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Putting India's election coverage in motion

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Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 20:33 UK time, Sunday, 26 April 2009

We have had a variety of comments from BBC audiences around the world concerning the BBC's India Election Train. Some people are enthusiastic. Others have complained about the cost and appropriateness of the BBC hiring and painting a train. I will attempt to explain the thinking behind the project.

I hope that effective coverage by the BBC of the Indian elections would be a priority for all users of the BBC - whether in the UK, India or internationally. Covering an election is not just about reporting the political campaigns and the eventual results. It is also an opportunity to examine the country and its people in depth.

India is an increasingly important country and this is the world's biggest-ever election. Our reporting of it takes as its theme the question: "Will India's voters revive the world's fortunes?" We will be assessing whether the comparative strength of the Indian economy might assist the rest of the world that is in recession, and therefore have an impact on us all.

Using a train allows us to journey through this vast country, reaching remote locations. The journey allows us to assess issues like the economy, regional differences, religion and caste identity etc. Our teams are not remote from the story. At each stop, they will be reporting from the location, mixing with people and reporting their views to the world. They won't just be doing this for English-speaking audiences. They will also be reporting in 13 languages, including Hindi, Somali, Urdu, Tamil, Burmese, Vietnamese and Arabic.

So why use a train and why paint it with the BBC logo? Trains are an iconic form of transport in India. This train will carry our broadcasting facilities and act as a mobile studio. It's a practical way to allow the BBC team to cover the vast distances and to get a little bit of sleep between their hard work in each location.

bbc india election train

We have, at low cost, decorated the train so that our large Indian audience and our global TV/online audiences can see what we are doing. As well as reporting the news thoroughly, you need to get noticed in the world's very busy news market. Already over one hundred articles have been written in the Indian press about the train. Getting what we do noticed makes the project more cost-effective, not less.

Lastly, I should address the cost of the train. The UK licence fee is only making a minority contribution to the cost of the project. The overwhelming majority of the other funding comes from the BBC's commercial global news revenues and from the World Service. Bringing the various sources of BBC funding together like this gives great value for money.

I think few international news organisations would have the scope to attempt to bring this intriguing election to life in this way. Our audiences around the world should find something of fascination from this imaginative exercise.

PS I've recently taken over as director of BBC World Service. The new head of the multimedia newsroom is Mary Hockaday.

Peter Horrocks is the director of BBC World Service.


  • Comment number 1.

    I would agree with you, Mr Horrocks. It feels good if you do good work. It feels even better if the world comes to know of it. Unlike most other countries, a train is possibly the cheapest mode of long distance transport in India. It binds the country together. Where else would you find a nurse from Kerala getting to travel nearly 2000 miles in an air-conditioned class for 15 pounds? Without the Railways and the trains in India, I doubt if an effective assimilation of such a pluralistic mass would have taken place. When you travel in India the kind of distances that your teams would be travelling, you must travel by the train. It doesn't matter if it's a chartered train. A mini India lives in each of its Railway stations. By the way, if anyone has still any doubt, BBC is still the harbinger of news in what we call the media dark zones of the country. Generations of small town or countryside kids have grown up with the BBC World Service. If not for BBC for the good work it's doing, it definitely owes that low-cost publicity to the people of India. It doesn't matter where those two-three thousand pounds came from. License fee or BBC World Service adverts. Good work, Mr Horrocks.

  • Comment number 2.

    Does this mean that the 'BBC Box' will put on an articulated lorry and used to transport Mark Mardell and his team around Europe for the Euro Elections in June ??

  • Comment number 3.

    I think it is a great idea. And whatever the cost of this coverage, it will probably be a fraction of what was spen on the US elections, which is a tad overboard in my opinion. To get to the heart of India, to the average poor working man, using the train concept is wonderful. However i have not heard much about it apart from the blogs itself.

    This may come to heart of what the BBC is about, should they be spending loads of money to embark on projects like this, or should they stick with the quite dull approach. I think it is brave, and it creates a new dimention to reporting. But the results on whether its a success will be judged after the election itself.

  • Comment number 4.

