Non-resident Indians in Northwest eye election with longing, concern

Election ink is applied to a voter's index finger after casting their ballot in the Lok Sabha elections in India. (Photo by Jane D'Souza)
(Photo by Jane D’Souza)

Way back on April 7th India went to the polls. And up until yesterday, they were still there.

Divided by region into nine phases that spread over a little more than a month, India yet again set the record for the largest election in human history.

This time, the once-in-five-year exercise to elect 543 local representatives to the Lok Sabha (House of the People) was bigger than ever. More than three quarters of a billion Indians were eligible to vote in almost a million polling booths across the country, and a record setting 66 percent turned out and cast votes.

Considering India’s growing economic influence, non-resident Indians in the Seattle area like me are watching this election very closely.

Santosh Pal a software professional from Seattle said that the Indian elections are the only thing he’s following, apart from his family and work.

“I can only try to console myself for not being able to vote. It has been 14 years since I’ve not been in India during the elections and I’ve never ever felt that I was missing something,” Pal said. “This time is different. My heart and mind are back home and this will continue till the last polling day in India.”

Voting schedule for the 2014 Indian General Election. (Map via Wikipedia)
Voting schedule for the 2014 Indian General Election. (Map via Wikipedia)

Opinion polls have long been predicting that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies were poised to win a majority of the seats in the Parliament — and early exit polls now suggest a landslide victory.

If they’re correct, the BJP’s vice-president Narendra Modi will take over the office of Prime Minister from Manmohan Singh of the United Progressive Alliance (a coalition government formed by the Indian National Congress and its allies).

Sudip Paul, a 27-year-old PhD student at the University of Washington, says he’s proud of India’s democracy and election process.

“At the time of India’s Independence, a lot of commentators wrote off our democracy, saying that it would fall into the hands of an autocratic ruler. India proved them wrong and continues to prove them wrong,” Paul said. “As an Indian citizen I feel proud of our system.”

Paul says he hopes that one day Indians will be given the right to vote from abroad like American citizens can in their elections.

As you might expect after ten years of continuous rule, disillusionment with the UPA is running high. In the decade they’ve been in power, India has seen billion-dollar corruption scams, tribal displacement in mineral-rich states, horrific incidences of gender-related violence (only one of which made it to the global media), decriminalization and then the recent re-criminalization of homosexual sex by the Supreme Court, and a national anti-corruption movement that gradually led to the creation of the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Modi — projected to be the next Prime Minister — ran a campaign based on the alleged economic prosperity in Gujarat, the state he’s led for five consecutive terms. Scholars and think tanks have found holes in his model, but what many in liberal India can’t shake is the fact that he was in power when violent anti-Muslim riots broke out in 2002.

Supporters of the BJP campaign wearing masks of Narendra Modi, who is projected to be India's next Prime Minister. (Photo by Avinash Lodha)
Supporters of the BJP in Rajasthan campaign wearing masks of Narendra Modi, who is projected to become India’s next Prime Minister. (Photo by Avinash Lodha)

Accused of standing by while hundreds of Muslims were killed, he was denied a diplomatic visa by the U.S. government in 2005 (a ban that will lift should he become Prime Minister).

Harjeet Chandwani, a project manager from Redmond, is part of the Aam Aadmi Party’s Seattle team. Though their primary goal has been fundraising, he and other party volunteers in the Seattle area have been using their expertise and working as support staff for various constituencies.

“We call it ‘booth management.’ Our overall goal is to reduce the burden of the ground team so they can focus on more important things. For example, we call up volunteers in our adopted constituencies to motivate them and check if everything is going well,” he said.

For Chandwani, this helps make up for the fact that they won’t be voting in the election themselves.

“We are missing all this ground action but this is a golden opportunity we’ve earned to help get rid of corruption. It’s difficult to go to India to vote but we are trying to do what we can from here,” he added. They have weekly meetings every Saturday.

This cross-continental dedication to politics isn’t rare.

Former Seattle resident and Microsoft software professional Prashant Mishra dropped his life in the U.S. to stand for office for the AAP against a current cabinet minister and powerful businessman, Praful Patel.

Mishra entered politics not for the power, he says, but to “change the current corrupt and self-serving system of politics.”

The appeal of alternative candidates makes a lot of sense.

Following the proliferation information dissemination since the last election, more ideas and news have been reaching a new Indian audience. This is an audience that is glued to 24/7 news channels and has the mobile internet access, a major advantage considering that a lot of India is still illiterate.

A polling booth officer checks a voter's identity on the electoral roll in the state of Maharashtra. (Photo by Nupur D'Souza)
A polling booth officer checks a voter’s identity on the electoral roll in the state of Maharashtra. (Photo by Nupur D’Souza)

This election the right to choose “none of the above” is on every Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) in the country, on order from the Supreme Court.

“Its chance of influencing any decision-making in selection of candidates is extremely slim. However it gives the voter a chance to voice her dissatisfaction and furthers their right to express themselves,” said Indian information activist Shailesh Gandhi.

Seattle-based poet Abhinav Shukla has a simple wish for any future Indian government: “As an NRI, I would like to see a stable, corruption-free and strong government running the country.”

For Chandwani, this mammoth electoral exercise hits much closer to home.

“This election is not important for me. This election is important for my daughter,” he said. “I know things are not going to change in say two or three years but it’s an evolving process. Maybe in five, ten or 15 years we will see change.”

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3 Comments

  1. Nice article Edlyn. Feels good to hear great thoughts on the democratic system in India. I am really proud of ECI and all its employees, for taking all the measures they can for a record setting elections 2014.

  2. Great stuff, very comprehensive and well researched. Nice to see Indians abroad sharing such an empathetic view and participating in the democratic process despite being so far away.

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