You might not know that the largest democracy isn’t located in the US of A – it’s the sprawling nation of India with a population of 1 BILLION, 332 million, 511,000 and counting (go to this site to watch the numbers scroll up in real time). In contrast, the US population hovers near 325 MILLION, and China tops India’s population by around 50 million.
Which sets the context for the feat of democracy involved in coordinating polling on election days, especially when you consider the special cases like Guru Bharatdas Darshandas.
[Photo by the BBC’s Soutik Biswas]
Seventeen years ago, Mr. Darshandas dropped out of school and became interested in religion. He and 45 other Hindu pilgrims had come seeking spiritual fulfillment in the isolation of the Gir forest in the western state of Gujarat, and the Shiva temple was looking for a caretaker to boot: Mr. Darshandas moved in and stayed, even after his fellow pilgrims trekked home.
The god Shiva plays a vital role in the stories of the Hindu religion: he is the destroyer of the world, heralding change internally as well as externally. The worshippers of Shiva are ascetic, traveling inward toward greater peace and solitude. This was exactly what Mr. Darshandas sought.
For the government, it created a unique problem to be solved: their goal is to provide a polling station within walking distance of each voting citizen. According to the UK’s Independent, the Indian 2014 election included, “814 million voters, 930,000 polling stations, 1.4 million electronic voting machines, 11 million police and security officers.”
[Photo from the UK Independent]
Which meant that Mr. Darshandas, being the lone voter in an Indian forest, for each election commands a troupe of police officers and polling officials to hike for days in blistering heat, past cacti, fording streams, in a forest where Asiatic lions still roam, lugging with them the official electronic polling machine, and finally arriving at the forest outpost nearby Mr. Darshandas’ temple where they sleep overnight and assemble the equipment the next morning – all this so Mr. Darshandas can fill out a ballot.
Other polling officials have been known to deliver ballots in other remote parts of India by helicopter and elephant, though never for one single voter.
In 2009, Mr. Darshandas was asked by the BBC what he would do on election day, when the election officials arrived to count his vote. He said, “I will get up early, have a bath, say my prayers, take my breakfast and saunter to the polling station around 11 am to cast my ballot. It is an honour, it really is. It proves how India values its democracy.”
The irony, of course, is that Mr. Darshandas is not the only person living in the temple. His cook, priest, guard and driver also live there with him, according to the BBC. But while the government will spend its time, energy, and money giving Mr. Darshandas the chance to vote, his servants are not given the same basic right. Though we don’t know the whole story in the case of these people, India’s caste politics have long influenced elections, often leading to violence and protests.
It goes to show: even the most beautiful demonstrations of democracy can leave others out.
Inspired by Radiolab’s most recent episode, “One Vote.” Listen here.