    I definately support your increased presence in India at this time. No problem with it all. You might like to explain how the World Service is funded. Many people in UK believe the money comes from the licence fee. In fact - I'd suggest most believe it receives a portion of the licence fee income. I remember hearing the comments when BBC launched the Iranian service..... "they should put some better programmes on instead of wasting our money in Iran." When I explained the money came from the Foreign Office, not the Licence fee, the response was ..."its still our money." Thats true. But it wasn't at the expense of better programmes. I'd reached the limits of my own knowledge. Perhaps more diplomats would be needed without the World Service? Do please explain the rationale. Is the BBC more effective than a few more diplomats?

  • Comment number 5.

    Hi Peter,
    Good to now your views on the BBC Train for Elections 2009. My only question is that such a powerful newsgroup has contibuted nothing to India. You are there since I was a kid. Help India to have better people govern the country not just waste money on ventures to get more people watch your program around the world. Money you guys ahve spent can be utilised to build a new school or a road or a village or a bridge etc. India has over 40 news channels so we get the news from so many sources. Please help India to be a strong country in governance eg. educated politicians, your educated to join politics, retirement age for politicians, no one to contest if they have a criminal record, minimum qualifaication for all politicians, show on your web site how much each politician earns and what is their worth? You are such a strong brand and you can help in education people not just reporting, Indian media is doing better job then you guys. Please do something more concrete.

    Good Luck
    Paul Singh

  • Comment number 6.

    The last time I looked BBC stood for British Broadcasting Corporation, not Bihar, Bangalore, Bombay, or Bhopal Broadcasting Corporation.

    Your priority should be the British Taxpayer who funds the BBC through both the License Fee and their taxes (as Parliamentary Grant-in-Aid to BBC World Service). The priorities of people in India or the rest of the world should not matter one jot!

    I would suggest that apart from some of the 3 million odd South Asians living in the UK already that the overwhelming majority of the population here have zero interest in the election there.

    As Mr Singh from Sydney points out India has over 40 news channels that he says are doing a better job at covering Indian news than you. I certainly agree with him that the money being spent on not just the train but your whole coverage in India would be better spent on providing a new school, road, village or bridge here in the UK.

    As to the cost, you tell us that the paint job was low cost, that the license fee is only making a minority contribution with the overwhelming majority of the funding coming from your commercial global news revenues and the World Service. This tells us nothing. How much was the paint job? What is the total cost of your coverage? What proportion is met be each funding source.

    Waste, especially of tax payers money is at present bigger news in the UK than the Indian election, and certainly of more interest to the British tax-payer. So please let us, the people you work for, know the full cost.

  • Comment number 7.

    I would have been more impressed had you employed a couple of elephants. Surely large enough to paint your logo?

    However, what's done is done.

  • Comment number 8.

    pauljap - Does this mean you think the BBC should only cover current affairs within the UK's borders ?? And only things which happen to people who were born here ?? If so, one suspects that you are in a minority...

  • Comment number 9.

    Peter thanks for trying to educate people about the BBC's funding. I'm getting quite fed up of people on the BBC India Train blog who are using each and every blog post to snipe at the funding sources.

    Well done for being committed to such a project and for trying to bring the news from the people to the masses.

  • Comment number 10.

    Ref #6 pauljap

    Are you familiar with a concept called 'marketing?'

  • Comment number 11.

    Excellent idea altogether. People who know India will realise this is the best way to report a pan India election; add to it the cacophony of news media all trying to shout at their shrillest. When I first heard about it I regretted that I was not the one thinking about it! It's so obvious. But then probably BBC is best positioned to do something like this. My only regret is that it is not visible enough or there are not enough pictures or videos (certainly not here in UK).

    My other slight concern has been: now that BBC funding has been steadily changing how will it maintain public perception that commercial considerations do not affect news presentation outside UK. There are loads of posts grumbling about wasted money but I think they believe BBC is wholly license fee paid even in India like in the UK which is not true. I will argue BBC viewers in UK are getting a better deal as they do not have to bear most of the costs and yet are getting the benefits free ( only license fee - a flat rate payment).

  • Comment number 12.

    I'm grateful to Peter Horrocks for the clarifications he's posted. There's no question that the Indian elections are worthy of coverage and the the BBC will provide impartial and high quality reportage and analysis. The one aspect with which I'm still a bit uncomfortable is the repainting of the train with BBC logos. Many of the correspondents above attest to the BBC's international reputation as an excellent news agency, and I'd question whether this will be enhanced by a flashy paint job which will contrast starkly with the areas of privation though which the train will travel. I'd ask that the those involved in the planning of this exercise reflect on the need for aggressive marketing in this context next time round.

