*The Greatest Show on Earth?  The Indian Elections and a Puzzle


The Greatest Show on Earth: a poster from Barnum & Bailey Ringling Bros. Circus, 1913.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus described itself for well over a century as “the greatest show on earth”.  Political sensibilities changed enough over the last few decades to send it into obsolescence.  Animal rights activists had long complained that the circus exploited animals and was an affront to the majesty of nature.  But one can be certain that video gaming, the modern obsession with social media, the morbid addiction to smart phones, and the internet played a role in sounding the death knell of traditional forms of family entertainment.


Patience Personified: Standing in Line to Cast a Vote in the General Elections, India, 2019. Source: BBC.

In truth, however, the Greatest Show on Earth in the post-World War II era has been the general Indian Elections.  Some have even likened the Indian elections to a circus: though the campaigning begins only a few months beforehand, it is a lively, garrulous, and combative affair where the antics of one candidate after another are likely to lead a person to gasp for air.  In every state, a not inconsiderable portion of the candidates have criminal records, though the worst of these candidates are more likely to compete for seats in the elections to the state legislative assemblies. The charges, moreover, are often not for comparatively mild criminal offences, but rather for murder, attempted murder, arson, and rape, among others.  No one appears to think it rather odd that candidates who pledge to make the streets safe for women or induce respect for law and order among ordinary citizens should themselves be the most egregious violators of the law.

The element of the bizarre has, of course, a great many other dimensions.  Thus, in the 1996 general elections, 1033 candidates contested for a single seat in the Modaurichi constituency in Tamil Nadu.  The names were too numerous to be accommodated in a ballot; a booklet was issued.  Though the CPM dominates among the traditional communist parties, the dozens of communist parties have often disputed arcane points of ideology as though the interpretation of a particular passage from Marx, Lenin, or Rosa Luxembourg was calculated to shift the fortunes of a country.  I suspect the vast majority of the 2,293 political parties that are registered with the Election Commission of India—the Commission recognizes seven as “national” parties, and another 50-60 as parties of demonstrable regional strength—similarly differ from each other in minutiae.

It is, however, the gargantuan nature of this exercise that has long captured the attention of the world.  The Indian electorate, at 900 million, dwarfs the electorate in any other country.  It grows by leaps and bounds every five years.  In the 2016 Presidential elections in the US, 138 million Americans cast their vote, constituting around 58% of all eligible voters; in contrast, 815 million people were eligible to vote in India in the 2014 elections, and nearly 66.5% of them voted.  Over a million polling stations have been set up for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.  Nearly 11 million election personnel are helping to conduct polling, and 3.96 million electronic voting machines (EVMs) are being used.  One could reel off many more statistics in this vein, though, if I had to hazard a guess without tabulating numbers, I suspect that perhaps nothing is more impressive than the probable fact that the Indian electorate is greater than the electorate of all and certainly most of the world’s other democracies put together.

It is also a singularly impressive fact that, barring the imposition of an emergency by Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1975, which also extended the life of the 5th Lok Sabha, India has held elections regularly.  Mrs. Gandhi did call for elections in 1977 and went down to a crushing defeat.  One might say that the desire on her part for adulation from the public and legitimation at the polls curbed her authoritarian instincts.  There is much in her decision to seek redemption by putting her political future in the hands of voters that is puzzling and merits introspection.


Indira Gandhi at an election rally in 1980. Source: Hindustan Times.

For the present, however, there is another and much greater puzzle in the story of elections that confronts the student of Indian politics.  The Election Commission’s guidelines stipulate that a voter should not have to travel more than 2 kilometres to cast a ballot, and the country’s highest polling station is at an altitude of 15,256 feet above sea level at a village in the Spiti Valley where it serves 48 eligible voters.  Remarkably, where necessary, election personnel go to a voter to ensure that no eligible vote is ignored.  In a remote part of Arunachal Pradesh, a 6-person election team traveled for three days by bus, on foot, and across hilly terrain and rivers to reach a single voter in the village of Anjaw.  All this appear to be an admirable commitment to democracy on the part of the Indian state. Indeed, the rest of the world sees it that way, and nothing on the Indian elections has done the international news rounds as much as the item on a polling station established in the heart of the Gir National Forest, home of the majestic Asiatic lion.  Here, at least for one day every few years, it is the sheer pomp of the Indian elections that steals the show. The booth is intended to facilitate the exercise of the democratic rights of a solitary voter, the caretaker of the local Mahadev temple known as Banej.


Darshandas, better known as Bapu, walks to the polling booth set up for him in the Gir National Forest, home of the Asiatic Lion.

