97-year-old has never missed an Indian election

Shyam Negi voted in country's first poll in 1951, and plans to do so again as 16th gets under way

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 11:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 11:57pm

A man who voted in India's first general election 63 years ago and is now, aged 97, poised to cast his ballot in the current one, has become something of a star because of his commitment to the democratic process.

Google India recently spotlighted Shyam Negi in a video called Pledge to Vote, part of a campaign urging Indians to take part in the elections. He has never missed voting in an Indian general election.

A retired schoolteacher, Negi has braved snowstorms and howling winds in the hilly region of Himachal Pradesh where he lives to make his way to the ballot box in Kalpa village.

In the video, he is shown at home, putting on a woollen jacket and cap before making his way, with a walking stick, through the snowy terrain to the ballot box.

As he approaches, waiting villagers garland him with a white scarf and greet him with drums to applaud his determination to vote.

The video has been viewed by over 1.6 million people in India and elsewhere since it was released on March 24.

"I don't worry about what politicians do. I am doing my job by voting. It's up to them to do theirs," he said by telephone, in an interview that was conducted with the help of his grandson, Deepak Negi.

Shyam Negi has voted in every election since 1951, when the first poll was held after India won independence from British colonial rule.

In the video, he recalls how, in the first few elections, his village used to vote six months before the rest of the country, before the roads became blocked by snow.

Voting in India's 16th general election, staggered over nine phases to allow all 814 million voters a chance to cast their ballots, has begun.

When Negi first voted, India had just 173 million voters.

The person who first realised that Negi was one of India's oldest voters was former election commissioner Navin Chawla, who travelled to the remote area - a 16-hour drive from the nearest airport - to meet him two years ago.

"Thanks to Chawla's efforts, we had heard about him," said Manoj Pillai, head of Thinkpot Productions, which filmed the video for Google India.

"At first we were going to have other people speaking about him, but his story was so special, we realised we had to let him speak."

Negi is so frail that Pillai's team had to film very slowly so as not to tire him out. "We handled him like a piece of crystal," Pillai said.

What struck him most about Negi was not just his commitment to voting but his values.

"You don't see people like him any more in the cities. When my costume designer was measuring him for his outfit, he told her: 'Measuring is fine but when it comes to paying, I will do that'. Who does that anymore?" asked Pillai.

Negi will vote on 7 May. He will not reveal which party he will vote for.

"That is part of the mystery of democracy. How can I tell you?" he asked.

The election results will be known on May 16.