At last, the dates are out for Elections 2019. This would be the biggest election in world history, with over 900 million registered voters, out of which 15 million are aged 18-19. The total electorate is more than the population of every continent.
The logistics are mind-boggling. There will be nearly one million polling stations, up 10.1% from the 2014 elections; 2.33 million ballot units, 1.63 million control units and 1.74 million VVPATs (voter verifiable paper audit trails). In the wake of complaints against security of EVMs (electronic voting machines), GPS tracking has been enabled.
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Approximately 11 million polling staff (including security forces) will be randomized for neutrality. Over 120 trains with more than 3,000 coaches, and 200,000 buses and cars, besides a large variety of transport—from boats, elephants and camels to planes and helicopters—will transport the staff and materials with clockwork precision. Thousands of polling parties would walk 2-3 days to reach polling stations not otherwise accessible.
Scheduling of this magnitude is no simple task. Besides the logistics, several factors have to be taken into consideration, keeping voters’ convenience in mind. First, the school examinations make the month of March out of reckoning. Lakhs of schools and their teachers are involved in the polls. Weather conditions, agricultural cycle, festivals, (religious or social), law and order are also to be taken into consideration. Availability of paramilitary forces, demanded by every party, determines the number of phases since they have to be rotated because of limited numbers.
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Finally, the announcement. The timing is extremely significant as the model code of conduct kicks in the moment the schedule is announced. The government is prohibited from announcing new schemes, new postings and transfers, and using government resources for campaigning.
There has been ample speculation about election dates, with some even casting aspersions on the Election Commission of India’s (EC’s) neutrality in determining the dates. These speculations disregard that EC has to do due diligence of a mind-boggling array of arrangements to tie up before it initiates the election process. At the same time, governments have to be mindful of public perception. Why keep announcements for absolute last minute when the approximate schedule is neither a matter of astrology nor rocket science? Jeopardizing EC’s image is unacceptable.
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Historically, the election dates announced are synchronous with the past practice. Last three elections were held from 20 April to 10 May (four phases), 16 April to 13 May (five phases) and 7 April to 12 May (nine phases), respectively. These were announced on 29 February, 2 March and 5 March.
The speculations sometimes go to ridiculous extremes. I have myself been a victim. Way back on 6 February 2009, I was making a public presentation at India House London about the 2008 J&K elections. The 2009 elections were round the corner. A journalist asked me how the election dates are fixed. I explained that dates are decided on the basis of all the considerations mentioned above. It was clear that the window available was between 7 April to end-May. He reported it as if I had “revealed" the dates, which the commission had not even discussed till then. “We, in the Election Commission, have not yet discussed the final dates, but it will be held between April 8 and May 15," I was quoted as saying.
Needless to say that all hell broke loose. Many leaders commented that the dates were declared not in India but from London! The controversy was put to rest by a clarification by our high commissioner, who had chaired the meeting.
S.Y. Quraishi is former chief election commissioner of India and author of "An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election".