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Tourists, Locals Get In On India's Election-Themed Tours


In India, voting is underway in national elections, which last nearly six weeks. That's six weeks of campaign rallies and ballots in stages across the country. It's a festival-like atmosphere, and more tourists want to experience it. NPR's Lauren Frayer takes us on a new kind of tour that is popping up across India.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in foreign language).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Villagers chant praise for an Indian Cabinet minister as he wades into a crowd in a dusty lot between farm fields in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. Local men climb a tree to catch a glimpse of the politician. Women in colorful saris fan their babies and applaud. To the side, there's another group of Indians who stand out in their designer sunglasses and Western dress. Rahul Narvekar is an Internet startup executive here with his 13-year-old son, Rian.

RIAN: He wanted me to experience the elections.

RAHUL NARVEKAR: He lives a very sheltered life. He gets from the house into a car which is driven by my driver. And he's never had this kind of exposure.

FRAYER: You just said, dad, hold my hand. This kind of big crowd is not something you've seen before.

NARVEKAR: He's not used to it.

RIAN: I'm uncomfortable.

FRAYER: As India's economy grows, there are more and more people like Rahul and his son Rian, self-described urban elites in a country where the rural poor still decide most elections. Two-thirds of Indians still live in rural areas. Voter turnout is higher here.

NARVEKAR: And I wanted myself to experience this. And I wanted him also to experience it.

FRAYER: So Rahul and his son joined this tour run by an Indian media company called Firstpost. The guide is a veteran political journalist, Ajay Singh.

AJAY SINGH: As a reporter, I don't feel I saw something new. But they must have seen something new. So of course they are not accustomed. So that was the whole idea.

FRAYER: The whole idea is to take Indians on a tour of their own democracy, to campaign rallies like this one in the rural heartland and to the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, which is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency. Suraj Kishore from Mumbai is shocked to find how tech savvy rural voters are. It shattered stereotypes for him.

SURAJ KISHORE: There was livestreaming happening on Facebook over here. Generally, as a society, we think of rural Indians, they don't want to progress, no. It's pulsating. It's far more pulsating than urban India that is happy with eating sushi. And I'm just right now filled with so much inside.

FRAYER: Such tours are happening across India for foreigners, too.

MADDIE BORREY: When we travel, we like to understand the country we're in.

FRAYER: Australian Maddie Borrey, on an election tour of Mumbai, is learning about India's corruption problem through the personal experience of her guide, Balaji Subramanyam.

BALAJI SUBRAMANYAM: My experience, when I was 18, I was paid 200 rupees to vote somebody.

BORREY: Oh, really?

FRAYER: And that was worth your while.


SUBRAMANYAM: Not really. And I had no idea in those days what politic means.

FRAYER: Thousands of Hindus pray and ring bells on the banks of the Ganges River, a final stop on one of these tours. Kavita Sachwani works in finance in Mumbai. She says there are two Indias, and this tour gave her a taste of the one she doesn't live in.

KAVITA SACHWANI: I think it was a melting pot of very rich cultural, political, social - so many different experiences. It's overwhelming is one thing that I would say.

FRAYER: Nearby, a dock worker, Babu Sahani, watches as these Indian tourists from the big city light little oil lamps and set them afloat on the Ganges. I ask Babu if he thinks there are two Indias - his country and theirs.

BABU SAHANI: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "There is only one India," he says, "but those people - I think they must be foreigners." Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Varanasi, India. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.