By elephant, and camel, boat and bullock cart, jeep, donkey and on foot, 1,5 million Indian officials have just registered 350 million voters -- nearly 1 1/2 times the population of the United States -- for the world's largest free election.
It was a mind-boggling task, as are all the preparations for India's elections scheduled for early next year. Consider, for instance, the following:
There will be 450,000 polling places staffed on elections day by 2 million officials, not counting police and army guards.
The government will use more than 4,400 tons of papers just to print ballots and voters' lists, causing a massive paper shortage in the country.
One million ballot boxes, locked and sealed, will be placed in 450,000 polling stations during the two days of voting.
And all the ballots will be counted by hand without any mechanical aides -- not even the simplest desk-top adding machines. S. L. Shakdher, the little know civil servant who is India's election czar, expects to have most of the votes counted and tabulated within 15 hours of the polls closing.
Despite the nightmarish logistics, India has run six previous national elections in the 32 years since it gained independence from Great Britain with no major scandals -- something few nations in the world can boast of.
It even voted out of office two years ago former prime minister Indira Gandhi, who was accused during the campaign of transforming India into an authoritarian dictatorship, which would make her the only dictator in the world to be forced out of power by an election. But now she is running again, and her Congress (I) -- for Indira -- Party is given a good chance to get enough seats in the parliament to set up a coalition government.
We want to make this a functioning democracy where people have faith in the ballot box," said Shakdher.
The election process started last month when the registrars -- government employes pressed into service to help the election commission -- fanned through each of India's 650,000 villages.
In the jungles of Assam, the registrars rode elephants, in Madhya Pradesh they need guns to protect them from wild tigers, buffalo and elephants; in the deserts of Rajasthan, they rode camels, and in some places they had to walk for seven days and swim flooded streams to get to remote villages.
"It's remarkable," said Shakdher, "that in 27 days we have been able to cover every village, every home, even the large polulation on that has no home. The people who lie on the footpaths of cities [such as Bombay and Calcutta] have also been enrolled."
They go into bastis -- the jerry-built settlements of tin shacks, wood hovels and patched tents that refugees and day workers call home. They even visited the house of a newly arrived American couple to make sure the servants had registered to vote.
At least half of the registered voters cannot read, so Shakdher's election commission has to approve the symbols used by each party. This has become especially difficult this year because of splits within the major parties.
The Congress Party, for instance, traditionally has used the cow and calf symbol. But there are at least two Congress branches -- one headed by Indira Gandhi, the other Devraj Urs, and both want to use that symbol. The Janata Party has also split, so new symbols have to be assigned.
"Symbols are important because no one votes the name. Without a symbol there is not party," said Shakdher.
For those who can read, ballots and all official polling materials are printed in the country's 14 national languages. In Delhi, for instance, three languages are used -- Hindi, Urdu and English. In the state of Tamil Nadu, English and Tamil are used.
Because of the logistical problems, Shakdher said he has decided the election must be spread over two days, with each area getting one day to vote, even through he would prefer to do it in one. In the past, elections have been spread over as many as 10 days -- the 1977 election took four days, the least amount of time so far.
Election day still has not been set, but Shakdher expects it will be in the first week of January. But even setting the date can be a problem. December is planting season in most states, and farmers will tend their fields rather than vote. It is also the exam times for schools, so teachers are too busy to help supervise the voting, and in states with large numbers of Christians there is a 10-day holiday for Christmas.
Holding the election in January means that six or seven constituencies in the Himalayas may be snowbound and unable to vote until the spring thaws.
In some remote areas of Mizoram helicopters will carry the ballot boxes to be counted. Otherwise, said Shakdher, it would be a 10-to 12-day walk to get the ballots back to be tabulated.
To make sure no one votes twice, everyone is stamped on the wrist with indelible ink.
Shakdher is experimenting in a state election in Sikkim with using identity cards that have photographs of voters. He said 110,000 voters, many of whom live in remote hill villages under primitive conditions now have these voter ID cards which cost 25 cents.
But Shakdher has no plans to switch to modern electronic polling booths, or to use computers or even adding machines to count the votes.
"It's all done by manpower. These millions of ballots are handled by human hands and human brains will compute them. They are sorted in trays and every ballot is looked at individually. With all that, the margin of error is very very small," said Shakhder.