Till a month ago, 27-year-old financial analyst Gundeep Singh typified the young urban Indian: chasing big bucks and a career on steroids at Kotak Mahindra Bank in Mumbai’s financial heart, Nariman Point.
Every now and then he spoke despairingly to family or friends over the state of Mumbai, its bad roads and unaccountable public representatives. Singh, an IIM-Bangalore alumnus, prospered. But he couldn’t fight the niggling feeling that something was missing from his life.
Today, Singh is working his contacts in the corporate world to take an innovative five-year-long public campaign to thousands of professionals, starting with his 20,000 colleagues across India.
Designed and driven largely by 20-something Indians, Jaago Re (Awaken) aims to mould the talent, restlessness and disenchantment of young India into a sustained engagement with the country’s troubled politics.
Aiming to galvanise young Indians to register as voters — as the first step towards cleansing the political system — Jaago Re has a target of 2 lakh registrations on its website, three months since its launch in 35 towns and cities.
One of every four registrations is from Mumbai, and volunteers here say the campaign has been buoyed by the anger and sadness post-26/11. It couldn’t have come at a better time: Elections to six states have shown that India is no longer getting swayed by emotional, divisive politics.
Change — the energising phrase popularised by US President-elect Barack Obama — is the overarching demand. It's what drives young people to register, to get involved.
Singh was an eager convert: “A few weeks ago, I knew little about Jaago Re. Today, I am a volunteer and plan to stay with it.”
The evocatively titled campaign is the brainchild of Bangalore’s Jasmin Shah of the non-profit group Janaagraha (Alert Public). It’s being funded and publicised by Tata Tea.
The campaign’s genesis is the oft-repeated premise that greater youth participation —India is the world’s youngest nation after China, and is forecasted to displace it in 2010 — will result in better political representatives. The first hurdle to achieving this: over 300 million Indians under the age of 30 are eligible to vote, but only 1 of 10 have registered to do so, according to Janaagraha.
Shah (27), an IIT-trained engineer who abandoned his career to join the non-profit sector, said: “Young Indians do not abstain from voting only out of apathy. Our work in Bangalore’s civic affairs showed that the cumbersome process of registration puts them off. We realised that addressing this problem through the simple use of technology would be more effective than a dozen campaigns telling people to vote.”
Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami — the Election Commission is supporting the campaign, particularly with official information needed to register as a voter — said there were no official statistics available on non-enrollment. “However, we do know from extrapolation that the 18- to 25-year age group is quite underrepresented. In that context, the work that Janaagraha is doing is wonderful.”
The groundswell of response is significant against the backdrop of recent polls in six states where voters emerged as more demanding players, pushing to the centrestage candidates who might deliver on key development issues. This mood might only heighten in the public conversations leading up to national elections this year.
Janaagraha founder Ramesh Ramanathan (44), a former banker with Citibank in New York and London, revealed he first dissuaded his colleagues from embarking on the campaign because he found it too ambitious. “It might be simplistic to make any generalisations, but what seems clear is that the voice of the people is becoming more important,” he said. “In that sense, India is witnessing a structural shift in its politics, with the balance of power shifting from politicians to people.”