• Saturday, May 18, 2024

HEADLINE STORY

India elections: In this forest polling booth in Gujarat, just 1 voter casts ballot

Election officials undertake challenges to set up the booth only for Mahant Haridas Udaseen, a local Hindu priest and the only registered voter at that polling centre.

Hindu monk Mahant Haridas Udaseen (in saffron), the sole registered voter at a polling station situated inside Gir forest in the western state of Gujarat– the last remaining natural habitat of the endangered Asiatic lion –, walks to cast his ballot during the third phase of voting of India’s general elections on May 7, 2024. (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)

By: Shubham Ghosh

AS INDIA went to its third round of polling in the marathon national elections on Tuesday (7) and all eyes were on prime minister Narendra Modi and some other top leaders casting ballots in this particular phase, something unique happened in another corner of the same state where the PM voted — Gujarat.

Deep inside a protected forest in the western state, a Hindu monk exercised franchise at a booth set up especially for him, since he is the only registered voter in the area.

India, the world’s largest democracy, undertakes a massive electoral exercise every five years to ensure that each eligible voter on its soil gets to participate in the election. Nearly a billion people are eligible to vote in this year’s election to elect a new government.

Read: PM Modi votes in home state Gujarat

Sole voter in a polling booth in Gir forest in Gujarat state, India.
Hindu monk Mahant Haridas Udaseen (R), the sole registered voter at a polling station situated inside Gir Forest — the last remaining natural habitat of the endangered Asiatic lion –, shows his inked finger after casting his ballot during the third phase of voting of India’s general elections in Banej, Gujarat state, on May 7, 2024. (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)

Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is looking to win the third consecutive mandate this year, after sweeping wins in 2014 and 2019.

Read: How India deals with perilous geography to manage its election

The said boot where the sole voter — Mahant Haridas Udaseen — cast his ballot, has seen polling officials traversing through the Gir forest, the last remaining natural habitat of the Asiatic lion, to set up the booth in Banej in Junagadh district of Gujarat.

“The fact that a team of 10 people came here in the jungle for just one voter shows how important each vote is,” Udaseen, 42, told AFP, holding up a finger marked with indelible ink to show he had exercised his right.

For the polling officers in Gujarat, setting up the polling booth for a single voter meant a two-day trip including a long and bumpy journey by bus on unpaved forest roads in sweltering summer conditions.

Udaseen was wearing a saffron robe and his face smeared with sandalwood when he arrived at the booth before lunch. However, under the rules of the country’s election commission, the boost had to be operational until the evening, even if there was no human for miles around.

Under the law, each polling booth must be helmed by at least six polling staff and two police officers.

“In a democracy, every single person is important,” said Padhiyar Sursinh, the presiding officer in Una, a town 65 kilometres (40 miles) away from Banej, told the outlet.

“It is our duty to ensure no one is denied his right to vote even if it means undertaking an arduous journey like this,” he told AFP.

Sursinh and his team had stayed overnight in the sparse building after setting it up on the eve of voting, sleeping on floors and having only bread and lentils.

“We had to set up everything a day in advance so that the booth could be opened early morning at 07:00 am according to the electoral rules,” said Sursinh.

“There’s no cellphone network, so there is no room for errors here.”

Banej is not the only place where the officials face challenges in carrying out their duty.

Officials will travel to Tashigang in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh to set up the world’s highest polling station at 15,256 feet (4,650 metres) above sea level when the constituency goes to poll on June 1, the final phase of this year’s election.

Udaseen, who is the custodian of a local temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, sitting deep in the Gir forest next to a stream filled with crocodiles, loves the attention which he gets over his electoral rights.

“I am loving the attention that I am getting as a lone voter in the forest,” the priest, who moved there in 2019 after the passing away of his predecessor, told the outlet.

“It shows the power of democracy and makes me feel like the most important person in the world.”

More than half a million people visit the Gir forest every year, riding in open-top jeeps as they try to spot prowling leopards, jackals and hyenas.

But the main attraction is the Asiatic lion, of which there are around 700.

(With AFP inputs)

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