At a prayer meeting on June 3, 1947, Mahatma Gandhi said, “Democracy is where even the man in the street is heard.” 

Seventy-seven years to the date, crores of Indians will have had their say at the ballot box, as the country winds up its general elections to the 18th Lok Sabha, held across seven phases and 44 days.

The task of conducting free-and-fair elections to pick representatives to 543 parliamentary constituencies spread across varied geographical regions is an enormous one, and the Election Commission of India has been fulfilling it for decades.

Many firsts

Going back in history, there are records of ballot-based elections in the time of the medieval Chola dynasty in today’s peninsular India, where the Kudavolai (pot and palm leaf) system was used to elect local body representatives. 

It wasn’t until 1920, during the British colonial rule, that centrally organised provincial and central legislative assembly elections were held for the first time in the Indian subcontinent after the Government of India Act was enacted a year earlier.

Independent India’s first parliamentary election in 1951 was held using ballot boxes in different colours for each candidate, whose name was also inscribed on it. Voters had to drop their ballot paper in the box of their choice. Godrej reportedly made 1.7 million of these boxes. Ballot papers with symbols came into use later.

Hauling democracy

The conduct of nationwide elections entails large-scale transport of human and material resources. This includes the movement and deployment of election officials to various polling centres; armed, paramilitary and police forces to provide security; and electronic voting machines (EVM) and other polling-related paraphernalia.

The campaign trails of contesting candidates again entails extensive use of transport systems.

The number of polling stations has increased from 1.96 lakh in 1951 to a whopping 10.5 lakh in 2024 amid efforts to take the polling process as close to the electorate as possible.

In his book An Undocumented Wonder: The making of the great Indian election, former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi mentions that 14 lakh EVMs were used across 8.39 lakh polling stations during the 2009 elections. 

As many as 119 special trains transported central police forces, and 55 helicopters and 600-plus sorties airlifted security forces. Buses, jeeps, tractors, motorcycles, bullock carts, mules, camels and elephants were also used to move resources.

No terrain too tough...

Fifteen years later, the exercise has become even more complex with more polling stations set up for improved coverage across terrains ranging from plains, hills and islands to the more challenging deserts, swamps, snow-clad mountains, and sensitive international borders, among others. 

The Election Commission of India’s recent social media posts described how its personnel take EVMs and other election-day material to remote terrains.

The fascinating travel log ranges from trekking on hilly terrains to reach villages like Gasheng in Arunachal Pradesh to scaling snow-clad Himalayas in thermal wear, lugging EVM backpacks; trekking along a harsh 10-km terrain to reach Paddar/Nagseni in Jammu & Kashmir; travel on foot and tractors to reach interior villages in Namakkal district, and on horseback to reach parts of Dindigul district in Tamil Nadu; braving the currents of Myntdu river on a boat to reach Kamsing in Meghalaya; and flying in EVMs on helicopters to Bastar in Chattisgarh.

Transport also makes another unique mark, literally, in elections. Bicycle, bus, cart, boat, aeroplane, car, dolli, and railway engine, among others, find their way to EVMs as election symbols of candidates. 

The use of multimodal logistics has been integral to the largely smooth and successful democratic exercise that the nation has undertaken every five years.

(The writer is an associate professor of marketing at IFMR Graduate School of Business, Krea University)