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Opinion: Sweden and India – the many flavours of two thriving democracies

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Opinion: Sweden and India – the many flavours of two thriving democracies
Swedish voters look at election campaign posters in Södertälje. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT
18:25 CEST+02:00
Rupali Mehra compares the flavours of Swedish elections to those in her home country India. Are there any similarities in the democratic process of the two countries?

In India you don't need a pundit to tell you a political contender will soon be in your vicinity. You can feel them coming a mile away.

SUVs with loudspeakers, blaring slogans from a political party or playing patriotic Bollywood songs alternatively, precede the political procession that is to come.

Indian elections are not called the world's largest democratic exercise for nothing. While the numbers game is the obvious correlation – considering we are talking of 850 million eligible voters – the overwhelming scale of Indian election truly plays out on its streets.

Canvassing in India for the national elections has a festive fever around it. A heady, contagious festive fever that you cannot escape from. Every emotion is heightened; the cheers, the jeers, the anger and the joy; even fist fights and the hugs of bonhomie. And all of this plays out in the public domain.

Elections in a country of 1.3 billion, to choose 543 women and men as their executives, is similar to "a big fat Indian wedding", as a journalist friend put it. Having covered three national elections over 15 years and several federal elections, I couldn't agree more. Only that it is a "big fat Indian wedding" of 850 million invitees and the infinite complexities that come with it.

READ ALSO: How to vote in the 2018 Swedish election (even if you're not a citizen)


Indian voters wave at Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election rally. Photo: AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

Sitting 3,500 miles away in Sweden, I am witnessing another democratic exercise. An election that is similar in the mechanics, yet so different in its manifestation.

Sweden votes in less than 24 hours. But if you are new here or a visitor, you can't be faulted for thinking polls are a while away. "It doesn't feel like there is a national election on in Sweden," remarks the journalist friend from India who finds herself in Stockholm in the midst of val, as elections are known here. The comment on the 'feel factor' is telling. Unless you regularly tune into televised political debates and the track the weekly opinion polls as the Swedes do, the atmosphere on the street feels like the tempo is just about building.

Canvassing and public engagement are far more nuanced than you see in India. Parties have designated areas to set up their counters, and volunteers gently approach you to discuss their manifesto. Even public speeches like those at Medborgarplatsen, with supporters wearing the party symbol loud and clear on their sleeve, caps and t-shirts, seem mild when compared to a candidate arriving in a helicopter to address supporters in India.

To a Swede who faces posters of political leaders at every second bus stop and tube station to work, and then arrives home to find their mail boxes filled with political pamphlets, the feeling can be overwhelming. Surely, there will be a sigh of relief when its all over. But for someone seeped in the technicolour of Indian elections, the Swedish polls appear monochromatic.

This, despite the fact that 2018 has been one of most hotly contested elections and the fight is predicted to go down to the wire.

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Prime Minister Stefan Löfven meeting voters in Linköping the day before the election. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

To give the analogy of food, Indian elections are akin to a red hot Indian curry; each spoonful offers a burst of multiple flavours and spices. For some it is a treat. For others it is hard to stomach. In comparison Swedish food, although flavoursome, is more mellow. Similarly for the elections.

But first impressions aside, scratch the surface and one finds that several issues strike a similar cord among the people in both countries. The most obvious is immigration. Historically Sweden has had immigrants come in during the Baltic wars, the Afghan war, the Iranian revolution and even as far back as World War II. But the influx of 2015, largely from war-torn Syria, is the most volatile and polarised talking point of 2018. Similarly in India, immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh that has been a constant for decades, is now a hotly debated issue.

Politics on immigration aside, there are other bread and butter issues that citizens vote on. These are issues that affect citizens in their day to day life. Issues like housing, water, jobs and transport. According to the country's National Housing Board (Boverket) Sweden faces a housing shortage in 255 of its 290 municipalities. Buying a house in Stockholm or Gothenburg is out of reach for many. It is a similar story in India's financial capital Mumbai, where the per-square-foot prices compares with the world's most expensive cities. This even as the city has an inventory of half a million vacant houses, according to India's Economic Survey.

READ ALSO: Follow The Local's coverage of the 2018 Swedish election

Away from the big cities, towns and rural areas face similar issues of water, transport, schools and hospitals. While a taluk (a block of villages) in interior India could be struggling to get a school for their children, a locality in a Swedish countryside could be struggling to keep open a school for the lack of enough students. What differs is the complexion, scale and extremities.

One could argue that we are comparing apples to oranges here. But that is what democracies are all about. Different in flavour, yet similar in nature.

Rupali Mehra is a former television editor and anchor. She moved from India in the spring of 2017 and runs a communications company in Sweden. She can be reached at rupaliatwork@gmail.com

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