Getting around India during the elections: four takeaways for executive travellers

March 28, 2014 - By Krishnan Ramanathan

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The world’s largest democracy takes to the polls this April and May. While India offers logistical challenges beyond the ordinary at any time of the year, election time ratchets up the complications even more – and everyone from backpackers and C-suite executives needs to plan ahead. Check out our latest blog for insight and takeaway travel tips from Krishnan Ramanathan, AS Solution’s Executive Protection expert based in New Delhi.

815 million eligible voters. 543 contested constituencies. And a process that stretches over nine phases, five weeks and three million square kilometers.  Like so much else in India, the upcoming parliamentary elections for the 16thLok Sabha, the Indian parliament’s lower house, take place against a background of world-record numbers and stunning cultural diversity.

The first thing that travellers need to know about the elections is that they will make it rather difficult to get around – especially on the day of the election and the days immediately preceding it. Roads already choked by heavy traffic will be even more congested and may be completely blocked on short notice. Demonstrations and large groups of people can appear quickly and disrupt even the best-laid plans. Special security measures and the Model Code of Conduct, laid out by the Indian Election Commission to safeguard the immense Indian democratic process, can prove troublesome for travellers who just want to move from Point A to Point B and take care of business.

Takeaway for travellers: Be prepared for more logistical hiccups than usual. Bottom line: schedule multi-stop trips around India during the five-week election period only if you really have to. And if you must travel, think ahead and plan carefully.

The election happens at different times all over the country

The second thing travellers must realize is that the Indian election is a moveable feast. The task of getting so many people to vote throughout such a vast, developing country is a formidable one; so much so that election authorities have spread polling across nine separate election days, or phases, between 7 April and 12 May.

In heavily populated states such as Uttar Pradesh, which comprises 80 separate constituencies, voting will be divided over as many as six separate dates; other regions finish polling in just one phase.

Government officials have concentrated polling to 10 April for constituencies where extremist trouble one kind or another is more likely to occur. This includes populous but poor Bihar, long plagued by Naxalist insurgents, where voting in the most vulnerable constituencies will occur under special scrutiny and reduced polling time.

Takeaway for travellers: If you travel to India during the election period, it is imperative to know when polling will occur in the areas you intend to visit – and to make plans to be elsewhere on election day itself and the few days before and after.

Check this map of India to see when the 2014 elections take place region by region.

Forget about chartered helicopters and planes for the next few months

Candidates will be spending a record amount of money to get elected this year: approximately USD five billion in all, making this the second-most expensive election ever after the US November 2012 elections.

Some of this money will be going to hiring helicopter and planes. We often arrange air charters for high-level travellers so they can make the most of their time and avoid the logistic hassles that are common in India. Until the elections are over, however, this will be all but impossible.

Takeaway for travellers: Candidates for the major parties have more or less pre-booked available air charters until the end of the election period.

Unless you’re arriving on the company plane, count on commercial flights as the best way to get around the country while the elections are still being contested; there are many flights, but book ahead when possible. Hired cars are still an option for shorter trips. Trains are a means of mass transportation that, for better or for worse, are the stuff of tourist legend; they are not, however, the preferred method for international business travellers to traverse the sub-continent.

Be ready to meet lots of police – and the Model Code of Conduct

In order to encourage fair and free elections, a special “Model Code of Conduct” comes into effect as soon as the Lok Sabha contest is announced. In the case of current elections, this took place on 5 March. Combined with a huge increase in the number of uniformed and armed men who are out and about to promote public order during the elections, other consequences of the Model Code of Conduct may also impact foreign business travellers.

In a developing country like India, with a large poor population, less scrupulous candidates still use more or less obvious variants of the ancient practice of vote buying. They’re ready to offer a handful of cash or a bottle of liquor to sway voters their way. Police and paramilitary personnel will be out in full force to counter such practices, checking far more identities and personal belongings than usual in efforts to deter electoral irregularities and unrest.

Takeaway for travellers: Be sure to carry your passport with you at all times, and be prepared to show it at more-frequent-than-usual identity checks. Don’t carry large amounts of cash or even a bottle of booze to give as a gift to a business associate – you might end up with a lot of explaining to do, and more trouble than it’s worth.

Of course, the usual caveats for travel in India still apply, and women travellers are encouraged to take particular precautions. We’ll take a closer look at these in an upcoming blog.

Krishnan Ramanathan

Program Manager - India