  • Comment number 13.

    I am an Indian living in US and follows BBC regularly for World News (BBC sports, , radio shows etc ). Thanks for your effort in covering this election and creating blogs, Flickr photo stream for us to follow you easily. I find that BBC is really trying to use the best of internet in delivering news : Collaborative, real-time etc and yours is a prime example. (As comparison, most of the other big old News media here in US seems to be struggling to use internet , say NyTimes, Washington Post) .

    Specifically , I am following Soutik Biswas blog which is excellent and my only request is if he can blog even more. The stream is excellent and photos beautiful .

    To summarize , first I will like to concur with first commenter Beyond-A-Boundary that train is one of the best form of traveling in India. All the train stations are mini-India in itself and they bring a kind of nostalgic feeling to me. You are combining the best of both world : Train (old but still the best way to travel India) and Internet , the future of communication .

    Again, Thanks for your effort and bringing news , world wide. Thanks.

  • Comment number 14.

    Your contributor in #6 makes valid remarks concerning a coach that carries the phrase "Will Indian Voters Revive the World's Fortunes?" as if the history of democracy has ever been shown to have done such a thing! I am sure that UK minority interest, for which the BBC is either famed or notorious (depending on view point), appears to justify your interest but one wonders why you do not do the same - daily - in the UK if only to make OUR Government aware just how poor rail travel (and public transport generally) is at home.

    It is time the BBC spent a little more of its time covering democracies where votes actually should matter - South Ossetia for example - and yet are ignored by OUR broadcasting media to the detriment of those concerned. It is just too easy for the BBC to be partisan when it suits - and no, you never bother to listen to those who pay your wages in more ways than one.

  • Comment number 15.

    Well I think the near total absense of any comments on Mr Biswas's blog entries today speaks volumes about the level of interest in the whole project. Regardless of exactly how much money from the public purse was used to fund this junket, I just don't see that it has brought the stories to life.

    I have to say also that in some of Mr Biswas's early posts he does appear to crow over the style and comfort of his train somewhat tastelessly.

  • Comment number 16.


    Have you personally ever been to India? Or maybe just perused a few good photographs of Indian scenes?

    Indians LOVE color. As many as possible, as bright as can be, and preferably all in the same garment if it's something to be worn. The lower classes don't live in a color-deprived state, but share in this -- so I seriously doubt that anyone will decide to hate the UK or the BBC because they splashed a little red paint on their railcar.

  • Comment number 17.

    The editors or BBC journalist is correct. I can see it now, Matt Lauer, NBC News broadcasting from Mombai, Calcutta, and elsewhere, throughout India Elections week with Monday, the backdrop, Tuesday, the election with early returns and who was contracted as well as subcontracted to do the work of gathering and accumulating election results, electronically and or otherwise. The rest of the week will be devoted to the results, a different location each day, with polling of the general electoral sentiments within each state, province, and or locale. India, once being a or the "Crown Jewel" is no doubt a high priority public interest item for most in the UK. It has the second largest population in the world in a region where I dare say English is in fact the first language. It is huge while yet not being in the least an ESL country. It is a nuclear, scientific, and other technologically advanced power with a highly skilled employment and allied troops pool, the former at least in terms of shear numbers volume, the latter literally.

  • Comment number 18.

    #8 "Does this mean you think the BBC should only cover current affairs within the UK's borders?"......No
    "And only things which happen to people who were born here?"......No
    I thought what I said was quite clear but will repeat it just for you.
    I think that the BBC's priority should be serving the British Taxpayer who funds the BBC through both the License Fee and their taxes (as Parliamentary Grant-in-Aid to BBC World Service).

    #10 "Are you familiar with a concept called 'marketing?'"
    Marketing? mmmm.....
    Population of India = over one billion
    Comments on the Blog = 99
    So ignoring the fact that most comments are from the same small group of people and have nothing to do with the election itself; and being generous in saying that half are from Indians that gives a total of 50 comments from potential 'customers'.
    0.000005% Wow, what massive interest!
    Any marketing department in a truly commercial organization would have been fired lock stock and barrel by now.
    Are you an unemployed Marketing Manager by any chance?

