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One man, one vote in Indian forest

Guru Bharatdas Darshandas
Darshandas says it will be easy to find out who he votes for. Pics: Soutik Biswas

India has 828,804 polling stations in the current general election, but one of them is unique. It has just one voter. The BBC's Soutik Biswas travels into the forest to meet him.

In a desolate, seemingly endless, lion-infested forest in India, a single man waits to exercise his fundamental right.

On 30 April, five polling officials accompanied by two policemen will travel into the wild to pick up the ballot of Guru Bharatdas Darshandas, who looks after a temple in the Gir forest in the western state of Gujarat.

Mr Darshandas is the only voter at the polling station of Banej in Gir, the last abode of the Asiatic lion.

Barely a few hundred metres from the Shiva temple where Mr Darshandas lives and work is the freshly whitewashed forest office that will serve as the polling station.

Isolation

In the search for Mr Darshandas, I travel over stony, brown earth and parched rivers and thin streams, past cacti and bougainvillea and trees wilting in the oppressive heat. I pass sluggish deer and antelope and wild cats and buffaloes tethered to huts.

It is 100F (38C) in the shade in this sprawling, 1,412 sq km forest and even our beat-up SUV is groaning. I spot none of the more than 300 lions that live here; the heat must have driven them deeper into the shade.

Temple in Banej
Mr Darshandas is the caretaker of a temple in the forest

As a pallid dusk descends on the jungle, I reach the temple - and Mr Darshandas's lair - in Banej.

It has been a back-breaking trip from the nearest city of Junagadh, more than 100km (62 miles) away. Banej is part of the Junagadh parliamentary constituency in a state where the Hindu nationalist BJP rules.

The temple is unexceptional, and it is difficult to ascertain how old it is. It sits atop an outcrop and a steep stairwell leads up to it. A fish-filled brook gurgles past and the mating call of the peacock punctuates the silence.

But when we arrive, the solitary voter is missing - gone to the nearest village outside the jungle, nearly a two-hour drive away, for "some chores", I'm told.

"Wait for him for a while. He will be back soon," says his cook, feeding a peacock near the brook.

Time stands still in the forest. I am beginning to get a bit worried about how we are going to make our way out when darkness falls.

Then Mr Darshandas drives into the temple in his pale green SUV.

In his sunglasses, open-buttoned khaki shirt and ochre sarong, he looks a contented man. His flowing white beard is tied into a neat knot. He is loquacious, unusual for someone in such remote isolation.

Antelope in Gir
The journey is a long one, past deer, antelope and wild cats

"I am sorry to have kept you waiting. The air-conditioner in my vehicle was not working, so I went to get it fixed," he says.

Talk about fixing car air-conditioning sounds incongruous in the jungle.

In the temple, there is no electricity, barring a few flickering bulbs powered by an ailing solar panel. There is no TV, no phone. His only link to the world, Mr Darshandas tells us, is through Hindi news on BBC shortwave radio.

He asks me to stay the night in the forest. "There are snakes and there are mosquitoes here," whispers a forest guard who has accompanied me. I politely decline the invitation.

'Last voter standing'

"I arrived here 12 years ago," Mr Darshandas says.

Map

"I dropped out of school in neighbouring Rajasthan, became interested in religion and reached here on my journeys. The temple was looking for a caretaker and I stayed on."

It wasn't so lonely in the beginning, he says.

"There were 45 of us here in the temple, living here. We had a huge rush of pilgrims. Then forest authorities began making it difficult for people to live here. So all of them left, and I am now the last voter standing," he says.

Mr Darshandas lives here with his cook, priest, guard and a driver but they do not have a vote in this area. He is also basking in his newfound fame as the only voter at a polling station.

"The world found out about me only this year. But this is the third election, including a state election, where I will be the only voter from the local polling station. I know I am unique," he says.

No candidate, he says, has ever come canvassing for votes in the jungle, and sometimes he does not even know who they are. The only thing he knows is that the contest, as usual, is between the BJP and the Congress party.

"But I vote, and my vote is important. Remember the BJP government lost a no-confidence vote in parliament by one vote. So one vote can make a difference," he says, with a cheeky grin.

Banej polling station
Mr Darshandas will cast his ballot at a forest office

"It is very easy to find out whom I vote for because I am the only vote on the electronic machine. But I am not going to tell you who I vote for.

"But I feel good that the authorities come here to pick up my vote. I feel honoured."

What are the issues that get him worked up in this life of desolation? Doesn't the place need mobile phone coverage at least?

"No, no, that's not the issue. I want better roads in the jungle so more pilgrims can visit the temple. Forest officers should not harass pilgrims who stay overnight," he says.

And what happens on the morning of 30 April when the polling officials arrive to pick up his vote?

"I will get up early, have a bath, say my prayers, take my breakfast and saunter to the polling station around 11 am to cast my ballot. The polling officers are happy to see me come, so they can leave after my vote."

"It is an honour, it really is. It proves how India values its democracy."



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