It takes five million workers to pull off India’s election. Shreya Roy Chowdhury and Mridula Chari bring you their stories in a series called The Silent Army.

Most working days, Sanjay Singh can be found in front of a blackboard, with chalk dust on his hands. The next few weeks, though, will find him clutching a camera as a videographer for the Election Commission in Gautam Buddh Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh. Fortunately for Singh, his temporary role demands little skill.

“At campaign meetings, we record the speeches and film the venue, cars, chairs and banners,” said Singh, 42, who usually works as a Shiskha Mitra, or contract teacher, at a primary school in Salempur Gurjar village of Gautam Buddh Nagar, bordering Delhi. “When cars are checked [by surveillance teams for liquor or cash that could be distributed as inducements to voters before the elections] , we get their numbers.”

Videographers are crucial for enforcing the Election Commission of India’s model code of conduct, the guidelines that aim to ensure free and fair voting. Videographers gather evidence both of procedures being followed – and when they’re suspected of being violated.

Each constituency deploys dozens of videographers to monitor the battle of the ballot. According to the Election Commission of India, during the 2014 elections, 84,441 video camera were used and 66,640 still cameras.

Some videographers are part of the Election Commission’s flying surveillance teams, or flying squads, which respond to complaints about code violations and even conduct checks of cars and property of their own initiative. Others are assigned to video surveillance teams that record candidates’ speeches in case they violate the code’s proscriptions against making appeals to religion or invoke the armed forces to gather votes. The cameras also document the resources that have been used for campaign events.

In some constituencies, on the day of voting, videographers are sent to polling stations considered vulnerable to disruptions in case something does go wrong.

Videographers assigned to film the proceedings at booth considered vulnerable to disruptions gathered at the flower wholesale market in Noida, Gautam Buddh Nagar, on April 10, 2019 (Credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury)

Singh was relieved from his school and placed with a flying squad on March 19. He was given a camcorder but because its battery failed during his shift on the first few days, he was also given a mobile phone with which to shoot videos. In his first 10 days on his temporary assignment, he recorded his squad’s seizure of two batches of liquor found without receipts and Rs 69,000 in cash from cars they randomly checked. Carrying liquor during the election period is not illegal but can be seized if large quantities are found and the carrier cannot produce receipts for the consignment.

Behind the cameras

For someone more used to handling pre-teens, Singh embraced his job. “I was not afraid – what can these goons do to me?” he said, referring to the men from whom his squad had seized contraband. But he is also ready for the assignment to be over. He has things to do – the wheat in his field is ready to be harvested and he has to study for the Super-Teacher Eligibility Test that could bring him a permanent teaching position with better pay and benefits.

In Gautam Buddh Nagar, the district office hired 30 cameras and put teachers, including Shiksha Mitras, behind some of them. Videographers may be government employees on temporary deputation or privately hired.

“We have taken teachers and panchayat mitras [who keep villagers informed about government schemes] – reliable people,” said DK Singh, a nodal officer for Gautam Buddh Nagar’s surveillance teams.

Sanjay Singh at home (Credit: Sanjay Singh)

Jitendra Singh, 29, an election videographer with the South Delhi district, is also in the same situation. He teaches computers and Hindi to students from Classes 6 to 8 as an Anudeshak Shikshak, or an instructor recruited for specific subjects in Uttar Pradesh government schools that have high enrolment. He, too, is preparing for the Super-Teacher Eligibility Test. “I have a job for just 11 months,” he said. “Each time that term expires, I apply again.”

He preferred his last stint with the Election Commission: during the 2014 Lok Sabha election, he had been member of a polling party conducting election in a booth and it was over in three days. For a videographer, though, work starts weeks before polling.

For Suraj, who does not use a surname, the stint as a videographer in South Delhi district lasted only a fortnight. The district privately hired cameras and videographers after inviting bids. From March 12, he was placed with a flying squad. But in late March, the tender was cancelled, Suraj, 20, was almost relieved. Though he misses the Rs 500 the job paid per day, which was vital for his family, he also found it “incredibly boring”.

“We just roamed all day, looking at posters and government buildings,” he said.

Gathering evidence

Video surveillance teams are spared the constant patrolling that flying squad members must undertake. But when sent to a rally or meeting, they must stay till the end. “We record speeches for however long it takes – two hours or four,” said Narendra Kumar, a cooperative department officer now in charge of a video team in Dadri, an assembly constituency within Gautam Buddh Nagar.

Video teams also try to make a note of everything they see at the event – the number of chairs at the venue, tables, rugs, fans, water bottles, flags, garlands, caps, buses, cars and their make. The expenditure committees then match these lists against the candidates’ voluntary disclosures.

Candidates are required to report all campaign expenses to expenditure monitoring committees – there is one for each Assembly constituency. Every purchase by a candidate’s campaign, from newspaper advertisements to paper cups, must be accounted for. The total expense on a campaign is capped at Rs 70 lakh for a Lok Sabha candidate.

The footage shot by the video surveillance team helps establish whether the candidates have been truthful about their expenses.

When the video teams come back to the office, their footage is handed over to the video viewing team which, arguably, has the dullest job in the constituency.

From 10 am to 5 pm every day, Vinay Pandey, 32, occupies a corner of the treasury department in the Gautam Buddh Nagar collectorate and watches surveillance videos from Dadri. He listens to the speeches and cross-checks information sent by the surveillance teams.

Assisted by three others, Pandey,counts chairs and microphones, gauges the approximate dimensions of banners and the venue. He must distinguish between “kursi saadi” and “kursi fancy”, plain and fancy chairs, and report how many of each he saw.

This account goes to the constituency’s expenditure committee, which maintains a “shadow register” of expenses for each candidate.

Jitentra Singh at work in Noida on April 2, 2019 (Credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury)

“It is pretty boring,” admitted Pandey, an executive officer with the Bilaspur nagar panchayat. But as the elections approached, his work became more demanding. In a speech in neighbouring Ghaziabad on March 31, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath described the Indian Army as “Modi’s army”, inviting instant controversy. Invoking the armed forces to solicit votes is against the code.

Adityanath’s next stop was Dadri. The CDs that the video team had recorded of the meeting arrived late the next day. Pandey, who might have otherwise skipped past a few slogans, “followed each word carefully”. He left at 9 pm that night.

“I have been watching CDs since March 16 and things are changing now,” he said. “Small public meetings and Holi celebrations [for the festival of colours] have given way to large rallies. The star campaigners are arriving. Yogi Ji [Adityanath,] came, and Mahesh Sharma is the member of Parliament here.”

Even scheduled meetings of election officials with contestants are documented on video. On March 29, candidates and their polling agents met election observers in Gautam Buddh Nagar. Four videographers were on hand to record every word, cough and sip of tea.

Read more in the series:

The Silent Army: Behind India’s election are five million workers. This series brings you their stories

The Silent Army: In Arunachal, election staff are chosen on their ability to walk – for days

The Silent Army: In Maharashtra, a day in the life of a district election control room

The Silent Army: Meet the flying squads that are enforcing EC’s model code of conduct on the ground

The Silent Army: How 6 Arunachal officials travelled 2 days to open a poll booth for only 1 vote