WASHINGTON – As India’s colossal election – more than 800 million voters casting ballots for more than a month – enters its final phase, its international reach is clear.
Through social media, cell phones, trips to India to help in campaigns and even election tourism packages, Indian expatriates and adventurous, civic-minded travelers are contributing to the cacophony that is the world’s largest election to date.
More than 814 million people are eligible to vote this spring, more than the entire population of Europe. Registered voters have cast or will cast ballots at more than 900,000 polling stations in one of nine phases between April 7 and May 12. Results are expected by May 16.
The sheer scale of this year’s election has attracted a lot of attention from the rest of the world – from civic boosters to those looking to profit from the attention.
Election Tourism India 2014, an initiative launched under India’s Tourism Development Board, combines both motives. The group offers packages such as the “Democratic Triangle” or the “Political Rajasthan Royals,” where guests can familiarize themselves with India’s national parties and candidates and get a taste of the country’s electoral process.
Tours cost between $1,200 and $1,600 for everything but the plane ticket, and intersperse the campaign stops with trips to India’s most famous landmarks such as the Taj Mahal. Groups from the U.S. and Europe have booked trips with Election Tourism India, a spokesman said in an email, and countries from just about every continent are showing interest.
India’s roughly 1.3 billion people make it the world’s largest democracy. In a visit as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton underscored the country’s importance. “We understand that much of the history of the 21st century will be written in Asia, and that much of the future of Asia will be shaped by decisions” made in India, she said.
Some Americans wishing to get more directly involved with the election process in India have bucked the tourist route, opting instead for a more direct role campaigning for a candidate. Many are nonresident Indians who live in the U.S. but maintain duel-citizenship. More than 3 million Americans identify as having Indian ancestry.
Emblematic of expat Indian interest in the election is Bharat Barai. a doctor of oncology and former chairman of the Medical Licensing Board of Indiana. Barai returned this month from a two-week trip to India.
Barai’s dual-citizenship status makes him ineligible to cast a vote in India’s election. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be involved in the process.
Joined by men from Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, Barai flew to Gujarat, a state in Northwest India that is home to Narendra Modi, who experts say is likely to be India’s next prime minister. Modi is now chief minister of Gujarat, which is the equivalent of a governor, and a leader in the Bharatiya Janata Party, one of India’s two largest political parties.
He’s the reason Barai traveled to India, and why he plans to go back again.
Barai and the others paid for their trip themselves, calling it “a service to the country and a service to our conscience.” In Gujarat, they traveled with local candidates to more than 15 villages, urging crowds as large as 200 to vote, and, specifically, to vote for Narendra Modi, Barai said.
Barai added that he knows of more than 700 people across North America who have called friends and relatives in India, encouraging them to vote for Modi and his party.
“To be honest,” Barai said, “I haven’t found any [non-resident Indian] who is against Narendra Modi, and I’m active in lots of social circles in Northwest Indiana and Chicago.”
One of the factors that motivated Barai to get involved was a sense that Indian elites across the globe have publicly voiced their resentment of Modi, he said. “If they are against Modi, then I’m going to stick out my neck saying, ‘Here is a clean, decent, honest man who needs to be elected on his own merits – and this false propaganda against him needs to stop,’” Barai said.
But famous Indian-born writers such as Salman Rushdie have written open letters condemning Modi for his role, or lack of role, in Hindu-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002.
Modi was one year into his tenure as chief minister when approximately 1,200 people—mostly Muslims—were killed in riots. Multiple reports said that the police did nothing to stop the violence, and some accused Modi of allowing or even encouraging it. Indian courts, however, have cleared Modi of any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the U.S. has not lifted a ban on Modi’s travel visa that it put in place in 2005.
Some Americans are concerned that Modi’s baggage could exacerbate religious tension and friction between India and Pakistan.
“Those concerns are widespread in the American Muslim community, and particularly with those of South Asian descent,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.
But like Barai, not everyone sees it that way. Prashant Patel, president of Gujarati Samaj in Washington, a nonprofit that sponsors cultural events from the state of Gujarat, said that most club members support Modi.
“They seem to be very proud of his achievements in Gujarat,” he said. “As you know he’s been elected three times [since the 2002 riots] with 70 percent of the vote in Gujarat, so you can look at the question that way.”
Modi’s opponent is Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress Party, but even that party thinks it will lose this round of the election, said Teresita Schaffer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank. The question is how badly, she said.
“The most dangerous outcome would be this rickety coalition,” Schaffer said, which would mean neither party received enough votes to run the country on its own. This kind of government, she said, could be another “prototypical weak government that hasn’t been able to deal with issues like peace with Pakistan.”