Election tourism thrives as India votes

Braving the scorching heat, foreign tourists are visiting the world’s largest democracy to get a taste of its election.

Voting in India's fourth phase of elections will take place on April 12 [Shahnawaz Akhtar/Al Jazeera]

When Jennifer from the UK packed her bags recently and decided to come to India despite the scorching summer heat, it was the lure of a spectacle that made her take the physical discomfort in her stride.

India is in the midst of a general election that is both noisy and colourful. Following weeks of hectic campaigning, millions are voting in a nine-phase poll spread over April and May.

As political tensions rise and tempers often fray, the mood of the nation is electric, tinged with both expectations and apprehensions.

It is these sights and sounds of the elections in the world’s largest democracy that foreign tourists like Jennifer are hoping to soak in during their visit.

“I have never seen such a sign anywhere in the world. Whichever place that I am visiting during this trip of mine, I am seeing huge hoardings, banners, posters and mega rallies to attract voters. Both the public and the leaders seem to be in a frenzy and that’s incredible,” an ecstatic Jennifer said during her visit to the western city of Jaipur.

To get an insider’s glimpse of the electoral process, she even met a few political workers.

Tailor-made tourism

Like Jennifer, an Italian couple Cristiano and Sofei Gianolla, have travelled to India and are now making the rounds of its cities in a bid to experience the election fever sweeping the nation of more than a billion people.

Italian couple Cristiano and Sofei Gianolla at AAP, Jaipur office. [Shahnawaz Akhtar/Al Jazeera]

A particular attraction for them is the meteoric rise of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party or Common Man’s Party (AAP) – a party that after a spectacular debut in provincial elections in New Delhi last December is contesting the parliamentary elections in a big way.

Soon after arriving in India, Cristiano and Sofei made their way to the AAP office to understand its ideology and modus operandi.

An Italian party with striking parallels to AAP has further fed their interest. “Italy too had witnessed a similar kind of an anti-corruption movement which led to the formation of the Five Star party that came into power. AAP’s journey has been similar,” Cristiano points out.

Be it the general ruckus associated with the massive election or the emergence of an upstart party like the AAP, the charm of the polls is attracting foreigners to its shores and India is witnessing what could be best described as “election tourism”.

The brainchild of Manish Sharma, who is the chairman of the Tourism Development Board, more and more foreign tourists are said to be visiting India with the sole purpose of witnessing the elections.

“Besides, England, Italy, Germany, Singapore, the people of Middle East, where there is no democracy, are taking a keen interest in witnessing how election takes place in the largest democracy on earth,” says Sharma.

Tailor-made packages for election-tourists are giving them a taste of electoral democracy. Once they arrive in the capital New Delhi, several options are available to hit the roads and experience the elections: tourists can either visit Agra, Lucknow, or even Varanasi. Other places they can choose to visit are Mumbai, Goa, Ahmedabad and Chandigarh.

Tourists at polling booth in Jaipur during the assembly polls
[Shahnawaz Akhtar/Al Jazeera]

Nestled on the banks of the River Ganges and dotted with temples, the ancient Hindu city of Varanasi in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has emerged as a major destination. It is from here that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is seeking election to the parliament and is locked in a contest with AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal.

The contest promises fireworks and officials say tourists are making a beeline for Varanasi for an adrenaline rush.

“Among all the cities, Varanasi has become the most sought after. Non-resident Indians (NRIs) are specially expressing more interest in visiting Varanasi during this particular time,” Sharma pointed out.

Election tours include visits to a campaign rally and office of political parties. Most of the high-profile leaders are campaigning across the country and have little or no time for tourists. But second-rung leaders do speak to the tourists and share their thoughts about the process.

Private tours

Sensing the potential, private tour operators have followed suit and are offering foreigners a slice of the elections.

“We had done it during state assembly election in December 2013 and besides making them visit rallies and meeting people, we had also arranged visits by several tourists to polling booths,” says Sanjay Kausik, a Jaipur-based tour operator.

Cristiano believes witnessing the elections will be a huge learning experience. Having read Mahatma Gandhi, he hopes to find out how the AAP plans to enforce self-rule for the people on the lines of Mahatma’s Swaraj.

For all its failings like poverty and inequality, India’s electoral democracy has stood the test of time and now, even the United Nations is looking to learn from it.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has signed an agreement with the Election Commission of India, allowing officials from 17 countries to visit India during the elections.

“The ultimate purpose is to learn how the election commission conducts free and fair polls using Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs),” said a UN official, requesting anonymity.

So, officials from Kenya, Uganda, Malaysia and several other countries will be touring India during the course of the elections.

They will have the company of many foreign tourists, equally keen to watch the spectacle and draw their own lessons.

Source: Al Jazeera