  • Comment number 19.

    The BBC's India Election Train is a really good effort. However, I feel that the train should have started a little earlier and covered a larger part of the country. The itenerary almost entirely misses the South of the country. Especially the states like Karnataka which have been at the Centre of India's IT industry. A longer tour might have given the world a better view of the entire country and more importantly for the reporters and correspondents to understand the rural issues, contrast them with the urban ones and compare how they vary from state to state.
    But on the whole a great idea. Thank You BBC!

  • Comment number 20.


    I am unsure as to how it can be healthy for any country to indulge in interests in elitism or colonial history lessons in underlining interest in an election. Did that somehow devalue elections in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Iraq, etc even before a vote had been cast? In a population of a billion plus people any elitist interest is going to be small, very small. India has huge numbers of graduates working in call centres to gratify western greed and low wage costs. Many Indian families have left UK for good either as a comment on what they aspire to or are afraid of.

    The BBC indulges at the expense of its license fee payers. What is at issue in this blog is the justification for indulgence not whether it is right or wrong. Personally I fail to see what can be gleaned via a railway carriage that cannot be gleaned by BBC reporters in place in India now. Where the money came from is just too much spin to be taken at face value. Details please.

  • Comment number 21.

    Sorry for cross-posting but on reflection this comment more appropriately posted here than elsewhere:
    There's been a fair bit of controversy over the cost of this trip. Here we have the Director of the BBC World Service writing a separate blog entry to defend the expense. The specially-painted, air conditioned "first class" train is, we're assured, a cost-effective method of transporting a large BBC team around the country, functional and not overly luxurious. Mr Biswas say he'll be be "sleeping, eating and working" on the train. Why then is he now in Taj Hotel, which according to the BBC's own website is "the symbol of luxury in Mumbai" and "has spectacular ocean views, and service and infrastructure rivalling any hotel in the world"? If he doesn't want to sleep on the train which was hired especially for that purpose then fair enough, but is this extravagant choice of hotel justified, just so Mr Biswas can tell us how squalid and crowded the rest of the city is?

  • Comment number 22.

    Again another day goes by and almost nobody on the entire planet cares to comment on Mr Biswas's blog entries, except to point out that he is failing to connect with any real stories. How could he be expected to connect with stories, staring as he is from the windows of a press-pack train or a luxury hotel. Please tell us exactly how much this project has cost Mr Horrocks.

  • Comment number 23.

    Ref #18 pauljap

    Do you know what percentage the Indian population are not yet computer literate? I'll help you out. It's 93.9% of your one billion

    And what percentage of Indians speak English?
    Of those, how many would wish to blog in a second or third language?
    And how many wish to blog outside their own country?
    And of those, how many websites are available outside India?

    It's incredible that you believe the idea of the train is to encourage people to blog on the BBC website. In any event, even if your faulty measure were correct, marketing awareness takes place first.

    However, you've been exposed. We don't spell licence with an 's' nor organisation with a 'z' in Britain !

  • Comment number 24.


    More significantly than computer literacy is that at least one in three adults in India are not literate. So what will they make of a BBC railway train apart from the "bright" colours, the cameras, the microphones and the visit from people who are nowhere to be seen when it actually matters....

  • Comment number 25.

    Hi, What you are doing now is the same kind of journey undertaken by Gandhi almost a century ago. He did it mainly to understand what India is and what people want. He traveled in then third class meant for Indian subjects of the Raj.He shared the agony and pain of Indians being almost like slaves. Things have changed now and often westerners compare with what Gandhi hoped he will achieve. Now to understand that Mr. Horrocks be a Gandhian and see and report the events as he would have done it. Any way good idea on your part. So far you have done a good job as far as factual reporting is concerned.

  • Comment number 26.

    Like Never Before

    As an undercurrent, the advent of TV media has given rise to unprecedented levels of debates and discussions just about everywhere in the country - in buses, trains, autorickshaws, offices, hotels, roadside eateries, and what not. Everywhere people are now empowered with information, with visuals, with views that they find interesting to share. Not only are people discussing the issues raised in the media, they are also discussing the media!

