Saturday, December 08, 2012

In Gujarat’s Gir Forest, India’s Most Privileged Voter

In Gujarat's Gir Forest, India's Most Privileged Voter
The New York Times

Nestled in the heart of Gir forest, home to the rare Asiatic lion, in Gujarat (where the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party rules), is a hamlet called Banej.

Traveling through, you are likely to come across a lion or two, maybe even a pride. You will probably also meet Banej's only resident, Mahant Bharatdas, 59, a school dropout from Rajasthan who has lived as an ascetic in an ancient temple there for 15 years.

As Gujarat gears up for state elections next week, Mr. Bharatdas is set to become, for a brief moment, the country's most coddled voter.

In the far-flung corners of India, which has a voting population of more than 700 million, there are a few constituencies with a mere handful of voters. But only Banej has just one.

Courtesy of Haresh Pandya
Mahant Bharatdas, the only resident of Banej, Gujarat, casting his vote in this April 30, 2009, file photo.
Whenever there are elections in Gujarat, the district government sets up a special polling booth, with a full staff of five, just for Mr. Bharatdas.

"This is the best possible example of how even a single voter is given importance and respect in the world's largest democracy," said Manish Bhardwaj, the chief election officer of Junagadh district, which includes Banej. "Just like at every polling station, a presiding officer, two polling officers, a peon and an armed policeman will be on duty in Banej. They'll reach there a day before and stay overnight."

Mr. Bharatdas voted in the 2004 and 2009 parliamentary elections and in the state assembly polls in 2007, and said he is looking forward to doing so again on Dec. 13. Voting is his "moral and national duty," he said in an interview. "I'm very happy that the authorities don't treat Banej, where I'm the only registered voter, differently and give it as much importance as any other polling station. It shows that even one vote is very important in a democratic election. I really feel honored."

The Junagadh district authorities have already begun making the  necessary arrangements. A polling booth will be set up in the one-room office of the forest department at Banej and the local forest department informed about the number of polling personnel and the purpose of their overnight stay.

"The voter is expected to exercise his franchise in the morning," said Mr. Bhardwaj. "The minute he casts his vote, the officers on duty will wind up everything and return to Junagadh. Though the voting ends at 5 p.m., it isn't necessary for them to stay further since there is only one registered voter," he said.

Mr. Bharatdas says no candidate has ever ventured into the jungle to canvas for his vote. "But I do vote without fail," he said. "I may be the only voter in Banej, but sometimes even one vote is very crucial. It can be decisive.  Remember how the B.J.P. government lost a no-confidence vote in the Parliament by a solitary vote in the 1990s?"

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