General (parliamentary) elections in India are the world’s largest exercise in democracy. Elections are held within five years of the previous one. There was one in April and May 2019. This meant the next has to be called before April and May 2019. The House of the People (Lok Sabha, lower house) has 545 seats — 543 members directly elected in single-seat constituencies by simple majority vote and 2 appointed by the president; members. Representatives of the lower house serve a maximum of five years; most serve shorter terms. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

There are 543 parliamentary constituencies. Parliamentary election require about a month for all the balloting to be completed. Counting begins a few days after the election is finished. Often the country’s two largest parties don’t secure a majority of seats and need smaller parties to form a government. The election in 2009 utilized 1.3 million voting machines at 828,804 polling station for an expected 714 million voters.

The general election in 2014 was held over thirty-five days and nine phases between April 7 and May 12. A total of 8, 251 candidates ran for office. Voter turnout was relatively high, involving 66.38 percent of the country’s approximately 814.5 million eligible voters. The general election after that was in 2019. [Source: Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Legal Reports, 2017 |*|]

Between 1952 and 2019, there were 17 general elections. In the 2004 general elections, there were more than 687,000 polling stations and 671.5 million voters. The voter turnout ranged ing from 55 to 64 percent of eligible voters. India's elections in 1991 involved overseeing an electorate of about 521 million voters who travel to nearly 600,000 polling stations to chose from some 8,950 candidates representing roughly 162 parties. To attempt to ensure fair elections, the Election Commission deployed more than 3.5 million officials, most of whom were temporarily seconded from the government bureaucracy, and 2 million police, paramilitary, and military forces. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995]

Election Commission of India (ECI)

Article 324 of the constitution establishes an independent Election Commission to supervise parliamentary and state elections. Supervising elections in the world's largest democracy is by any standard an immense undertaking. Over the years, the Election Commission's enforcement of India's remarkably strict election laws grew increasingly lax. As a consequence, candidates flagrantly violated laws limiting campaign expenditures. Elections became increasingly violent (350 persons were killed during the 1991 campaign, including five Lok Sabha and twenty-one state assembly candidates), and voter intimidation and fraud proliferated. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995]

The appointment of T.N. Seshan as chief election commissioner in 1991 reinvigorated the Election Commission and curbed the illegal manipulation of India's electoral system. By cancelling or repolling elections where improprieties had occurred, disciplining errant poll officers, and fighting for the right to deploy paramilitary forces in sensitive areas, Seshan forced candidates to take the Election Commission's code of conduct seriously and strengthened its supervisory machinery.

In state assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, and Sikkim, after raising ceilings for campaign expenditures to realistic levels, Seshan succeeded in getting candidates to comply with these limits by deploying 336 audit officers to keep daily accounts of the candidates' election expenditures. Although Seshan has received enthusiastic support from the public, he has stirred great controversy among the country's politicians. In October 1993, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that confirmed the supremacy of the chief election commissioner, thereby deflecting an effort to rein in Seshan by appointing an additional two election commissioners. Congress (I)'s attempt to curb Seshan's powers through a constitutional amendment was foiled after a public outcry weakened its support in Parliament.

Voting Machines in India

By the early 2000s, electronic voting machines (EVMs) were used in most places in India. Invented by a government company in the 1980s and first used in the 1990s the devices look like a computer keyboard. Voters make their choice by pushing the button next to a candidates name and symbol. A glowing light and a beep confirms that their choice has been made. After 12 second the machine is ready for the next voter. An operator with a separate control unit can shut down the machine if there are any problems.

After the voting the machines are sealed and collected and stored in counting centers in major towns and cities. When the voting is finished and observers from the political parties and media present, the “Result” button is pushed and the total vote count and the votes for each candidate are displayed.

Reuters reported in 2019: The control unit and status display unit are connected to equipment in the voting compartment and can open the ballot. The Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system is attached to the EVM to confirm the vote. It prints a small slip of paper carrying the symbol and name of the candidate voted for. This is visible to the voter for a short period, and can be later used by the Election Commission of India (ECI) to verify the votes. After voting, people receive a mark of purple ink on their index finger as an indication that they have cast their ballot.

The system s not foolproof. Initially, there was no paper trail and conceivably a person in the government could change the results by tampering with the coding system. In 2004 there were reports of thugs running off with the machines and tampering with the booths. One man who knew how to run the control machine was able to record 50 votes for a single candidates. This and other incidents led to repolling at 1,879 voting stations throughout India.

