can be cast."

Scores of parties - national, regional and marginal - are taking part in the election, and candidates are movie stars, members of India's former royal families, people facing criminal charges, and a 94-year-old man seeking re-election for the seventh time.

"Without doubt, I think the illiterate, poor people of India have proved one thing - that this vast country of enormous diversities and bewildering complexities will be ruled democratically or not at all," said independent political analyst Inder Malhotra.

Mr. Malhotra adds that elections are proof that with all its flaws, democracy has taken hold in a country where one-third of the people live on less than $1 a day.

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