A lot of people are making money off the upcoming Indian general elections. The guys who would be selling their goats for votes for the political parties to give out to voters as
bribes gifts; chopper companies airlifting vote-seeking, roving politicos; and now it seems, business savvy travel companies and tour operators. The Great Indian Election is now being compared to Indian festivals like Diwali and Holi which draw tourists from around the world—only this time, the spectacles on the itinerary include participating in political rallies and breaking bread with party workers. And PM Narendra Modi himself has invited the world to “see how democracy runs in the blood of Indians.”
“When tourists attend rallies and see how hundreds and thousands of people gather there, it’s something very new for them,” says Manish Sharma, chairman of Election Tourism India, (a project by a private tour company based out of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, and which works with 35 tour operators across the country), as also the chairman of Gujarat Tourism Development Corporation. “As part of the election tour, our travellers can meet candidates in rural and regional areas, meet an election commission officer and party leaders, and interact with them.”
Sharma’s company had first tried out this model during the historic 2014 Indian general elections. 5,200 people from countries including Germany, the UAE, Japan, Nepal, China and France had signed up for his election-centric itineraries that mixed local sight-seeing and a peek into India’s culture, architecture and heritage along with the political purpose. The company seems largely non-partisan, with leaders and rallies across parties making it to its agenda. But if a customer wants a customised itinerary focused on a single party, they can plan a trip specially for them as well. “It’s a win-win for everyone. While our tourists get to see the largest democracy in action and sometimes, ride with politicians in their jeeps or experience flower showers, the politicians also appreciate having foreigners in their rallies.” Election Tourism offers various packages across India (‘Northeast Egalitarianism’, ‘Maharashtra Political Tour’, the ‘Liberal Government of Gujarat’ which is honestly WTF and LOL at the same time). “But the most popular are the ones in north India: Varanasi, Delhi, Jaipur, Lucknow and such.” That might be because the Golden Triangle of India (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur) has always been a tourist trap, but now, a visit to the Taj Mahal can be followed up with “the most luscious dinner with the party officials,” as the website promises. Trips rage from seven to eight days, and cost between USD 315-430.
Nimisha Limbachia, a resident of Bromley in England, is one of the many in charge of taking tourists to India for election season. “In 2014, I took approximately 300 tourists just to see the elections,” she tells VICE. “This year, target tourist are 750-800 from UK and Scotland. During the election time, a visit to India is very different. It’s like a festival—you see flags everywhere, people wearing scarves of different parties, and there’s a lot of excitement.” That this 2019 election is India’s most important one in decades makes the deal sweeter, and so does the fact that these crushingly hot months are otherwise quite low-season for local travel operators.
There are other companies cashing in on the mood as well, even having tourists encouraging people to vote before polling season begins. And there we were thinking that Indians selling tickets to their wedding to foreigners was truly bizarre.
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.