More than 1 million of these machines were used at a time in the 2004 election. In many cases voters who used the push button machines had never used an electrical device before or even switched on a light bulb. In remote valleys, mountains and islands, the machines were brought in by horse, bullock cart, helicopter, camel, elephant and yak. In Rajasthan, camel carts become mobile polling stations.

Because so many people are illiterate ballots contain symbols as well as words. The symbol for the Indian National Congress is a raised hand. The symbol of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a party for Untouchables, is the blue elephant. Many illiterate voters are afraid to vote. They were told stories that the they had to stick their hands in a box and if they were bad a scorpion would sting them.

Election Logistics and Numbers in India

The world's largest elections are the Indian national elections. The election in 1998 involved 5 million election officials working at 900,000 polling stations scattered around the country. There more than 5,000 candidates from 600 parties in 543 parliamentary districts. According to the Guinness Book of Records, in May 1991, 315,439,908 people voted out of 488,678,993 eligible voters — a record at that time..

Efforts are made to see that polling booths are situated no more than two kilometers from a voter's place of residence. In 1991, this objective required some 600,000 polling stations for the country's 3,941 state legislative assembly and 543 parliamentary constituencies. In 1996, there were almost 13,886 candidates. The number of candidates dropped to 4,693 in 2000 after the Election Commission increased the security deposit for candidates. A total 301 candidates (a world record) once ran for a single seat in the State Assembly in Karnataka In March 1985.

Conducting elections in India is so overwhelming that voting election is staggered over several weeks so that police and resources can be moved from one place to another. Nationals elections in 2004 were conducted over four or five successive weekend, staggered by region, to reduce fraud and improve security. Each weekend about 80 million voters went to the polls to vote for a quarter of the total seats. The votes weren't counted until it was over.

Describing his job as election commissioner in which her overseas 600 million voters and 800,000 polling stations, T.N. Seshan said in 1995, "When people ask me if I'm Jesus, I say, Sorry, I'm only Moses."

Logistics and Numbers for India’s Parliamentary Elections in 2019

Over 900 million people were eligible to vote India’s massive general elections in April and May 2019, in which ballots were cast in staggered seven-phase polling. Reuters reported: The world’s biggest election involved around 1 million polling stations spread across the country, from remote corners of the Himalayas to crocodile-infested mangrove swamps of the Andaman Islands. Each polling station served about 900 voters on average but some catered for over 3,000 people. Each voting location used electronic voting machines (EVMs) which were first introduced in 1982. [Source: Simon Scarr, Manas Sharma and Marco Hernandez, Reuters, May 22, 2019]

ECI guidelines say no voter should be more than 2 km away from a polling station. This means that in densely populated swathes of the country, such as the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the distribution of polling stations tends to follow a similar pattern to population density Clusters of stations in major cities and towns are evident, along with populated road networks. Rivers and sparsely populated, rugged terrain or jungle show as empty space. Home to 200 million people, of Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state. In 2019 year it needed 160,000 polling stations. For such a mammoth exercise, nearly 11 million government officials and security forces were deployed, travelling by foot, road, special train, helicopter, boat and sometimes elephant.

India’s Election Commission has made elaborate arrangements to conduct a free and fair election and ensure that no voter is left behind. But analysts said it will have to take steps to regain its reputation of an impartial referee after it faced internal rifts and criticism from opposition parties for what they said was insufficient action taken against the ruling party for violating rules.

Election officials travelling to cut-off locations need to carry all of the necessary equipment and paperwork with them across tough terrain and any obstacles. Voting machines are packed in special carry cases after disconnecting power supply from connected batteries once voting is completed. They are sealed with the official stamp of the ECI and candidates’ agents. Journeys carrying these machines can sometimes take days.

In total, around 1.8 million of these machines were used in the election, deployed throughout the country in phases. When packed away, the voting machine breaks up into a group of three carry cases. These cases may differ depending on the model of machine but the largest of the three is around 37 cm tall. When not in transit, they are placed next to each other in groups inside secure strong rooms, used by the election commission to prevent tampering. If all of the cases were laid flat and stacked in a single column, they would reach around 450 km high, that’s higher than the orbit of the International Space Station.

