March 5: The big question in Bengal appeared to be how Trinamul candidate Moon Moon Sen will cope with the heat in Bankura where the mercury often shoots past 40°C in May.
Imagine then the challenge before the Election Commission which has had to factor in how the elements will affect 81.5 crore voters.
Conflicting weather concerns — from pre-monsoon rainfall in the Northeast to rising summer temperatures in the northern Indian plains —were among factors that Election Commission officials say they have taken into account in assigning the polling dates that were announced today.
Needless to say, the more familiar concerns such as the logistics of moving central paramilitary forces across the country to cover 9 lakh polling stations and the timetables of central and state board exams played instrumental roles in the decision-making process.
“But we also looked at the expected weather, using long-term meteorological data,” Nasim Zaidi, election commissioner, told The Telegraph. The goal of the exercise, he said, was to draw up a schedule that would favour maximum voter turnout.
The dates do suggest a weather-influenced pattern. The commission has assigned polling dates during the first half of April to the northeastern states, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Kerala among others. These regions are expected to receive pre-monsoon rains in late-April or early-May.
The hot weather expected during early May in Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and parts of western Uttar Pradesh could be one reason why they were assigned polling dates in April, said a senior weather scientist who was not associated with the scheduling exercise.
“But while heat builds up in the plains during May, the mountains are still relatively cool,” said Laxman Singh Rathore, director-general of the India Meteorological Department, New Delhi, the national weather agency that provided inputs to the Election Commission. Both Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand will go to the polls on May 7.
The scheduling can be a “tricky affair”, and the Election Commission is at times compelled to choose the “best possible dates”, given the size and unique challenges posed by some states, said an Election Commission official.
Bihar, with 40 Lok Sabha seats, and Uttar Pradesh, with 80 seats, have the widest windows of polling dates — both states will go to polls on April 10, 17, 24, 30, and May 7 and 12. Bengal with 42 seats has five polling dates — April 17, 24, 30, and May 7 and 12.
Bengal had a single polling day in the 2004 general election, and three polling days in 2009. Just as in the last two elections, the polling dates fall during what weather scientists call the season of severe spring thunderstorms or Kalbaisakhis that occur in the eastern and northeastern parts of the country in the evening.
While these thunderstorms cannot be predicted more than a few hours in advance, weather scientists say the extra polling days this year compared to 2009 or 2004 would mean voters in Bengal would be at an incrementally higher risk of seeing Kalbaisakhis on voting days.
While there is virtually no research-based evidence from India to establish any link between weather events and voter participation, studies from Europe and the US have shown that rain and snow can indeed influence turnout. For example, a study of 14 US presidential elections drawing on data from 22,000 weather stations on election days found that rain reduced voter participation by 1 per cent per inch of rainfall.
But an extraordinary feature of elections in India has been the high turnout among the poor who brave rain, sun and worse to be heard.
On the lingering question of how Moon Moon will cope, here’s her answer: “I am not really bothered by the heat in Bankura during the election campaign because I have been there several times. I know some people there who are very warm and simple.”