The ‘Incredible India’ story just does not end with its fl ora and fauna, its natural splendour and its cultural heritage, the rich colourful attires and the pot-smoking holy men. As the country elects its next government, a select few travellers do not want to miss the chance to witness the world’s biggest democratic exercise…By Rekha Roy

At the onset of India’s summer in 2014 – the lean season in tourism lingo, when foreign tourists as well as non-resident Indians want to avoid vacationing in India – tour operators were much taken aback by a surprise demand from foreign tourists, including those of Indian origin, for customised tours of India, covering not just its various sites but also the ongoing elections – which started on April 7 and concluded on May 12 – to elect a new government.

The Indian elections – the largest democratic exercise in the world – have evinced strong interest globally this year owing to a multitude of factors. A huge anti-incumbency backlash against the ruling United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress party, often blamed for India’s continuing policy paralysis that had stalled growth, the meteoric rise of Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime ministerial candidate (a divisive right wing figure who many believe allowed the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002 although no courts ever found him guilty) and the surprising entry of Arvind Kejriwal, an anti-graft activist and chief of the barely-a-yearold Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) with a strong anti-corruption agenda have led to one of the most hotly contested elections in recent memory. Severely polarised between these influences, the Indian elections have grabbed headlines all over the world.

“In China, we take interest in US elections as we have a large population of Chinese people there but in Indian politics our interest is much more because this will directly affect the whole population next door and any change of government will surely affect our future relationship as neighbour and also as trade partner,” says Guangzhou-based Nancy Liu, 25, who is in India as part of what has come to be known as “Election Tourism Package.”

“Our system [in China] is also very different, so it was interesting to see how people vote in India,” Liu adds.
Initially although caught unawares, Indian tour operators soon rallied to put together election tourism packages as best as they could, working on demands from clients, throwing in rally visits, interactions with local politicians and election officials, poll booth visits and so forth.election-2

“We didn’t advertise any packages. People approached us for packages,” Subhash Goyal, founder-chairman of STIC Travel Group of Companies and president of the Indian Association of Tour operators, says. “From next election onwards I am sure all tour operators will have brochures ready.”

Goyal says between 25,000 and 30,000 international tourists are expected in India between April and May, including journalists.
According to a study conducted by the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), among 500 tour operators in different cities, there has been a 10-15 per cent upsurge in tourists from abroad, especially USA, UK, UAE, France, Singapore, Australia, China, Canada and Nigeria and over 62 per cent growth in number of domestic tourists on account of the elections.
Much of the interest has centred around the hot seats of contest like Delhi, Lucknow, Varanasi, Gujarat, where flight bookings went up by 15 per cent. The high-profile contests in Uttar Pradesh, especially in Varanasi and Lucknow, have worked out in favour of travel agents. In Varanasi especially, the David vs Goliath contest between Modi, widely tipped to be India’s next prime minister, and AAP’s Kejriwal is attracting the most number of election tourists. Foreign as well Indian students and small and medium business executives are travelling from various parts of countries and states to Varanasi, adds the ASSOCHAM paper.

The official data for Varanasi from Uttar Pradesh Tourism shows steady increase in foreign tourist footfall in the last three months – from 30,960 in January to 41,593 in March. The foreign tourist footfall in Varanasi in March had also almost doubled in the last two years, from 22,455 in 2012 to 41,593 in 2014.

“We are in the business, so we understand the people of the world need to see something new,” says Manish Sharma, director of Akshar Travels, who had experimented with this concept of election tourism first in 2012 during state elections in Gujarat. “There is heritage tourism, beach tourism, pilgrimage tourism, wildlife tourism, agricultural tourism, industrial tourism, leisure tourism, so why not election tourism?” Election tourism, Sharma says, is a great opportunity for “people to understand and explore how India’s democratic system works and gives them a chance to meet political leaders.”

election-3Sharma’s company is offering a $1200-to-$1600 package, which includes a week-long tour of various cities in India, in various stages of poll exercise: from rallies in New Delhi to campaigning in Varanasi, public rallies, poll campaigns, meeting party leaders and Poll Commission officers. Around 800 tourists from countries like the US, France, Nigeria and UAE have already signed up while the organisers are expecting at least 2,000 more to sign up. “This should be repeated every election year as I think this will help to showcase Indian politics on the world stage and hopefully will help to increase transparency in Indian elections,” says Nirav Navi, a 27-year-old Missouribased IT professional who has opted for Sharma’s package.

“We live in an international society now; no one can live in isolation anymore,” says R.S. Chowdhury, a Beijing-based businessman who got an election tourism package customised for himself and four friends by STIC. “Everyone is thinking and listening internationally. Chinese people, for e.g., are taking great interest in the Indian elections. They ask me for photos and reports every day,” he makes his point.

And apart from these tourists who want to soak up the political euphoria of the world’s largest democracy, there are also others, mainly non-resident Indians like Chowdhury who have been camping in India with a different sense of purpose. Deepak Kanth, a 35-year-old investment banker from London, has been in India campaigning for Modi for months now and says Modi is a very important catalyst for non-resident Indians who like his motto of ‘minimum government, maximum governance.’ There are also others who are attracted to Kejriwal’s AAP for its anti-graft agenda.

“The current state of affairs with mega corruption scandals involving millions and billions of public money filling the pockets of the elected representatives while the people are pushed to the brink of extinction is no longer acceptable to us,” says Shalini Gupta, organisation advisor of AAP and also the Coordinator of its NRI supporters in over 30 countries. “We are attracted by the vision of clean politics and the concept of Swaraj.”

Pleasure or purpose, tourism or tenacity, the Indian elections with all the flamboyance of its lead characters, is a mousetrap for foreign tourists this year. After all, when a billion people go to the polls, there’s got to be some ripple in the world.