Election Logistics for Remote Areas of India

Many locations are often in isolated areas with few facilities. Reuters reported: More than 80,000 stations surveyed by the ECI lacked mobile connectivity, and nearly 20,000 were located in forest or semi-forest areas, according to data released in 2018. The small eastern state of Mizoram has over 86 percent of its geographical area under forest cover, the second-highest in India after the far-flung Lakshadweep islands. Mizoram is also a mountainous state of steep, rocky cliffs and deep valleys, making for some almost inaccessible polling stations. The state shares an international border of about 722 km with Bangladesh and Myanmar, and the security agencies closed border gates during the elections. The ECI set up separate polling booths for about 15,000 state voters staying in refugee camps in the neighbouring state of Tripura since 1997 after ethnic clashes. The distribution of polling stations in Mizoram is sparser and tends to follow the ridges of the hills that run in a north-south direction through the state. [Source: Simon Scarr, Manas Sharma and Marco Hernandez, Reuters, May 22, 2019

In the far northeast of the country is Arunachal Pradesh, another state covered in thick forest. According to the latest India State of Forest Report, it has the largest area of very dense forest (VDF) in the country. This tree cover gives way to snow-capped mountain peaks along the northern border with China. This challenging terrain means some of the most remote and hard-to-reach polling stations in the country were set up in the state. One temporary booth was set up for a single female voter. The Malogam Temporary Structure was constructed by a team of six election workers who travelled 30-40 km for two days to put up the booth. Out of the 2,202 polling stations in the state, seven had less than 10 voters, 281 between 11 to 100.

Immediately south of Arunachal Pradesh is Assam. The state has 13 times more polling stations than Arunachal Pradesh but is flatter and has less forest cover. However, the state has its own challenges due to a number of small islands and sandbars scattered around the Brahmaputra River that runs through the state, which are home to many voters.

In the north of the country is Himachal Pradesh, a small state with a population of 70 million, predominantly a mountainous region in the Himalayas neighbouring Tibet. With a backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas stretched out across a vibrant blue sky, the village of Tashigang in the Spiti Valley was the highest polling station in the world when voting took place, according to the ECI. 49 voters were registered to vote at the station which sits 15,256 feet above sea level. The election team used helicopters to reach the remote area.

Another polling station in the remote village of Ka, 9,700 feet above sea level, was set up for just 16 voters, 12 female and four male, the smallest number for this state in this election. Small, sometimes dilapidated shelters scattered across this region become tremendously important for the one day every five years when they are used by citizens in these distant places to have their say in their country’s election.

Teachers Forced to Work at Indian Elections

Teachers in India are sometimes kept from doing their teaching duties because of polling duties. A 2004 government review of primary education in the Indian state of Jharkhand said: “Official election duty during the general election and again for a pending state election effectively removes a substantial number of teachers from their schools for weeks on end, Some schools had found ways to stay open through use of volunteer and temporary teachers, other schools were reportedly as effectively having closed during the period.

“During her training, one teacher trainee told the Los Angeles Times: "I thought I would be teaching kids. But when the government orders the teacher to run the polling booth in the school during elections, for example, you have to do it." [Source: Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, March 27, 2008]

Some teachers who were forced to do election duties died when they pushed to do it during the coronavirus pandemic. Reuters reported from Mathura, a town southeast of Delhi: Suman Lata’s family begged her to refuse a summons to monitor elections in Uttar Pradesh state in April 2021 but, worried about losing her job, the 49-year-old mother of three went anyway, just as India’s second coronavirus wave hit a peak. Two weeks later, she was dead, one of more than 1,600 teachers who died from COVID-19 in the weeks after working at the polls, according to the families of eight victims and mortality data supplied by a teachers’ union. “"She asked if she could be excused but the officers said 'if you are not sick, you have to do your duty',” said Lata’s 25-year-old son, Vaibhav Agarwal. “"She called to tell us the facilities were really bad,” Agarwal said. She was not provided with hand sanitizer, gloves, or any other protective equipment, he said. [Source: Alasdair Pal and Saurabh Sharma, Reuters, May 27, 2021]

“Sprawling across north India and home to more than 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh is more populous than Brazil. Village-level elections are a huge exercise, with more than 1.3 million candidates vying for 800,000 seats in voting spread over four days in April. With schools closed because of the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of teachers were called in to help with monitoring voting and overseeing the counts.

“The federal government led by Prime Minster Narendra Modi has been criticized for allowing mass gatherings throughout April, including a religious festival attended by millions and elections in several states. News footage of polls in Uttar Pradesh showed crowds of voters jostling in queues, with some not wearing masks. On one occasion, police baton-charged a crowd that thronged a counting centre near Lata’s home.

“Uttar Pradesh did not go into a state-wide shutdown until April 30, the day after Lata finished polling duty. The Uttar Pradeshiya Prathmik Shikshak Sangh teachers’ union wrote several times to the state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, a Modi ally, asking for the polls to be postponed but it said it got no response. “"These deaths could have been avoided if the elections were postponed but the government never paid heed,” said Sanjay Singh, the union’s general secretary. “The least they could do now is give compensation to every family.”

