V the people
As the nation awaits the results of the recently concluded 2019 general elections, we take a look at the massive electoral process that witnessed a record 900 million voters, making it the world’s biggest democratic exercise
Jaws dropped worldwide at the mention of 900 million people choosing a government in one giant exercise as India witnessed the 2019 general elections. The biggest democratic exercise in the world, the Indian general election to constitute the 17th Lok Sabha was held in seven phases from April 11 to May 19, 2019. This year, the Election Commission of India (ECI) set up about 1 million polling stations in the country, 10 per cent higher than the 2014 elections. Conducted in seven phases spread across 39 days, the elections were the longest ever in India, in terms of the number of days the polling was held for.
This was also the first time when voters were allowed to carry any of the 12 approved identity cards to the pollings station and voter slips were not used as the stand-alone identification document. The 2019 elections also witnessed the highest ever voter turnout at a tentative 67.11 per cent across 542 constituencies barring Vellore in Tamil Nadu where polls were rescinded.
This year’s voter turnout is 1.16 per cent higher than 2014’s 65.95 per cent. While Lakshadweep recorded the highest voter turnout percentage at 84.96, the northeastern states of Tripura, Nagaland and Manipur also scored well with 83.20 per cent, 83.09 per cent and 82.69 per cent respectively. Madhya Pradesh witnessed the highest increase in turnout from the previous elections with a jump of 9.50 per cent.
More than 10 million election officials ensured fair and smooth polling across the country. That is more than the total electorate of Hungary and Iceland put together. That, however, is not the most fascinating point. After all, 900 million is just a number. What is staggering is the diversity of these 900 million human beings who were choosing their leaders, ideologies which must govern them, and the socio-economic trajectory they would take as a people.
What is even more remarkable is that this gargantuan democratic ritual by almost an eighth of humanity was not done at bullock-cart speed or with scattershot precision. It involved the latest technology, clockwork workflow management, expansive security deployment and economic activity bigger than the annual budget of many small nations.
The many Indias
As of March 2019, there were 2,293 registered parties in India which include seven recognised national parties and 59 recognised state parties. How many ideologies, regional aspirations, manifestos of all these parties add up to? It is difficult for those from more monolithic nation states to fathom. India officially has 22 officially recognised languages and more than 2,000 ethnic groups. There are fair, dark, yellow and brown-skinned people, and all can legitimately claim to be original settlers of this land. There are people from the hills, plains and islands.
The elections were a celebration of a neurotic level of diversity. There were five transgender candidates in the fray, and 41,292 voters had enlisted under the ‘third gender’, a rise of about 45 per cent from the figures of 2014, when the EC first started this category. Mahant Bharatdas Darshandas was the sole voter at the Banej polling station deep in the Gir forest, the home of Asiatic lions. He boasted of a 100 per cent turnout at his booth!
101 year old retired school teacher from Himachal Pradesh Shyam Saran Negi, who has cast his vote since India’s first general election in 1951, was also the oldest to cast his vote. At 15,256 ft., Tashigang in Himachal Pradesh served as the world’s highest polling station. In Arunachal Pradesh, officials hiked for an entire day to reach a lone voter. Telangana’s Nizamabad became the first constituency in the country where 12 big-sized EVMs were used at every polling booth as a whooping 185 candidates were contesting the elections.
On the other hand, 84.3 million people were eligible to caste their votes for the first time in these elections. Fifteen million voters between the age group of 18 and 19 years were eligible to caste their votes They are usually an idealistic, rebellious, technologically savvy bunch who are confident about new India and its place under the sun.
Tech-aways and more
The massive electoral exercise in India was also one of the most technologically advanced. The Election Commission officials deployed a total of 1.74 million VVPAT units and 3.96 million electronic voting machines in 1,035,918 polling stations across India during the 2019 elections. This was also the first time when the EVMs and postal ballot papers carried the photographs of all the candidates along with their party names and symbols. This election also saw the use of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) in all EVMs across the country, for the first time.
The EVMs were tested immediately prior to the election day, where a sample number of votes for each political party nominee was entered into each machine in the presence of polling agents. At the end of this sample trial run, the votes were counted and matched with the entered sample votes to ensure that the machine is operating reliably. Machines that yielded faulty results were replaced.
This election also witnessed the most sophisticated tech-driven campaign extensively using social media, 360-degree and drone cameras for broadcast and much more. While Indians are still not able to cast their vote online like Estonians, it is technologically the world’s biggest and most advanced democratic exercise as well. Around 2,70,000 paramilitary and 2 million state police personnel provided organisational support and security at various polling booths over the seven-phased elections.
The money yagna
The Centre for management Studies estimated that this election, campaign expenditure will exceed USD 7 billion. There are other official and unofficial spending which runs into hundreds of millions. Elections in India spawn millions of dollars’ worth ancillary industry. Businesses providing tech to hoardings to data consultancy flourish.
The Election Commission, for instance, had ordered 2.6 million bottles of indelible ink to mark voters’ fingers with. Just the paper and printing cost of leaflets and other poll material could feed hundreds of families for the entire years.The size of the Indian democracy makes elections an oceanic exercise. But the real soul of the human ocean lies in its diversity that breathes in one syncretic cultural identity Indians call ‘nation’.