The indelible ink behind the world’s biggest election


India’s twice-every-decade mass democratic exercise has once again left its mark on the people of the country in the form of a purple-striped index finger.

The Electoral Commission uses indelible ink, or “voter ink,” to prevent fraud or double voting. Once voters arrive at a polling station to cast their ballot and verify their identity, the ink is smeared on the top of their left index finger, leaving a stain that can take up to two weeks to wash away.

It may be crude, but this method is so effective that it has been used for more than seventy years.

“From the prime minister to the most common man, everyone will raise their (marking) finger,” said K Mohammed Irfan, managing director of Mysore Varnishes and Coatings Ltd (MVPL). The company is a state-owned company that specializes in the production and distribution of this liquid.

“From celebrities to movie stars… (it has become) a symbol of democracy, I think it’s synonymous with elections,” he told CNN in a video interview.

An official in Neemrana, India, drew a mark with indelible ink on a woman's index finger ahead of the first round of voting in India's national election. - Manish Swarup/APAn official in Neemrana, India, drew a mark with indelible ink on a woman's index finger ahead of the first round of voting in India's national election. - Manish Swarup/AP

An official in Neemrana, India, drew a mark with indelible ink on a woman’s index finger ahead of the first round of voting in India’s national election. – Manish Swarup/AP

Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone shows off her inked fingers after casting her vote at a polling station during the state assembly elections in Mumbai on October 21, 2019.Getty ImagesBollywood actress Deepika Padukone shows off her inked fingers after casting her vote at a polling station during the state assembly elections in Mumbai on October 21, 2019.Getty Images

Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone shows off her inked fingers after casting her vote at a polling station during the state assembly elections in Mumbai on October 21, 2019.Getty Images

More than 960 million people are eligible to vote in India in the world’s largest election. Workers at the company’s factory in the southwestern Karnataka state city of Mysore spent months preparing nearly 2.7 million bottles of ink, the company’s largest order to date.

The orange containers have been filled and carefully packed for distribution ahead of this year’s elections, which are underway and will end on June 1.

What’s the key to ink staying power? This is a closely guarded formula that has remained unchanged since 1951. “We only produce the quantities we need.”

While Irrfan said the company “has to keep the exact ingredients of the ink a secret,” it does contain the chemical silver nitrate, which creates purple spots when it comes into contact with skin and is exposed to sunlight.

A teacher at a school in Chennai, India, puts the finishing touches on a rangoli, a traditional artwork made from colored powders depicting an Indian flag and a woman's finger marked with indelible ink to mark Raise awareness and encourage people to vote in the upcoming general election. - R. Parthibhan/APA teacher at a school in Chennai, India, puts the finishing touches on a rangoli, a traditional artwork made from colored powders depicting an Indian flag and a woman's finger marked with indelible ink to mark Raise awareness and encourage people to vote in the upcoming general election. - R. Parthibhan/AP

A teacher at a school in Chennai, India, puts the finishing touches on a rangoli, a traditional artwork made from colored powders depicting an Indian flag and a woman’s finger marked with indelible ink to mark Raise awareness and encourage people to vote in the upcoming general election. – R. Parthibhan/AP

a little at a time

When newly independent India held its first general elections in 1951 and 1952, organizers turned to the idea of ​​using indelible ink to mark voters to ensure a fair vote.

Ornit Shani said: “In a country with no systematic birth registration or identity documents, and where millions of people move as refugees, the issue of how to prevent impersonation and double voting is of great concern. ” Author of How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of Universal Franchise. Shani said some officials believed that approach would take too much time and complicate the voting process, but public opinion ultimately prevailed.

“Combining the fact that all voters, irrespective of their caste, class and religion, are on the same page and (have to wait) for their turn to be finger-marked (before voting) further helps in making voting concrete and visible The core value of equality,” Shani said in an email to CNN. “One man, one woman, one vote.”

A voter has indelible ink on his finger after casting his vote at a polling station during the first phase of voting in the national elections in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, India, on Friday, April 19, 2024.  Getty ImagesA voter has indelible ink on his finger after casting his vote at a polling station during the first phase of voting in the national elections in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, India, on Friday, April 19, 2024.  Getty Images

A voter has indelible ink on his finger after casting his vote at a polling station during the first phase of voting in the national elections in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, India, on Friday, April 19, 2024. Getty Images

lasting appeal

MVPL was founded in 1937 by Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV, the then Maharaja or Ruler of Mysore, as a paint supplier and retained this aspect of the business.

Irfan said that when the company is not producing ink, it supplies products such as paint to the public transportation sector. The appeal of this ink spread beyond India’s borders as well. The company now supplies indelible ink to more than 35 countries, including Ghana since the late 1970s. However, the Ghana Electoral Commission recently announced that it would phase out the use of indelible ink in favor of biometric verification methods.

But the use of ink in India doesn’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon. For Mukulika Banerjee, associate professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, the practice of marking bodies may not translate well to other cultures, but it works well in India because of common cultural practices .

A worker fills vials of indelible ink used during elections to prevent double voting at the government-run Mysore Paints and Varnishes Company in Mysore, India. - Laksh Nair/ReutersA worker fills vials of indelible ink used during elections to prevent double voting at the government-run Mysore Paints and Varnishes Company in Mysore, India. - Laksh Nair/Reuters

A worker fills vials of indelible ink used during elections to prevent double voting at the government-run Mysore Paints and Varnishes Company in Mysore, India. – Laksh Nair/Reuters

“People usually put henna on their hands and women put it on their feet in different colors,” Banerjee said in a phone interview. “I think finger markings (semi-permanent) kind of suit it, but It may not be suitable for other situations.”

She also pointed out an unintended effect of marking voters with ink: creating an environment of peer pressure.

Banerjee found such examples while conducting research on democracy and elections in West Bengal.

“The first thing people do on polling day is check each other’s fingers,” she said. “If you don’t have an indelible mark on your left index finger, they’ll look at you and the first thing they’ll say is ‘Why didn’t you vote?’

“You can make excuses, but by the fifth time of the day, if someone asks you, it gets annoying and it’s actually easier to vote than not to vote.”

Peer pressure also extends to movie stars and athletes, who are likely to post their ink-stained fingers to their millions of followers on social media.

“These people have started raising (their fingers) and taking selfies to vote and saying ‘I already voted, what about you?’ because they feel they have a civic duty to encourage other people to vote too,” she added. “So it becomes aspirational; then you want to be like your hero, and you want to be able to do the same things.

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