“Bharatdas Darshandas, the lone inhabitant and caretaker of a Hindu temple deep in the Gir Forest,” the correspondent of the New York Times has written, “has become a symbol of India’s herculean effort to ensure that the votes of every one of its 900 million eligible voters is counted.”  In a similar vein, the Guardian, visibly impressed by both the country’s faith in democracy and the resolve of the local priest who has “not missed a single election since 2002,” noted that four election officials, escorted by a policemen, trekked for 70 kilometres (45 miles) to ensure that a “69-year old holy man” got to cast his vote “in the world’s biggest democratic exercise.”  When we consider that the news from the United States, which has the world’s second largest electorate and where the elections determine not only the future of the country but the fate of many other nations, has revolved in good measure around voter suppression, the commitment in India to democracy seems worth celebrating.


Tashigang Village in the Spiti Valley, 30 kilometres from the India-China border, has the distinction of being home to the world’s highest polling station at an altitude of 15,256 feet.

However, just exactly how are we to understand this somewhat heroic narrative of a state that lives in thrall of the Indian voter?  Many critics of how elections are in reality conducted have pointed to the phenomenon known as ‘booth capturing’, partly in response to which India began to make extensive use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) well over 15 years ago, though some have pointed to manipulation of these very machines as yet another problem.  One could also mention various other irregularities.  But these matters, important as they may be, are not at the heart of what I would call the puzzle behind the narrative of the sovereignty of the Indian voter.  It is not as if the Indian state cares at all for its subjects:  after 70 years of independence, India’s record with respect to nearly all the major indices of what conventionally counts for “development” is appalling.  Twenty-two of the thirty most polluted cities in the world are in India; the country is the so-called “defecation capital” of the world; a staggeringly large proportion of the population has no access to drinking water; state-run schools are, by everyone’s admission, in absolute shambles; the ranks of the unemployed are enormous.  One could go in this vein, ad infinitum:  the point is that everything suggests to the complete indifference of the Indian state to the vast majority of the citizens of the country.  The Indian state could begin by taking strident steps, as they have done so in China, to clean the air—and save millions of its citizens from early death and future generations from a nightmarish scenario.  Whatever one may say of other countries, it is no exaggeration to argue that in India there is no war on poverty but rather a war on the poor—for it the poor who suffer the most from dirty air, water, and soil, not to mention policies that have been designed with the intent of snuffing the life out of them.

Why, then, does the Indian state take such an interest in ensuring the right of every single voter?  It won’t do merely to say that political parties are cognizant of the power of the voter, or that in India, as in every other democracy, the “vote bank” has become a critical factor in how political parties position themselves to the public.  The state is not just a sum of political parties, and here it is not the conduct of parties that is in question; moreover, the notion of the “vote bank” does not explain the extreme lengths to which the Indian state goes in ensuring the right of a single voter in the middle of a thick jungle dozens of kilometres from the nearest polling station or remote Himalayan villages.  India must be singular among democracies in sending election officials with voting machines to remote villages, and it certainly does not send doctors to these same villages.  Apparently, by the reasoning of the state, the health of these people is less important than their vote—never mind that, if they are dead from lack of medical care, they cannot cast a vote.  One might also, perhaps with some plausibility, argue that India is aware that the world’s eyes are on its elections, and that the world delights in spectacles and narratives with a touch of the adventurous, the heroic, and the bizarre.  But that also seems far from being a wholly persuasive narrative.

Democracies the world over have sadly become merely electoral democracies.  It may be that in India, as some would say, this is most certainly the case. It is even possible to argue that elections, to the extent that they have overwhelmed the imagination and preclude the possibility of a democratic imaginary that moves well beyond the mechanics of voting, are profoundly anti-democratic.  That proposition needs careful and deliberate articulation—all the more so because, at least in India, the poor and the marginalized have been, understandably, more protective of the vote than those with privilege.  Universal franchise in India only came in with the first general election in 1951-52 and it is to the credit of the country that it was able to hold an election of that magnitude, with an electorate of over 235 million of which 45%, or almost 106 million, cast a vote—and this only four years after independence and 200 years of colonial servitude.  I suspect that, in the Indian state’s textbook and “herculean”—the word, the reader might recall, is from the New York Times article—effort to secure the right of every voter, there are residual memories of the anti-colonial struggle.  A critical part of this struggle, which Indian historiography does not recognize, was the effort that tacitly every Indian had to make to free themselves of the notion that they were merely part of collectivities—Hindus, Muslims, Brahmins, Sudras, Dalits, Kshatriyas, Bengalis, Tamils, and thousands of others.  The vote is precious to every Indian as it is one public exercise that permits the Indian to individuate herself or himself.  I started with the idea of the Indian elections as bearing the ambiance of a circus, but we should not scoff at what is undoubtedly the “Greatest Show on Earth”.

