12 May 2014 National poll coverage

How Far To The Polling Station?

India’s elections are drawing in foreigners of all kinds, keen to get a first-hand feel
How Far To The Polling Station?
Sanjay Rawat
How Far To The Polling Station?

Beaming Up Live

  • EC and UNDP invite delegates from some 20 countries to visit and learn about the election system in India.
  • Fifty-odd delegates from some African countries, Myanmar, Mauritius, Malaysia etc observe elections in four states.
  • Election tourism, a concept started before Gujarat assembly polls, doing well. Many foreigners registered for it.
  • Tourists from UK, US, UAE pay $1,200 for seven-day package. Includes visits to poll rallies, roadshows, party leaders etc.


The landlocked kingdom of Lesotho, a tiny diamond in southern Africa’s vast sky, may be 4,900 miles adrift, but it seems closer home this season. Dr Makase Nyaphisi melds easily into the hubbub at the main polling centre in Agra, now run over with the 25,000 officials who are to be despatched to the 3,306 polling booths in the district. It’s a blindingly hot day but he’s evidently at ease, walking jau­ntily up in his turquoise-blue kurta to the district magistrate to ask: “There’s such orderliness in the chaos, how do you manage to get it right without making much noise?”

It’s the day before Agra votes and the main polling station is like a fairground with pitched tents serving as makeshift camps, officials rambling around with EVM machines and strongrooms fastened with extra security. “The magnitude of preparations is quite staggering. I’m here to learn the logistics of managing elections in the world’s largest dem­ocracy,” says Nyaphisi, an independent electoral commissioner from Lesotho. He’s here to observe the vast polling exercise in Uttar Pradesh. We notice him holding up his iPad for some reflective shots, while keenly watching the EVM demos. “So many people who vote here are illiterate, yet there’s openness to accepting new technology,” he notes. His friend, IT manager Lebohamg Bulane, who’s learning about technological innovations to design equipment back home, draws some quick election-time comparisons. “Even in Africa, people wear colourful attire commensurate with their respective parties, there are heated debates during campaigning and most people don’t want to abide by the code of conduct. But we must learn to res­p­ect institutions as much as individuals.” Kayode Oladimeji,  director of electoral operations in Nigeria, concurs. “I’ve read about the top political leaders in India, but what strikes me is how ste­adfast and respectable institutions like the Election Commission of India are.”  

Elections in the ‘world’s largest democracy’, with that attendant carnivalesque flav­our, have always teased the global ima­­­gi­na­tion. This time, besides the jour­nalists, academics, pol­icymakers, ad hon­­c­hos, paparazzi and plain curiosity- hunters who don’t mind braving the Indian summer, there are 50-odd delegates inv­­ited by the EC and UNDP from 20 countries like Namibia, Malaysia, Nige­ria, Mauritius and Mya­nmar. They’ll cover elections across four states. Lise Grande of the UNDP says “it’s basically a global sharing of experience among cou­ntries that care about democracy”. Dato Yusop Mansor and wife Datin Zal­eha from Malaysia are here to learn about the phase-wise system of polling in India. “We also want to study the benefits, cost and security of the EVM system. It’s ast­onishing how every other country in the world adheres to the archaic ballot paper system. A cost-effective, paper-free procedure is what I will teach the 30 million voters in my country,” says Mansor.

Scholar Marta Franceschini feels “the Asian region is like an unexploded bomb...people like Modi hold the matchsticks.” (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)

In India as part of the youth marketing forum organised by MTV, Heather Smith of Rock the Vote has been aggressively tapping the mood of the young. She believes increased first-time voter registration would lead to more dissemination of information among them. Smith, who lives in Washington DC, is also watching the variations presented by parties with different ideologies. “It isn’t monolithic. As parties reach out, there’s bound to be debate. It allows the young to hold discussions in the political arena.” The scale of the elections doesn’t escape her. “How the Election Commission manages is quite overwhelming. More than 800 million voters is no joke.” It’s easy to understand the excitement coming from sheer numbers. In the 1990s, Rock the Vote had registered 2,00,000 youngsters and now the registration has shot up to 1.5 million. Apart from her dogged efforts, she also credits the internet and social media for the increase in registration. “If the young start caring about having an equal and just society, they’ll change the face of the country.” 

James Traub, columnist for Foreign Policy magazine who’s also been published in The New Yorker and New York Times, feels outsiders are attracted to the exuberance as “the elections are fired by passion, enmity and skulduggery”. Traub has been vis­i­ting India regularly since 1976, has taught at the Maulana Azad College in Aurangabad and seems fairly familiar with Indian politics. “The sense I got during the campaign trail in UP is that the Congress will be wiped out and the SP won’t win too many hearts either. Modi is a classic politician and will find ways of disarming people.” He feels it’s greatly to India’s credit that Dalits and backward castes, despite age-old marginalisation, believe they can use the elections to stake their claim on society. “The more troubling aspect to me, though, is the rampant criminality, which I believe has gotten worse. I am intrigued by the promise of the Aam Aadmi Party, but as yet it strikes me as being in transit between an activist body and a political party. I hope the party doesn’t get dismissed (by the public) because it performs poorly in its first national campaign.” 

Grounded Realities: Tetsuo Kogure of Asahi Shimbun wants more in-depth reporting. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)

A reporter with Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s leading national daily, Tetsuo Kogure, has been reporting on the rise of India as a global economic power and how equations with China may alter when the new government takes shape. “Japan­ese companies keen on investing in India are watching,” he says. He’s followed the campaigns in Chandigarh, Amethi, Rae Bareli and Patna, but Kogure was most intrigued by the aura around celebrity politicians, some of whom, he feels, have a sharp business edge. Dra­wing comparisons with his country, he notes that political campaigns in Japan work on a somewhat different model. “In India, the camaraderie spills on to the streets, but back home candidates wave their hands gingerly or deliver speeches as supporters watch from a distance.” He adds that the elections in India also stand out for the sheer intensity of media coverage. “The media is strong, but it should pick up more on people’s voices and analyse ground realities like poverty, education and unemployment with greater depth.” 

Italian scholar Marta Franceschini, who’s been following Indian politics closely since the 1980s, says she’s app­alled at the naivete of political slogans and tall manifesto promises of parties. “I’ve been speaking to professors, cooks, chaiwalas, temple priests, and they all seem alarmed at the lack of a suitable alternative in the Indian milieu. The Congress has been doling out poor policies, Kejriwal seems to be a prima donna and Modi has the same strains as Berlusconi.” Several articles for Fatio Quotidiano, a national paper in Italy, address the political crisis confronting India. “The whole Asian region is like an unexploded bomb and people like Modi are sitting with many matchsticks in their hands,” she says.      

The whimsical flutter that India’s going through during the elections is no better time for tourism industry impresarios too—they are offering ele­c­tion-themed holiday packages to foreign tourists. As political decibels rise, several places are turning into tourist hotspots. Suhag Modi of Ahmedabad-based Election Tourism India says, “We have tourists coming in from the UK and US and possibly from Germany and the UAE too.” Many foreigners have registered for the $1,200 six-night, seven-day package, which would take them to public rallies, roadshows, even allow them to interact with party honchos and Election Commission officers. The concept was launched before the 2012 Gujarat assembly elections and has sparked much interest since. In this grand Indian circus flecked with sharp political, business and cultural interests, the wheels are turning and the world is taking note.

By Priyadarshini Sen with Prachi Pinglay-Plumber

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