India's 6-Week-Long Elections Are So Big They've Become A Tourist Draw

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In a dusty lot between farm fields, an Indian Cabinet minister wades into a crowd of supporters chanting his name. Local men climb a tree to catch a glimpse of the famous politician. Women in colorful saris fan their babies in 100-degree heat, and applaud.

Rural communities like this one in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, are where Indian elections are hard fought and won. Two-thirds of Indians live in the countryside, and they vote at a higher rate than their urban counterparts.

At this particular rally for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, there's a group of Indians who stand out in their designer sunglasses and Western dress. They linger off to the side, separated from the local farmers by a chasm of class and wealth.

They're domestic tourists, here on a tour of their own democracy. With nearly 900 million eligible voters, Indian elections are considered the largest in the world — a festival of democracy with nearly six weeks of rallies, speeches and voting. Increasingly, tourists want to experience this. A handful of tour operators have started offering political tours this election season.

Rian Narvekar (center, in white hat), 13, interacts with local boys his age while on an election-themed tour of Uttar Pradesh state. Rian's father took him on this tour to understand politics in India's rural heartland.
Furkan Latif Khan / NPR

"He dragged me here," says Rian Narvekar, 13, rolling his eyes at his father, beside him. They've traveled all the way from the Indian capital, New Delhi, more than 500 miles away. "He wanted me to experience the elections."

"He lives a very sheltered life," says Rian's father, Rahul Narvekar, 46, an Internet startup executive. "He gets from the house into a car, which is driven by a driver. He's never had this kind of exposure. I wanted myself to experience this, and I wanted him also to experience this."

So Narvekar took his son on a four-day election-themed educational tour of India organized this month by an Indian media company called Firstpost. The tour guide is a veteran political journalist, Ajay Singh, who takes a group of loyal readers — mostly self-described urban elites from cosmopolitan New Delhi and Mumbai — to parts of the country many of them have never visited.

"It's often said that the road to power in Delhi passes through Uttar Pradesh," Narvekar says.

The last day of India's six-week elections is this Sunday, and ballots will be counted on May 23. Earlier this month, researchers estimated voter turnout at 67%. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party is running for another five-year term in power.

Manoj Sinha, a BJP Cabinet minister, works the crowd at a campaign rally in his constituency in Ghazipur.
Furkan Latif Khan / NPR

The Firstpost tour takes visitors to campaign rallies in the rural heartland and to the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, which is Modi's own constituency.

As the Narvekars chat with locals at a BJP rally, a crowd forms around them. Rian asks his father to hold his hand. "I'm uncomfortable," he says. But his father reassures him, and before long, Rian is using his smartphone to record video of boys his age, asking them on camera what they think of the Indian elections.

"What do we have in common? Our age and that we're Indian. That's about it," Rian tells NPR.

Another of the tourists, Suraj Kishore, who is in his 40s and works in advertising in Mumbai, is shocked to find how tech savvy rural voters are. It has shattered stereotypes for him.

"There was livestreaming happening on Facebook over here! Generally as a society, we think rural India means they don't want to progress. But no — it's pulsating," says Kishore. "It's far more pulsating than urban India, which is happy with eating sushi. I'm just right now filled with so much insight."

Such tours are happening across India — in both rural and urban constituencies and for Indians and foreigners alike.

"When we travel, we like to understand the country we're in," says Maddie Borrey, an Australian tourist who joined an election-themed tour of Mumbai in April. "We thought it was a bit off the beaten tourist track, and the better understanding you have, the brighter the experience."

The tour that Borrey takes is a new offering by Reality Tours, a local outfit that also guides tourists through Mumbai's biggest slum, Dharavi. On the election tour, it takes tourists on a walking route past the state legislature of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is the capital, and the local Election Commission headquarters. Tour guides field tourists' questions about how many seats are in the lower house of India's Parliament (545), when voting takes place (in seven stages, from April 11 to May 19) and what ballots look like (they're cast electronically on voting machines that show symbols for each party).

One of the guides on Borrey's tour also tries to educate tourists about India's corruption problem by sharing his own experience.

On an election-themed tour of India's heartland, tourists from Mumbai and New Delhi take photos of monuments, Hindu prayer ceremonies and funeral pyres along the banks of the Ganges River.
Furkan Latif Khan / NPR

"When I was 18 years old, I was paid 200 rupees [about $3 at today's exchange rate] to vote for somebody," guide Balaji Subramanyam explains, as the tourists' eyes grow wide. "I had no idea in those days what politics even means."

The Firstpost tour culminates in a sunset boat trip along the Ganges River in Varanasi, where thousands of Hindus pray and burn incense nightly. Faithful worship the river as a goddess, Mother Ganga.

As the boat passes funeral pyres burning on the river's banks, a tourist from Mumbai remarks how there may be two Indias — and that this tour gave her a taste of the one in which she does not live.

"We really felt the heat and dust of the elections! It's very difficult to articulate — overwhelming is one thing I'd say," says finance executive Kavita Sachwani. "I knew it would be very special, but it surpassed my highest expectations."

Nearby, a dockworker, Babu Sahani, watches as Sachwani and other tourists from the big city light little oil lamps and set them afloat on the Ganges. Afterward, NPR asks the 18-year-old dockworker if he thinks there are indeed two Indias — his country and theirs.

"There is only one India," Sahani says. "But those people," he says — pointing to the tourists — "I think they must be foreigners."

NPR producers Sushmita Pathak and Furkan Latif Khan contributed to this report.

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