Election tourism, international campaigns demonstrate scale of India’s election

Villagers from the Indian state of Gujarat listen to a local candidate before going to the polls. Photo courtesy of Dr. Bharat Barai.

Villagers from the Indian state of Gujarat listen to a local candidate before going to the polls. Photo courtesy of Dr. Bharat Barai.

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.”

Published in conjunction with UPI Logo



Chicago reporter covers violence, exposes hurt behind the numbers

Peter Nickeas

More than 400 times last year, family members had to stand next to the lifeless body of a loved one. More than 400 funerals. More than 400 trips to select a casket. More than 400 mourned by family and loved ones.

More than 400 times, murder – mostly from violence concentrated in several already-fragile neighborhoods – visited the streets of Chicago.

Yet the headlines bragged about the historic lows: Only 431 in 2013, they noted. But that’s news outlets focusing on the stats. One reporter in Chicago has made a point of trying to understand the humanity – the humans – behind the stats, behind the headlines, by going where the murders happen, when they happen, just like the cops.

Peter Nickeas was one of the first to respond to more than 225 of those crime scenes. One of two overnight breaking news reporters for the Chicago Tribune, he stood next to people whose sons, daughters, mothers, fathers and best friends had just been killed, people for whom the historic lows of Chicago violence mean absolutely nothing.

Nickeas talks to police officers, gang members, victims of violence and their families and friends. But he doesn’t stop there, where most reporters do.

For example, a man shot George Anderson in the head while he was standing in the street near Marquette Park on June 7. Police tape surrounded his dead body. A drunken man stumbled toward the tape, his black T-shirt pulled up over his head. He tried to walk through the crime scene. Cops tried to pull him back.

Marchello Kellum watched all this unfold. While a police officer’s Taser threatened the drunken man’s bare chest, Kellum spoke:

“You’re being real disrespectful. That’s my brother-in-law there.”

None of this information made it into the paper. But Nickeas wrote down what he saw and heard, and he included it under the timeline section of the Tribune’s website, along with pictures.

Nickeas at work in his original office.

Always on the phone, Nickeas stops at the Tribune a few times each night. John Kuhn/MEDILL

These short narratives reveal tension in crime scenes that typical stories with headlines like, “Man killed, four others wounded in Chicago overnight” lack. Nickeas writes both kinds of stories. But only one gets at what the 431 murders of 2013 mean for the city.

Nickeas is a part of an old tradition of crime reporting. The City News Bureau of Chicago used to serve as a wire service, alerting media outlets of breaking news. Reporters worked out of police stations and would sometimes go out with detectives.

But that started to dwindle in the ‘90s, and eventually the wire’s breaking news desk folded into the Tribune. And until Nickeas came along, overnight reporters worked from behind a desk, calling police districts for information. They went out only if there was a major story.

Nickeas is out every night. Two scanners, a laptop, phone, camera and sometimes even a staff photographer in tow, Nickeas’ car is his desk, the streets his newsroom. He encompasses both the beat-down fatigue of a worn war reporter and the compassion of a social worker. He talks straight, and in the language of the streets.

“My job is to take what I see and spit it out as something people can relate to. It’s about the neighborhood. It’s about the reaction. You can’t fucking do that unless you spend time on the job,” he said. “Nobody else, dude, is out there on the fucking streets.”

Dan Haar, Nickeas’ editor at the Tribune, said his timelines are resonating with people. The more traditional, bare facts stories, he said, have desensitized readers to the emotion hidden within them. And people want more.

“He gets email all the time from people saying, ‘You made me realize what this murder rate is really like,’” he said. “It’s something we should have been aching for. And now it’s indispensable,” Haar said.

Nickeas believes the city is tearing itself apart, and that covering the violence by dry numbers alone doesn’t help anyone understand the effects of the killings, which is why the streets are his office.

“I didn’t get into this so I could have a 9-5 punch the clock,” he said. “It’s important. I know it’s important.”

