NEW DELHI — Conducting elections in the world’s largest democracy is no easy task. Starting April 7 and continuing for five weeks, Indian authorities must surmount daunting logistical challenges to reach the country’s more than 814 million voters.
Five years ago, during the last general election, air force helicopters carrying polling officials were unable to land in a remote region tucked in the high Himalayas in Ladakh. Undeterred, a polling team trekked for 45 kilometers through knee-deep snow in the high mountains to reach 35 voters.
As India heads for another election next month, officials are preparing for more such challenges.
About 100 million new voters have pushed up the total numbers of voters to some 814 million – an electorate greater than the total population of Europe.
Rules stipulate that none of them - whether in a crowded city or a remote mountain village - should have to travel more than two kilometers to cast their vote. Deputy Election Commissioner R. Balakrishnan told VOA that traversing this last kilometer is not always easy.
He cited the example of a polling station with just one voter in the western Gujarat state.
“This polling station is located 20 miles deep into the Gir forest jungle. To secure this one vote, we will send a team of officials. Even one voter we try and reach out, and then for reaching out that one voter we do what it takes. And it involves sometimes using all modes of transport, from helicopters and elephants and camels and what not and sometimes involves days of trekking,” said Balakrishnan.
Observers say electronic voting machines being transported in bullock carts symbolize the essence of Indian elections - a complex management exercise coping with a diverse country where modern infrastructure has yet to reach every corner.
The numbers are daunting: 930,000 polling booths and 11 million polling and security personnel will move through the country over the nine days that voting will be held between April 7 and May 12. By the time nomination deadlines close, there could be as many as 15,000 candidates competing for the 543 seats in parliament from about 500 parties.
As they plan polling schedules, Balakrishnan said officials have to keep in mind local festivals, harvesting seasons and examination schedules. With India heading into summer and the monsoon season, they also have to factor in adverse weather conditions; polls must be held before parts of the country face a monsoon deluge or soaring temperatures in desert areas deter voters from venturing out.
“It is the kind of largest event management exercise in the world. We have to ensure that the men and material [are] all in place dot on time at nearly one million polling stations,” said Balakrishnan.
Despite the numbers involved, electronic voting will enable counting to be concluded in just a day.
Scale is not the only challenge. A key test is to ensure fair voting. In the east of the country, Maoist rebels who hold sway over large parts of the countryside often try to sabotage the polls. In states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, efforts to influence voters by so-called “musclemen” are common.
Although by no means foolproof, the overall level of violence in Indian elections has declined, thanks partly to the help of modern communication and enhanced security. Balakrishnan has been credited with introducing mapping of vulnerable booths.
“We do an exercise to identify the vulnerable areas where the election process could be threatened. This is identifying people who are vulnerable to be intimidated by someone and also identifying people who are likely to intimidate… and we respond with what is needed and what it takes,” explained Balakrishnan.
Journalists who have covered past elections agree. Manoj Joshi at the Observer Research Foundation said when he covered his first election, in 1984, many lower caste people known as dalits found it difficult to venture out on polling day.
“In western U.P. (Uttar Pradesh) you found that dalits just could not vote, meaning they were coerced into staying in their village and their votes would be cast for them. Then in places like Bihar and U.P. there was the institution of booth capturing, at night armed people would capture the booth and cast all the votes in favor of one or other candidate… Now the whole election process has become very secure, all that business is over,” said Joshi.
Problems such as efforts to buy votes remain, but analysts say while political parties and candidates need to do much to clean up their systems, India puts its best foot forward at the time it conducts elections.