    Anyways, the one thing that has been good about the media though is that we have information about every major candidate in these elections. We get to hear them on a daily basis about their views, opinions, etc. We are now getting a much deeper insight into the mind of the leader, the thinking of the candidates, and the philosophy of the party.

    The fierce competition amongst the different news channels is thereby ensuring that the voter gets to know everything he needs to know about parties, leaders and contestants before he gets to vote. Sure, there is every probability that the voter might be confused with this overload of information, but I am also sure this will lead to an informed decision too.

    Watching 24x7 has its own flipsides. For one thing, we get bored of the same thing being shown again and again. The danger of an issue getting diluted because of excessive repeatability is very high in 24x7. In a sense, the media maketh the leader and decideth (:D) the issue. A kurta clad, dimple smile possessing, plainly speaking youth leader is given unprecedented hype over other additionally talented, intelligent youthful leaders. In a sense, the media is assisting in rubbing upon us a leader who is clearly not ready to lead. Many such contradictions and interpretations might do more harm than good, but since TV journalism is still in its budding stages, I guess we can give them the benefit of the doubt.

    So far, the advent of television media has increased the intellectual capacity of the average voter like never before, polarized them like never before, presented to them huge chunks of information like never before and has encouraged them to participate, like never before.

    PS: All said and done, I still think nothing can ever beat the experience of sitting in a chair, stretching your legs and reading the newspaper early in the morning over a cup of coffee :)

    More such articles on my main blog on blog spot. election-thoughts

  • Comment number 27.

    this train is a fantastic idea--but i chanced upon it only accidentally. have you guys deliberately kept it low-profile? why would you do such a thing?

  • Comment number 28.

    We talk great about Indian democracy which is the most powerful democracy on this earth. The way I find and analyze it is a great joke because hardly 30 to 50% of the voting population votes. There are umpteen number of parties and a candidate who gets 20 to 30% of the 40 to 50% who have voted will become a Member of the Parliament (MP) or Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) at the state level.
    People do not vote and are disgusted about the present scenario. So a MP or a MLA becomes a representative of the people with just 8 to 15% of the votes. There is no compulsion to get a definite percentage of votes to become representative. This clearly shows that majority of the people are against that candidate who has become a MP or MLA.
    I do not understand what is this democracy when majority of the people are against a particular person and still he/she represents them? Negative voting at the booth is not allowed or records are not maintained properly. Can such party which is ruling having only 30 to 40% of the 40 to 50% polled votes decide for 1 billion plus Indians? There is no national referendum for any national issues.

  • Comment number 29.

    Hallo Peter,

    I do agree with you. In the back drop of some sort of global crisis, understanding India would not only be interesting but, surely, it will give numerous inside stories that how Indian voters look up to their leaders as an agent of change. Are they really or not? But, the team must also carry few select locals - better if they would have been from rural hinterland- and make them travel to also gauge how media perceive their concerns. And, in the end, stories from both the sides would certainly be of great reading experience, if put together in a book form. Future generations would be enriched.

    Amitabh, Patna

  • Comment number 30.

    Congratulation for using low carbon transport!
    The BBC Election Train started the journey when voting for almost half the seats were already over. Should we assume your expensive endeavour mere a marketing exercise?

  • Comment number 31.

    #23 Richard_SM said However, you've been exposed.

    Phew, had me worried for a moment, hand straight to the flies just to check all in the proper place.
    So what exactly am I exposed as? Someone who:
    Didnt get a First in English from Cambridge, or
    Like most normal people makes the odd spelling mistake, or
    Didnt realize that some Anorak was marking his blog comment

    If I may borrow your anorak for one moment:
    In my English Dictionary (UK Edition) organization can be spelt with a z or an s.
    The actual entry is:
    Organization; also spelled organisation. (If your preference is for spelt instead of spelled so be it)
    If you are going to be a smart alec it would be best to check your facts first; look-up Oxford spelling on the web.

    We do spell license with an s when it is used as a verb. My use was as a noun so I made a spelling mistake, oh dear! Like most normal people I relied on my spell checker which does not pick-up on such errors. Oh what a naughty boy I am!

    Let me know where I have to write to apply to have my British nationality declared null and void or maybe I should just cut my wrists now for committing such a heinous crime.

  • Comment number 32.

