Braving forests, deserts and swamps, India’s election workers bring democracy to the most remote places

In the world’s biggest democracy, India, over 900 million people are eligible to vote

Today's expression: Get into gear
Explore more: Lesson #148
April 22, 2019:

Over 900 million people are eligible to vote in India's general election this month, the world's biggest exercise in democracy. To reach all those voters, poll workers have to canoe through crocodile-infested waters, hike over mountains, and traverse punishing deserts. After a monthlong process of gathering votes, the votes will be counted in a few hours, and a new parliament will be elected. Plus, learn the English phrase "to get into gear."

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The world’s biggest exercise in democracy is under way, as India’s 900 million voters cast their ballots over the course of an entire month

India is fascinating. I’ve been there three times and the place just boggles the mind. They are conducting an election over the course of a month, and an army of election workers is going out across that vast and diverse country to bring the ballots to all of India’s almost billion adult residents.

Welcome back to Plain English. I’m Jeff, JR is the producer, and this is episode 148 of Plain English. We were featured on the web site of a popular Brazilian magazine, Exame, last week, so if any of you are here because you saw that article, then I want to extend a special welcome to you.

If that’s you, and if you just discovered us on Spotify, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a lot more to the program than just the audio. For one thing, there’s the transcripts. If you go online to PlainEnglish.com/148, you’ll see every single word that I say in this episode. And, if you speak Portuguese, Japanese, French, Italian, Chinese, Spanish or, now, Russian, you can see an instant translation of the hardest words and phrases right there on the page, no need to pause and look them up. It’s a great way to build your vocabulary if you speak one of those seven languages. Seven languages now! That’s pretty cool, and I want to say hi and thank you to Alissa, who actually lives in France now, for contributing the Russian translations.

We also have the e-mails, which you can get by going to PlainEnglish.com/mail . And if you prefer to send a WhatsApp message, you can do that to +1 312 967 8757 . It’s not a WhatsApp group—that would be too many messages for me to handle. But I send out the occasional message…sometimes it’s a video, a link to an article, sometimes a question, things like that.

Let’s get going on today’s topic.


World’s biggest exercise in democracy

It is an election like no other. In the world’s biggest democracy, India, over 900 million people are eligible to vote, and the country moves heaven and earth this month to make sure each person can cast a ballot in the national parliamentary elections. The country is so vast that they can’t have elections on just one day. They are doing it in seven stages between April 11 and May 19. They have to vote over such a long period of time because they can’t administer such a huge and complicated election in just one day.

More people will vote in India than live in all of Europe and Australia combined. Put another way, about one in eight of the world’s adult population is eligible to vote in the election. They speak about thirty main languages and practice six main religions. Turnout is expected to be about 66 percent.

There are about a hundred million new voters just since the most recent election in 2014, an increase of ten percent. About 16 million of them are between 18 and 19 years old. The vote is so complicated, it will take place over a period of 39 days and over a million polling stations. The results will be announced on May 23.

The government doesn’t trust local officials to be fair and nonpartisan, so it unleashes an army of federal workers who put their day jobs on hold while they fan out across the country to administer the elections.

An Indian law says that there has to be a polling station within two kilometers of any village. And that’s where it gets interesting. The country is staggeringly large and geographically diverse. Some of its landscapes are punishing: from the Himalayan mountains in the north to the deserts of Rajathstan to the hundreds of scattered tropical islands in the Indian Ocean. The Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, on the border with Myanmar, voted in the first round. In order to bring the ballots to them, 32 election workers had to be airlifted into the dense forest to reach voters.

That’s just one of the difficult assignments that some federal workers get. The village of Hanspuri, for example, is so remote that roads don’t go there from the rest of India. To serve the 300 or so citizens in Hanspuri, election workers have to load their heavy election machines into canoes—always two machines in case something goes wrong with the first one. From there, they paddle their canoes through rivers infested with crocodiles and then hike through the jungle, carrying all their equipment with them, trying to avoid the snakes and other creatures. In the last election, a team of poll workers got trapped by a herd of elephants; they had to be rescued. Also in the last election, other poll workers had to hike five hours through a forest just to reach a community of exactly two voters.

One article I read called Indian elections “the world’s biggest obstacle course.” Another likened it to “a lumbering elephant embarking on an epic trek.”

That may be true, but India knows how to run an election. It’s a little ironic because most people have little faith in the government’s ability to administer anything—public schools, infrastructure projects, things like that. But when it comes time to cast ballots, India gets into gear. They know the world is watching and the workers who administer the elections generally think the country’s national prestige is on the line.

India is voting for members of parliament, so like all parliamentary systems, they aren’t selecting the prime minister directly. Instead, they are voting for their individual local members of parliament. There are 543 elected seats in the Indian parliament. It will take over a month to vote, but all the votes will be counted at once; that part will only take a few hours, since all the votes will be done on electronic machines.

Elections are generally clean in the sense that the results are considered reliable; there is no real corruption in the administration of the vote. The politics is pretty rough-and-tumble. It’s a contact sport. A lot of candidates bend, or outright break the rules. Many candidates run on tribal divisions, spreading rumors. A lot of parties give out freebies as soft bribes to voters. Candidates are often focused on the narrow interests of a single religion, caste, or language, instead of the interests of all the people in their constituency.

India became an independent democracy shortly after British colonial rule ended in 1947. This is the seventeenth general election in India’s democratic history.


India is nuts. Could you imagine having some relatively normal desk job at a government office somewhere, and then they tell you that you have to canoe through crocodile-infested waters to bring election machines to remote villages? Oh my goodness.

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Expression: Get into gear