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Foreign diplomats hit the campaign trail

April 17, 2009 04:11 IST
A general election in India's troubled neighbourhood usually warrants the dispatch of official election observers from the United Nations or European Union. But the poll process in the largest democracy of the world is an opportunity for first-hand learning.

Many foreign diplomats have decided to imbibe the kaleidoscope of experiences on offer during the poll process here, travelling to constituencies or accompanying candidates contesting the polls.

An American diplomat who went to study the Haryana elections said on her return, "I am from Sacramento in California. At the height of the tech boom, California reported a GDP growth of 9 or 10 per cent. Here is a state in India that reported a growth of 14.6 per cent at one point in the last four years. That is awesome."

While this is not the first time diplomats would be keenly observing the election process from the sidelines, an Election Commission official said such delegations do not have any official sanction and the EC does not keep a tab on the visits of diplomats or delegations to constituencies during election time. The usual practice is that the foreign diplomats keep the Ministry of External Affairs in the loop about any visits they might undertake. However, diplomats from the US, UK and China "have been going around", said a diplomat from one of the Asean countries.

But not all diplomats have travel plans. Diplomats from the Delegation of the European Commission to India and member-countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development -- such as Ireland, Denmark, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic -- said their respective missions were not planning such trips.

Among those who do plan to travel is a Swedish diplomat, who is scheduling a trip to the Mathura Lok Sabha constituency (polling on May 7). The diplomat has been invited to Mathura by its sitting Congress MP Manvendra Singh, who is recontesting this time around and is up against the BSP's Shyam Sundar Sharma.

The Swedish diplomat told Business Standard that one issue that had caught his attention was the contrast in the attitude between the educated middle-class citizens and poorer sections among urban and rural voters. The former group is apathetic towards voting, the latter turns out in large numbers. Why is that, he is asking himself. In Sweden, voter turnout for a national election is 75 to 80 per cent, but the turnout for the European Parliament elections is just around 40 per cent. Concerns have been raised in that country about the dropping voter turnout rates in the 18-22 age group, although at 74 per cent, it is still high by any standards.

Elsewhere in India, delegation-level visits have begun. In an e-mail reply, Dan Chugg, director (press and communications) at the British High Commission, said: "Our staff in Delhi have visited six states over the last couple of months to talk to a wide number of political parties and politicians about the forthcoming polls. We also have staff in Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai who keep an eye on political parties in their regions."

"As yet, we don't have specific plans to watch the polling on the election days, but we will be watching the media coverage and results with interest," he added.

A three-member European Parliament delegation -- distinct from the Delegation of European Commission to India -- visited the Kadapa Lok Sabha constituency in Andhra Pradesh six weeks ago and some observers may be posted there on an "unofficial basis" after the TDP accused the Congress of poll misconduct.

Diplomats concede there is the danger of their presence being misunderstood. The Uttar Pradesh government took a dim view of the visit of a diplomat to Azamgarh recently to meet Muslim clerics on the grounds that the district administration was not informed. But for the most part, diplomats feel they are lucky to watch the poll process in action in the world's largest democracy where an approximately 714 million people -- an increase of 43 million since the 2004 general elections -- cast their vote in 8,28,804 polling stations in 543 constituencies.

Norway's ambassador to India, Ann Ollestad, is excited about the potential of young voters and political leaders, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah to cite one, in positively influencing the Indian polity. Due to the embassy's social sector projects in India, mainly in areas of children and women welfare and renewable energy, Ollestad is also interested in the weight given to these issues by various political parties.

Spain's deputy ambassador to India, Gonzalo Ortiz, said jocularly that though he and the National Democratic Alliance's prime ministerial candidate L K Advani shared the same birthday (November 8), he was a votary of the potential of India's young voters and leaders across party lines. He also noted that there were lessons to be drawn from observing the election process in India as there were similarities in political structures in India and Spain. Both have elected Parliaments, with the executive powers vested with the prime minister.

The complexity of the India's political calculus has also made many diplomats reluctant psephologists. No one is hazarding a guess on the position of parties after the elections, but they are, however, ready for various lessons on offer until the counting day on May 16 and after.

K S Manjunath
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