His timelines include what he sees and hears on the job. In one, “My soul is damn near destroyed,” he is at the funeral of 30-year-old Alphonso Love, killed just months after his 27-year-old sister. Nickeas is standing next to their mother:

“‘I don’t wanna go in there, I don’t wanna go in there,’ she cried again.

A man with white gloves held the glass doors open under a sign that read, ‘United Baptist Church’ and ‘Serving God through Humanity.’

The preacher’s steady voice guided Love and a small group of relatives down the aisle. ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.’

The man with the white gloves shut the doors.”

In this way, “Pete shows you the numbers,” Haar said. “You see his eye. You see what he’s hearing. He’s watching and listening so he can show you the stories that he sees.”

You stand next to Nickeas and observe parents explaining to their kids the proper way to duck their heads when they hear that firecracker noise.

You see intoxicated and entitled nightclub patrons indignant that they are forced to walk around a dead person lying in the street.

You witness a man – stuck outside the tape surrounding the city’s latest murder victim – try to seduce a woman who’s unable to enter her home until the freshly killed body is removed.

Nickeas’ reporting demands that you think about having to explain to your 6-year-old why someone would want to hurt somebody else. In front of your house.

“How do you answer that question? Why should you ever have to answer that question?” Nickeas asked.

Haar said questions like this bring the numbers to life. “This shows you what a fatal shooting does to a neighborhood. What it did to 400 neighbors, 400 families.”

It’s why Nickeas believes the type of coverage he provides is crucial. He’s putting a face on national security issues that are often viewed in a macro sense. He’s portraying security as something intensely personal, which it is.

He said sweeping societal statements about bad people doing bad things don’t do the victims or the offenders of the violence justice. And the same goes with police department press releases.

Peter Nickeas filing from his car.

Shuffling scanners, a laptop, camera and notebook, Nickeas reports and files stories from his car. John Kuhn/MEDILL

“You need to write about people making bad decisions,” and show that there’s a difference between excusing bad behavior and citing circumstances that contribute to it.

He said people should be aware of things like the Dan Ryan Expressway, which isolated poor, black Chicagoans from the rest of the community. To this day, the freeway—built while Richard J. Daley was mayor— contributes to the violence. But, “You can’t go around shooting people up because Old Man Daley was an asshole.”

These kinds of contributing factors aren’t present in all of Nickeas’ timelines. But the best ones get at them.

And it’s easy to forget just how hard—and sometimes dangerous—it is to do what Nickeas does during his shift.

Adam Sege is the other overnight breaking news reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He was hired a year after Nickeas, in October of 2012. Following the model set by Nickeas, Sege has produced similar work. Together and with the help of staff photographers, they bring the Tribune’s timelines to life.

He’s been chased by a man who he thought had a gun. Cursed at countless times by grieving and angry residents.

He has rules for his coined defense-by-offensive driving:

Don’t stop at red lights. Creep up to them, time them right. Don’t allow for ambiguity at stop signs. Make it clear whose turn it is to go. Avoid one-way streets that have speed bumps. Always avoid alleys.

His job takes him into dangerous places at dangerous times. Places where revenge is commonplace and the sounds of fired weapons echo only blocks away.

Personal risk is required of him in order to know the streets and neighborhoods where the killings happen. In order to describe them in timelines.

To cover the stories he does, to notice the detail and hear the conversations, “You have to keep your eyes open when you don’t want to. I’m good at keeping my eyes open,” Nickeas said.

Like when he and a photographer stuck around after firefighters left the scene of George Anderson’s murder and noticed Jennifer Wallace pour liquid from a yellow cup over the ground where he died, in silent tribute.

But what Nickeas sees comes at a price.

“When you’re standing back watching, you just have to absorb. It’s some sad-ass shit. If you’re around this drama it starts to affect you. It jades you. It affects your view on society,” he said.

But, “If it hurts me to write it,” he added, “I can basically assume that somebody’s going to read it.” Describing firefighters, for example, as they hose blood from a basketball court where 13 people were shot is probably tough to do. But it’s something most people don’t get to see otherwise.

