Democracy at its peak

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Resting on jagged peaks, the few wisps of white clouds provided little shade to the huge crowd gathered at the Polo Ground in Leh. Weathered by time, an old Ladakhi man squatted on the dry dirt. Transfixed in prayer, he spun his prayer wheel, but his eyes were firmly fixed on the podium. Still spinning his prayer wheel, he broke away from his silent prayer to join the collective chant: “Abki baar, Modi sarkar”, “Humara pradhan mantri kaisa ho? Narendra Modi jaise ho.

The sky was bright blue, but saffron was the colour of the day.

Coming out to rapturous applause, former BJP president Nitin Gadkari addressed the crowd. The first half of the speech was dedicated to assure the gathering about the BJP’s secular intentions. Gadkari rubbished rumours that the BJP would force Muslims to leave the country, and that minorities like Buddhists would be persecuted by a BJP-led government. In the same breath, he accused the Congress of stoking communal fires for electoral gain.

Having played the proverbial secular card, Gadkari listed out the BJP’s promises. Apart from the usual mixed bag of jobs, roads, training and connectivity, he struck a chord with the masses as he promised Union Territory status to Ladakh, a sentimental issue that the Congress has shied away from. “After becoming the prime minister, I assure you that Modi will come to Leh, stand exactly where I am standing and grant you Union Territory status,” he said.

However, Congress candidate Tsering Samphel was not impressed. “We are fighting on the development plank,” he says. “Power, roads, schools and healthcare are our issues. We have created huge development in the area. We do not want to exploit the longstanding issue of Union Territory status for votes unlike the BJP. We have not pulled in any big leader (for campaigning) but we have been actively working on the ground.”

A Congress insider went on to explain why Ladakh is a tough battle. Both the BJP and the Congress have opted to field Buddhist candidates from the Buddhist-majority Leh area. “The two independent candidates from the Muslim-dominated area of Kargil are Muslims and have huge support from the Muslim religious groups as well as regional parties,” he says. “They will definitely eat up at least 30 percent of the vote share. But the Congress sees it as one of the few seats from where you can get a Buddhist member in Parliament and that is important to us. It is tough to say which way the election will go.”

Even as political parties tried their best to balance the complex dynamics of religion, connectivity and aspiration, Ladakh, comprising Leh and Kargil districts — the largest Lok Sabha constituency in terms of area — managed a nearly 65 percent voter turnout. However, behind the scenes, the Election Commission (EC) was dealing with what can be best described as a logistical nightmare.

The constituency is home to 1,59,631 voters, spread over 173 million sq km of varying terrain and altitudes ranging from 2,900 to 5,400 metres. Many areas are cut off because of the inclement weather; others because there are no roads. To get an idea of the remoteness, sample this: Because the two main arterial roads to Leh, the district headquarters, are yet to open, food supplies stocked in the summer are dwindling. In Leh, the only options are overpriced dal, rice, saag and potatoes. Onion costs Rs 150 a kg, while saag is going for Rs 100 a kg. Of course, when you reach the saturation point, Maggi becomes a gourmet meal. If this is the case in Leh, you can imagine what life in the remote areas must be like.

However, the EC guidelines stipulate that each voter should have access to a polling station within a 2-km radius from his/her residence. As a result, 531 polling stations were set up in the region. Polling officials were either airlifted in air force choppers or were forced to trek for days to set up a polling station for just a handful of people. The smallest polling station was Gaik with 10 voters; 37 polling stations had less than 50 voters. Only four polling booths had more than a thousand voters.

But democracy has its price. “Elections in Ladakh are a herculean task,” says Leh Returning Officer Simrandeep Singh. “The expenditure per voter is nearly Rs 1 lakh.”

Slowed down by two landslides, it took us six hours to reach Spangmik. After crossing 17,000 ft at Chan La Pass, my body couldn’t handle the altitude. A splitting headache and an overwhelming sense of nausea made it hard to breath, to move, to stay still. But we had to press on.

The view of the blue waters of Pangong Tso briefly boosted my morale, but the lack of oxygen, coupled with the cold and bad roads, crippled me further. Such is the fate suffered by many EC officials as they drive to these far-flung areas to carry out their duties on polling day.

Sitting by the saltwater lake, EC officials briefed nomadic herds about the voting process. They checked their voter ids, names and briefed them about what is expected of them on polling day. “We have to keep track of the movements of nomadic herders throughout the year so that we know where they are when we have to contact them,” says an EC official. “Many officials suffer altitude sickness while travelling to remote locations, but it does not affect the overall election process.”

But where there are no roads, one has to be airlifted or dust off one’s trekking boots and take a long walk. In the days leading up to polling day, the sound of helicopters fills the air. “During polls, above our usual workload, we support the Election Commission by flying their teams to far-flung areas,” says an air force officer. “In this altitude, the machines are pushed to their limit, but we do this happily, because on a daily basis, we fight to protect India’s democracy and by facilitating this process, we ensure that our democracy reaches every citizen.”

As the chopper circled overhead, the EC team came to a halt. The road had ended. They stood on the banks of the Zanskar river, plotting their next move. The only way across was a pulley system. One by one, they got into the basket and carefully loaded their EVMs and made it across the Zanskar. But the crossing was only the start.

Once across, carrying the EVMs, sleeping bags, food supplies for the next four days, clothes and solar lights, the EC team started trekking uphill. With each member carrying at least 15 kg, they walked up a rock face with a gradient of about 60 degrees. With each step, the air became thinner, the pace became slower, the luggage became heavier. Chewing on dried apricots, they pushed on. Reaching the pass, the view was spectacular. The river running through the canyon disappeared into their destination, Kaya village, another two-hour trek away.

The village itself is completely cut off. Though it is on a prominent trekking route, a solar battery is the only source of electricity. It provides just three hours of power a day — 7-10 pm (ensuring that we were able to watch the business end of the day’s first IPL match). A single satellite phone was the only link between the village and the outside world; cell phones were reduced to mere paperweights. The EC team, who are not allowed to stay at any commercial building, found themselves sleeping on the floor of the community centre. All this to facilitate the basic democratic right of just 61 people.

“It is tough on us, but it is something that we do with pride,” says an EC official. “For most of the year, these people are cut off from the world. This is our chance to connect them with the rest of the country and make them feel that the state administration hasn’t forgotten about them.”

Whether the task has been about setting up a polling booth in Gir forest for a single voter, a priest, or climbing the Himalayas to set up polling stations in the remote corners of India, the EC’s emphasis has always been inclusion. Many parts of Ladakh are physically, mentally and emotionally cut off from the ‘mainland’, but on polling day, when they walk into their neighbourhood polling station, voter ID card in hand, the people are part of the system. With a single push of a button, for that moment, regardless of where they live, who they are, what their political beliefs are, they are part of the Indian democracy. And it is the EC that makes this all happen.

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