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A woman waits in line to cast her vote at a polling station in Shabazpur Dor village in Amroha district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on April 17, 2014.
A woman waits in line to cast her vote at a polling station in Shabazpur Dor village in Amroha district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on April 17, 2014. Adnan Abidi—Reuters

Why India's Elections Took So Long

May 14, 2014

As India awaits the final results of its marathon elections, officials are getting ready to breathe a collective sigh of relief that the world’s largest democratic exercise is nearly over. Polling, which started on April 7, took place on nine separate days over five weeks, and ended on May 12. Voter turnout hit a record high of over 66%, compared to 58% in the last national polls in 2009, with final results expected on May 16. “Despite the heat of the Indian summer, we have had a historic all-time high voter turnout, which was a great achievement,” says Akshay Rout, director general of India’s Election Commission.

This was not India’s longest election cycle — 2009 was a few days longer, says Rout — but it wasn’t exactly speedy. So why does it take so long for India to vote? The short of it is this: India’s big. According to the government, there were some 814 million eligible voters in this election — more than the combined populations of the entire European Union or North America. Those voters speak dozens of languages and live in some of the world’s most chaotic urban spaces and some of its most isolated villages. “This is not only the biggest election in the world, it’s the largest human management project in the world,” says S.Y. Quraishi, former chief election commissioner and author of An Undocumented Wonder — The Making of the Great Indian Election. “It’s a very plural society, and we have to make sure nobody is left out.”

To do that, the government deployed some 11 million employees, including security forces and government workers, to help carry out the polls at over 900,000 stations smattered around the country. Nearly two million electronic voting machines were dispatched to help the government keep its pledge that no one should have to travel more than a mile or so to vote. A polling station was set up in Gujarat for a single man who lives in a forest there, complete with staff and its own voting machine. The availability of central and state police to keep voters and workers safe dictates the length of the vote, as does moving them and the necessary equipment around the nation. The days on which voting takes place also have to take into consideration local festivals and school and farming schedules.

Such a prolonged process is not without disadvantages. This cycle, voters and observers were critical about the tenor of the political debate, with top politicians taking increasingly low pot shots at each other as campaigning intensified over the five-week period. More worrying, perhaps, is the likelihood of voters at the end of the cycle being influenced by media reports of the vote’s progress. Opinion polls and exit polls during the voting period are not permitted, but India’s robust domestic 24-7 news cycle would have been hard for millions to avoid. One could certainly argue, for instance, that the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may have benefited from a sense of growing popularity of its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi conveyed by the media during the five-week vote, potentially giving the party an advantage that a one-day poll would not have offered.

But paramount in the process is security, says Quraishi, both to protect voters and election workers in insecure and remote areas, and to ensure that polling booths aren’t commandeered and rigged in favor of a certain politician. Despite precautions, there have been several incidents of election-related violence this year, including a landmine blast that killed seven police officers in a Maoist area of Maharashtra one day before the final May 12 vote. There were also incidents of deadly election-related violence in Kashmir, Jharkhand and Assam. Still, Indian elections used to be a much bloodier affair, Quraishi says. Voting may be long but it is, by and large, peaceful. “Anything that upsets a free and fair election is upsetting to us,” he says. “But what’s the alternative? Loss of life isn’t worth it.”

An Indian Muslim voter waits in line to vote at a polling station on May 12, 2014 in Varanasi.
A Muslim voter waits in line to vote at a polling station on May 12, 2014 in Varanasi.Kevin Frayer—Getty Images
An Indian Muslim voter waits in line to vote at a polling station on May 12, 2014 in Varanasi.
An Indian Muslim woman votes at a polling station on May 12, 2014 in Varanasi.
Supporters of BJP leader Narendra Modi run as a helicopter carrying Modi takes off after a rally on May 10, 2014 in Robertsganj, near Varanasi.
Supporters of the Congress Party stand in fron of a poster showing Rahul Gandhi and his mother and party president Sonia Gandhi as they wait before a rally on May 10, 2014 in Varanasi.
Veiled Muslim supporters of AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal wait for his convoy to pass during a rally by the leader on May 9, 2014 in Varanasi.
Supporters run passed a banner showing BJP leader Narendra Modi at a rally by the leader on May 8, 2014 in Rohaniya, near Varanasi.
BJP leader Narendra Modi gestures to supporters while driving through the streets on May 8, 2014 in Varanasi.
Muslim residents watch the convoy of BJP leader Narendra Modi as he drives in the street on May 8, 2014 in Varanasi.
BJP leader Narendra Modi greets supporters as he is surrounded by bodyguards while driving through the streets on May 8, 2014 in Varanasi.
Supporters of BJP leader Narendra Modi cheer during his speech at a rally by the leader on May 8, 2014 in Rohaniya, near Varanasi.
Buddhist monks from the Drukpa lineage hold their voting cards as they wait outside a polling station to vote near the Hemis Monastery on May 7, 2014 in Hemis, Ladakh.
Ladkahis wait inside a polling station to vote near the Thiksey Monastery on May 7, 2014 in Thiksey, Ladakh.
Ladkahis wait outside a polling station to vote near the Thiksey Monastery on May 7, 2014 in Thiksey, Ladakh.
Indian security force soldiers on election duty sit in a bus as they leave a central collection point to head for a polling station, on May 6, 2014 in Leh, Ladakh.
Indian security force soldiers on election duty wait to leave a central collection point to head to secure polling stations, on May 6, 2014 in Leh, Ladakh.
Villagers and supporters listen to a speech by BJP leader Narendra Modi at a rally on April 27, 2014 in Sidhuali near Lucknow.
A disabled boy wears a mask of BJP leader Narendra Modi as he walks past a police checkpoint at a rally by Modi on April 25, 2014 in Bathinda, Punjab.
An Indian Sikh man wears a mask of BJP leader Narendra Modi as they crowd to hear his speech on April 25, 2014 in Bathinder, Punjab.
Transgender Candidate Hijra Guru Baseer Kinnar aka Kamala Kinnar speaks to a resident while campaigning in a Muslim neighbourhood on April 23, 2014 in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi.
AAP leader and anti-corruption activist Arvin Kejriwal is surrounded by police bodyguards as he greets supporters from an open jeep on his way to file his nomination papers on April 23, 2014 in Varanasi.
Supporters of India's ruling Congress Party listen during a speech by leader Rahul Gandhi during a rally on April 20, 2014 in Mumbai,.
A supporter of India's ruling Congress Party wears a mask of leader Rahul Gandhi during a rally on April 20, 2014 in Mumbai.
Indian women wait to vote at a polling station on April 17, 2014 in the Jodhpur District in the desert state of Rajasthan.
Indian women wait to vote at a polling station on April 17, 2014 in the Jodhpur District in the desert state of Rajasthan.
An Indian woman casts her ballot at a polling station on April 17, 2014 in the Jodhpur District in the desert state of Rajasthan.
An Indian woman casts her ballot at a polling station on April 17, 2014 in the Jodhpur District in the desert state of Rajasthan.
Indian women arrive to vote at a polling station on April 17, 2014 in the Jodhpur District in the desert state of Rajasthan.
An Indian family listens as Rahul Gandhi, leader of India's ruling Congress Party speaks at a rally on April 6, 2014 in New Delhi.
A Muslim voter waits in line to vote at a polling station on May 12, 2014 in Varanasi.
Kevin Frayer—Getty Images
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