It dredges up emotion. Exposes the broader hurt.

And that’s “like turning a light on and seeing things for what they are. Now you saw the people on the street. You saw people crying. You see how they remove the body. You see how they hose down the sidewalk. You’re seeing all this overnight. A lot of times it’s on a dark block—nobody cares that somebody’s dying,” Haar said.

It’s enough light to give a glimpse of those 431 families.

Peter Nickeas at the scene.

Nickeas responded to more than 225 crime scenes in 2013. John Kuhn/MEDILL

The magic of miniatures: Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle makeover becomes an exhibit within an exhibit

On a recent visit, 8-year-old Riley Baden of Chicago excitedly led her grandmother, Ramona Marotz-Baden, who was visiting from Montana, by the hand from glass case to case.

On a recent visit, 8-year-old Riley Baden of Chicago excitedly led her grandmother, Ramona Marotz-Baden, who was visiting from Montana, by the hand from glass case to case.

In an 80-year-old home, scorched ceilings and walls and water leaks from outdated electrical and plumbing systems are a problem. They’re an especially big problem in a miniature home.

That miniature home is Colleen Moore’s iconic Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry. The castle has been taken apart—and shifted one room over—this winter as it undergoes a meticulous makeover.

In a first, though, the work is being done in full public view.

Through February, the castle conservation will exist as an exhibit within an exhibit—giving visitors a chance to engage specialists who are painstakingly working to stabilize and safeguard the dated castle infrastructure, as well as admire the castle’s storied artifacts in 360-degree view.

One thing’s clear: This ain’t your typical dollhouse.

The meticulous magnificence of Moore’s nearly nine-foot doll castle ensures there’s something for everyone to see.

Tucked into a dim museum corner, the exhibit’s 1,500 tiny artifacts glimmer and shine invitingly, providing just the light visitors need.

Most of the artifacts are so small that just talking in front of them could blow them over, so even during conservation they are kept encased in glass.

On a recent visit, 8-year-old Riley Baden of Chicago excitedly led her grandmother, Ramona Marotz-Baden, who was visiting from Montana, by the hand from glass case to case.

“It’s pretty neat,” Riley said. “I really like Cinderella’s shoes.”

If the castle restoration goes according to plan, Riley will be able to show those same Cinderella slippers to grandchildren of her own.

fairy books 2

A Castle Comes to Town

Colleen Moore had strong Chicago connections.

In 1936 she married Chicago stockbroker Homer Hargrave, who worked at what was then Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Beane.

In the late 1920s, Moore enlisted nearly 100 friends to build the larger-than-life dollhouse, which was partially modeled off of her own mansion and cost a half-million dollars when it was finished in 1935, which amounts to more than $8.5 million in today’s currency, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Lenox Lohr, who headed the museum at the time, convinced Moore the castle’s final stop should be Chicago. The deal was proposed and sealed over dinner on a train in 1949.

A Chicago Daily Tribune article from the same year captured the conversation:

“When I was seated next to Maj. Lohr at a dinner recently in the directors’ coach at the Chicago Railroad fair, he mentioned the dollhouse while we were having soup,” Moore said.

“And by the time dessert was served, he had the dollhouse!”

The dollhouse can be broken down into 200 individual pieces. Before its final stop in Chicago, the miniature castle toured the United States for almost 15 years, raising roughly $650,000 for children’s charities.

The Conservation Process

Four conservation specialists with extensive knowledge in chemistry and material science are making structural repairs to the castle.

The castle contains running water as well as electricity, which is part of the reason it’s in need of repairs.

Soon, the castle will again come to life with modern lighting, and its water features will be replaced with fiber optic machinery, replicating flowing water but preventing future leaks. The new lighting will maintain an old look, however, and even its original plumbing will be left in place after treatment in an attempt to uphold the castle’s historic integrity.