Use of Symbols for Illiterate Voters in India

Because so many people are illiterate ballots contain symbols as well as words. The symbol for the Indian National Congress is a raised hand. The symbol of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a party for Untouchables, is the blue elephant. Many illiterate voters are afraid to vote. They were told stories that the they had to stick their hands in a box and if they were bad a scorpion would sting them.

On the eve of local elections in 2013, Robin Pagnamenta wrote in The Times:Parties are fighting to secure the right to symbols they hope will appeal to hundreds of millions of India’s illiterate voters. For decades, when Indians have entered the polling booth they have been presented not just with a list of parties and candidates, but also a variety of household items sketched on the ballot paper to help the 1 in 4 voters who cannot read.[Source: Robin Pagnamenta, The Times, December 3. 2013]

“For the ruling Congress Party it is an open palm. For India’s main opposition party, the BJP, it is a blossoming lotus flower. Whistles, coconuts, walking sticks, nail clippers, cauliflowers and toothbrushes have all been used as political symbols upon which illiterate voters can press a thumb print to mark their choice of party. The Rashtriya Ulama Council uses a kettle, while the Republican Party of India uses a refrigerator. The Aadarshwadi Congress Party uses a batsman at the crease.

“India’s tradition of political symbols dates back to the early days of independence, when officials had to devise ways of making elections work in a country with low levels of literacy. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a political analyst, says that about one in four of the nation’s voters in 2014 were be unable to read or sign their ballot paper, an improvement on one in three in 2001, but still a huge number. The trend is compounded by the fact that turnout among poorer and less educated voters tends to be higher than among more literate, middle class sections of society.

Confusion Over the Use of Symbols in Indian Elections

Sometimes there is confusion in Indian elections over the symbols used for millions of illiterate voters. Robin Pagnamenta wrote in The Times: “In India’s vibrant and chaotic democracy, some popular symbols such as the elephant or clock are often claimed by several parties, leading to squabbles over which one has the right to use them. Two parties in the Delhi assembly elections clashed over the right to use the bicycle, a perennial favourite. Only after intervention by election officials did the parties grudgingly agree to a compromise deal under which the Samajwadi Party (SP) will fight under the banner of the glass tumbler, while the Jammu and Kashmir Panthers Party (JKPP) will plump for the instant camera. [Source: Robin Pagnamenta, The Times, December 3, 2013]

“Adding to potential confusion among voters, in another nearby constituency, Ballimaran, the SP is fighting under the symbol of the cup-and-saucer while the JKPP is running under the ceiling fan. “It doesn’t help,” said Chahat Miyan, an SP candidate, who complained that many voters think he is running as an independent because of his unfamiliar symbol. “I had to run a very intensive campaign to counter the confusion,” one JKPP candidate told the Indian Express. “Our supporters are a closed group and they identify us with our symbol, which we have had for years.”

““In a country with such a large number of people who cannot read and write, these symbols are still very, very important at election times,” says Mr Thakurta. While overall literacy levels have improved, the competition for symbols in India has intensified because of the multiplying number of political parties, over 1,400 of which are now registered with the Election Commission of India (ECI). In the 2014 election, all parties will have to choose from an approved list of symbols set out by the ECI, although some, such as the carrot, bucket and cauliflower, have proved less popular than others.

Voter Irregularities in India

According to some estimates, 10 percent of the votes cast in some Indian elections in the 1990s and 2000s were fraudulent. Politicians routinely won elections by buying votes, stuffing ballots and driving away unwanted voters from the polls at gun point. Some voters were paid a few rupees to vote for certain parties. Others showed up at the polls but were not allowed to vote because someone had already used their name.

Low-caste voters have been ordered by landowners to vote for high-caste candidates under the threat of losing the jobs as farmhands or even death. One of the most common forms of election manipulation has been for thugs working for political parties to take over polling stations, stuff ballot boxes and then declare the polling station closed

"The public in India regards it democracy as gold, but somebody has put muck in it," one election official told the Washington Post, "Our democracy has become corrupt because our elections have been corrupted, we have ended with a culture of cash and criminality." [Source: Molly Moore, Washington Post, February 3, 1995]

Election reforms in India have included a $600 million program to stem fraudulent voting by issuing voter's a picture ID. In an efforts to thwart cheaters, voters receive indelible marks on their fingers that show they have voted and this prevents them from voting again. Cheaters aiming to thwart this system have included voters who put wax on their fingers so they could rub off the indelible ink stamp. In Hyderabad election officials lifted up the veils of "women" voters and discovered mustached men hiding underneath.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India,, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wall Street Journal, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated December 2023

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