    Great! BBC is doing the right thing in the right spirit and in the right way as it has been doing from the very beginning. I am an avid supporter of the news service and watch and listen to and surf BBC World, BBC World Service (Hindi, Bengali, Urdu) and BBC Online (Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and English.). But allow me to add that by visiting a few cities in your comfort zone may not give you the right feel of the pulse of the people, you need to truly understand the elections in a country like India. Your reporting have been most accurate, objective and amazingly analytical. But most of those have come out from your correspondents toiling in the scorching sun or freezing snow, these have been churned out from the ground zero. I apprehend you may miss the flavour, the sight and sound of the story by making a journey in a cosy cross-country train. I am a journalist and have grown up listening to the BBC and fear that the reports sent from the train may not be your best. I will be happy if I am proved wrong. My best wishes once again!.

  • Comment number 33.

    Hi !

    Just heard George Alagaiah reporting from Calcutta that Varun Gandhi said he would cut off the arms of Muslims.

    Sure - that's what he said - but not before he said that he'd do so IF anyone tried to .... cut off the hand - or something to that effect.

    I *do* think it was inflammatory and does not reflect my beliefs. But I also think that his statement was blown out of proportion ! I would like to hear/read his entire statement !

    EverywhereSpirit, Delhi, India

  • Comment number 34.

    Hi !

    Just heard George Alagaiah reporting from Calcutta that Varun Gandhi said he would cut off the arms of Muslims.

    Sure - that's what he said - but not before he said that he'd do so IF anyone tried to .... cut off the hand - or something to that effect.

    I *do* think it was inflammatory and does not reflect my beliefs. But I also think that his statement was blown out of proportion ! I would like to hear/read his entire statement !

    I was right ! Here's the quote: Note the IF. I still think it was wrong - but not simply wrong - but a qualified wrong.

    EverywhereSpirit, Delhi, India

  • Comment number 35.

    BBC Program by Mihir Bose
    The program caught the essence of Amchi Mumbai ! Also, very colourful Indian speciality.
    To get a share of bollywood was a good idea, an integral part of Mumbai.Also,voices of Shobha De, Ms Sanyal. Types of people such as Ms Sanyal and Deora (Jr) are the hopes of future India. Young, educated and committed.
    Indeed, infrastructure of Mumbai is a big let down by all governments/establishments, local, state and national. Mumbai contributes substantial part of India's direct tax collections. Indeed political leadership is the sole problem, not even execution, as Mihir said.
    Sadly, even mumbai indians, local team at IPL2 is putting up a pathetic show...! Indeed an excellent proof of what Mihir said, inability of India's talented to collectively work for a common goal

    Some of my mumbai-friends opted out of voting just because there was no inspiring candidate and no option of NONE OF THE ABOVE.

    Indeed, democracy is one of the strengths of India. But we need some strong leadership at all levels, in all walks of life.

  • Comment number 36.

    Some of the britishers raised questions on the utility and importance of covering Indian elections by the BBC. It is interesting to know how the world's most reputed news organization is finding it difficult to answer questions posed by public. Still bbc has not given a clear cut answer about the cost of covering Indian election.
    Information and understanding helps the human beings in building a better world. But, britishers are no more interested in exploring the entire world they want to limit themselves to specific boudaries. I do not think majority of Britishers will accept this kind of regressive ideas.

  • Comment number 37.

    It was great for Mr. Peter Horrock to make that explanation! I don't think that this was a very expensive project, if you compare it with having to coordinate such a massive coverage even otherwise, by air and road. I really can't understand much about this outcry about branding a train coach! Doesn't BBC have the freedom to flaunt its brand identity! The west should try to comprehend the vastness of this great nation with all its diversity and plurality! In fact, BBC should even have a full time channel for India; it should be able to raise the required revenue for its operations and be free from demeaning complaints from the taxpaying Brits! No wonder, Indians are still called Pakistanis in Britain! And recently, when a young British man who was my guest sent a mail to his cousin in London, she replied, "Oh, are there computers and internet in India!"
    Kudos to the BBC team! Good effort and great ingenuity!

  • Comment number 38.

    Hi everybody, get online live updates on 2009 Indian general elections and Indian Assembly elections 2009 at "Altius Directory".

    Get live updates on winners, national parties and about local parties at "Altius Directory".


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