“Everything they do is reversible,” museum curator Margaret Schlesinger said of the specialists’ work.

For example, some of the paint on the castle’s exterior is flaking. To fix it, experts apply special glue underneath the flakes before pressing them back down and using another concoction to make the surface adhere once again.

Finally, they’ll apply a matching acrylic paint for a seamless repair, one that can be completely undone layer-by-layer if future specialists think it’s necessary.

This way the castle’s integrity remains intact, ensuring that the exhibit’s lasting impressions last.

“This type of work typically goes unseen by guests, but it’s critical work that is of highest importance to us,” museum director of collections Kathleen McCarthy said.

“This is a great opportunity for kids and adults alike to learn more about the science and technology involved in preserving artifacts.”

fairy conservation

Conservation: A Misnomer?

Conservation is not an exact science. Even motivations for conserving vary widely, given an individual’s specific angle.

In art historian Salvador Munoz-Vinas’ book “Contemporary Theory of Conservation,” for example, readers are forced to take apart the term “original integrity.”

Specialists often work to return an artifact to its true from, but Munoz-Vinas cites Dr. Chris Caple, director of artifact conservation at Durham University in England, who wrote:

“Every object has evolved through its creation and use; any and every point within an object’s working life could be described as its ‘true nature’—making it impossible to define one point as the true nature of the object as opposed to any other.”

One reason for conservation, Munoz-Vinas wrote, is to preserve the “sentimental symbolic meanings that an object has” for large groups, small groups or even individuals—which squarely encapsulates a fairy castle exhibit that was conceived by one, brought to life by a few and has enchanted millions.

Versions of truth and symbolic meanings aside, the museum’s exhibit within an exhibit represents further corroboration at a museum already known for its interactivity.

“What better way of promoting science—and promoting housekeeping, in a way—than by doing it in front of people,” Schlesinger said.

fairy mugs

So, What’s the Intrigue?

If the conservation work isn’t enough to sell you on a trip to a giant dollhouse, some of what’s inside just might.

Usually, the castle’s 1,500 miniatures are difficult to see, neatly set, each in its ornate place. But now, each room can be viewed from all sides. Guests can press their noses just inches from the world’s smallest Bible; a Syrian vase from 740 A.D.; an authentic Roman Bronze head; a painting donated by Walt Disney himself; or pewter mugs with wooden handles—the wood coming
from a damaged Westminster Abbey.

“It has something for everyone,” Schlesinger said. “It’s a tradition for folks to come back generation after generation.”

“They get caught in the fantasy—in wanting to be six inches tall.”

Schlesinger said the exhibit speaks to all ages—from 6-year-olds to 60-year-olds, from hipsters to middle-aged men.

“I’ve heard every single age group remark on how cool it is.”

There’s a sense of wonder, or magic, these homes and items evoke.

To many, something is worthy of conservation because “it’s a type of material that can cross cultures,” said Rachel Sabino, special projects conservation specialist at the Art Institute of Chicago. “It’s a common link for society.”

And it’s a strong link between generations, which Hildegard Popoff has seen first hand.

She has owned All Small Miniatures in Frankfort for 38 years. The store doesn’t build dollhouses, but can restore, conserve and equip them with just about anything you can imagine. “It’s a labor or love,” she said.

Time and again, this labor of love brings in someone who nostalgically asks, “Do you remember me?”

Popoff said it’s men and women who visited her shop as children and are now back with daughters or sons of their own.

“Well no,” she answers with a smile, “that was 20 years ago.”

Either way, “It’s very important to me that the customer leaves here and has joy and is happy,” Popoff said. “There is nothing that leaves this shop that I don’t approve of.”

Joy—she said—is crucial no matter what you’re doing, and “a little bit of that is missing in today’s world.”

It could be that that joy and Sabino’s common link mix to create the immense sense of wonder that saturates the miniature world of Colleen Moore and Hildegard Popoff.

It was more than shiny shoes, after all, that drew Riley Baden from case to case, grandmother in hand.