(A slightly shorter version of this was published at ABP [abplive.in], 2 May 2019)







13 thoughts on “*The Greatest Show on Earth?  The Indian Elections and a Puzzle

  1. Excellent piece but I believe you might have meant 3.96 million electronic voting machines rather than 3.96 machines?



  2. While I agree with much of what you say here about the failures of the Indian state to combat poverty and the proliferation of inequality as well as the harm inflicted by development, I happen to think that the proliferation of identity-based language, region, religion, and caste based parties that cater to “collectivities” as you call them is actually a good thing. After all, though Hindu nationalism is now a potent force, all communities have some political party representing them. While many have criticized the oversized role identity plays in Indian democracy, I believe it remains a good thing that, for example, the DMK, AIADMK, TRS, and TDP can explicitly represent the interests of their states while the BSP can explicitly represent the interests of Dalits and so on. In a land as diverse as India, the genius of Indian democracy allows for this enunciation of identity politics. It might be a good thing if political parties in the US that explicitly catered to the needs of African Americans or other communities of color were formed, given that no party seems to care about them.


    • Hi Aditya,
      I agree with you that the development of regional parties which revolve (in part) around ‘regional’ identities can have some salutary consequences for Indian politics. It is not an unmixed blessing, however, though this is not the subject of the blog essay nor does not it fundamentally have any bearing on the argument of the essay. The essay was trying to work out a “puzzle” — namely, if the Indian state is so indifferent to the masses, as might generally be argued, then why does it go all out to try to secure the right of every Indian to cast a vote? How does one explain the obsession with ensuring that voters in remote parts of the country can vote? There what I was trying to suggest is that the vote is one of the few ways in which the Indian individuates herself or himself, rather than only being (as the colonial state imagined) merely a member of a “collectivity”. The essay is not an argument against or for collectivities, nor is it fundamentally on the failures of the Indian state with respect to development, etc. But I do nevertheless appreciate your remark.


  3. I wonder why even as the Indian state is so intent to make it so easy for every Indian to vote, it is still nearly impossible for Indian citizens living abroad to vote. It is interesting that while most electoral democracies have a rather simple absentee voting system for their citizens living abroad or at the least allow their citizens to vote at embassies or consulates, from what I hear an Indian citizen living abroad must still go back to India in order to be able to vote even though India certainly has the largest expatriate population of any democracy. It would seem that Indians living in such places as the UAE who often labor in conditions resembling slavery could certainly use this representation and assistance of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. I wonder what this imbalance between the ease of voting in India vs abroad tells us about this spectacle.


  4. I wonder if the role and influence of special interests such as multinational corporations or labor unions in India’s elections and political parties is as strong as in other countries. If so, perhaps the reason for this need to make a show of democracy lies there, in that whichever party is victorious, it will ultimately be beholden to these interests and not challenge them in a meaningful way, but the spectacle remains potent.


  5. Dear Dr. Lal,

    If you do not mind I would like to translate this piece and some others into Arabic and post them on my tumblr. Are you active on tumblr?

    Sami Sawires


    • Hello Sami,
      I don’t use tumblr but that should not prevent you from translating into Arabic pieces of mine that interest you. I would much appreciate that and if you do post your translations, do please let me know. Thanks.


  6. It was a diverse reading – much thoughts came about.
    It is unusual to see so many open candidates for one position, but I did not appreciate it being compared to a circus… Other than that, the question does remain on why there is much emphasis on why they ensure people cast a vote. Do you think there is an important relation between the uneducated and illiterate and who they vote? That is to say, are they more easily manipulated to select a candidate based on limited information


  7. This article on India’s elections and how people go out of their way to get people to vote is remarkable considering how in the United States, politicians are always making voting harder on working class citizens such as moving the polls where it is difficult to navigate even by car. The true emphasis on voter equality is clearly detailed and India seems to be continuing on the right path towards a better future.


  8. Sir!
    It is these issues that the Narendra Modi government has been trying to fix! Look at Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, Modicare, etc. We will see if Indian democracy works if Modi wins again as he will work honestly for the nation. the many years of Congress tyranny have been broken is proof that democracy works. Vote again for BJP govt! Re-elect Honbl. PM Modi!

    Sabka saath sabka vikas!

    Bharat ka abhimaan hai Hindu, maatribhoomi ki shaan hai Hindu!

    Agar Bharat mein rehna hoga tho vande mataram kehna hoga!

    Agar Hindustan mein rehna hoga tho Jai Shree Ram kehna hoga!

    Maatrubhoomi ko raksha karne, hum talwaar uthayenge!


  9. In the beginning of this piece, one specific phrase truly got me thinking – “But one can be certain that video gaming, the modern obsession with social media, the morbid addiction to smart phones, and the internet played a role in sounding the death knell of traditional forms of family entertainment.” Now that I hear this, I do find it to be true. Back when smartphones weren’t a thing, people would go to circuses to see animals and tricks that they never know existed! I can imagine the excitement that people of all ages felt. Nowadays, everything can bee seen through the internet. We can hear about something happening on the other side of the world in a matter of minutes. Besides circuses, I wonder what else has been shut down due to the internet and smartphones? Has the internet drained many of the “surprises” out of our life that we would of experienced if the internet was not a thing?


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