“It’s the imagination of it all,” museum spokeswoman Beth Boston said, “Of making fantasy a reality, of making what seems impossible—possible.”

No matter your age, height or style, the miniature world makes room for you to escape.

A community in pain willing to give Sharpton a try

She wept.

Standing on her second step just after noon on a Wednesday, Mandy Wallace couldn’t talk about the future of her Englewood community without tears filling her eyes.

But the pervasive violence afflicting Chicago’s most underserved communities makes it a topic tough to avoid.

Late last fall, the Rev. Al Sharpton contributed to the conversation by announcing he’s rented an apartment on the West Side, where he’ll be staying once a week. He plans to draw attention to men and women working to fight against violence.

Whether Sharpton’s approach or any of the talk surrounding gun violence will work, Wallace is certain about at least one thing.

“If they don’t live in it, then they shouldn’t speak on it,” Wallace said as she grabbed her mail and swallowed back tears, now a habit for her.

“I’ve seen it,” she said. “And it hurts. It hurts like hell to see our neighborhood turn out like this.”

Wallace said she has been living in Englewood since the 1970s. She’s adamant that too narrow a view is often taken at the violence, aiming blame at neighborhood kids.

“You can’t blame these kids,” she said. “It’s never been no fascination to me—some of these kids, their parents are on drugs.”

In a monthlong span from mid-September to mid-October, a Chicago Tribune investigation showed 61 reports of violent crime in Englewood alone. Add that to the neighborhood’s 112 quality-of-life crimes and 133 property crimes in the same period, it’s easy to see why Wallace’s eyes so easily well with tears.

Further, University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, which uses science to advise both government and non-government agencies on innovative approaches to reduce violence, released a 2008 report that showed “a large share of homicides of Chicago youth stem from impulsive behavior—young people with access to guns, massively over-reacting to some aspect of their social environment.”

The desperate effects of this reactionary and impulsive violence can be heard in the young voices of communities that see the bulk of it.

“It’s just a broken system,” one man, who only wanted to be identified as Hakeem, said before hoisting his book bag to board a bus on Garfield Boulevard.

“Nothing has really helped.”

“You born into a community like this, you’re only going to be able to do certain things with your life.”

Terrell McGill, 43, was vaguely upbeat about Sharpton’s chances of changing the communities he plans to work in. Waiting for laundry, he emphasized that Sharpton holds the respect of many community members.

“He’s sharp now, he was sharp then,” he said. “It could make a difference. I’d love to see him down here. Maybe some of the gang members will ease up.”

In an October interview, Sharpton said he thinks community leaders at the ground level have helped Chicago turn a corner in the fight against violence.

But among decrepit buildings, vacant storefront churches and nearly empty sidewalks strewn with tires, litter and men idly jumbling loose change on Halsted Street, it’s hard to see which corner this fight has turned. The effect of the violence on the economy, however, is evident.

Wallace said that increased opportunities for young men to get an education could definitively help her community.

“Open up trade schools,” she said. “There are some young men who want to get their lives back together.”

Dr. Albert Bennett, professor of public policy and education at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, said “targeting specific populations with a well-crafted opportunity” could be successful in underserved urban communities, but “it has to be well conceived and well executed.”

Bennett is also the director of the St. Clair Drake Center for African American Studies at Roosevelt, and part of his research has centered on young black men in under-sourced urban settings.

“We can’t lose another generation of students—we have to get it right,” he said.

On Garfield Boulevard, as Wallace began to corral her anxious dog and head back inside, she shot quickly back around.

“I put my hope in God, because that’s our only source,” she said.

“Man has failed tremendously. We go to nobody but God, and he is going to turn it around. My hope is in God.”

But her presence, tears and empathy demonstrate the paradox: That’s not necessarily the case.

In the 15 or so minute span she was outside, two different neighbors, seeing her with a stranger, stopped to make sure she was OK; one woman even pulled to the curb and sprang from her car to check on her.

Their hope is also in each other.