Vote-bank or traditional politics does not matter for these new-age Indians. Issues do. This generation of voters is not content with just promises. They want action on the ground.
• Mansi Gupta, 21
Wearing a dazzling black jacket with a stole thrown over her shoulder with a stylish haircut and a confident smile, Mansi Gupta is in every bit a Delhi youngster with an attitude. Her favourite ‘fashion’ statement, however, is a thin mark of indelible ink on the index finger of her left hand, which she loves to flaunt. Gupta, who graduated from Delhi University’s Daulat Ram College with a B.Sc (honours) degree in biochemistry this year, voted for the first time on December 4 in the Delhi elections.
Gupta not only voted herself but made it a point to urge all her friends to go out. She put up status updates on facebook, asking her friends to vote. She sent text messages through WhatsApp and BBM. "For most people, election day is just another holiday. If you don’t go out and vote, you don’t have a right to criticise also," she said.
Even a year ago, Gupta wouldn’t have been caught dead discussing elections or politics with her friends. “People my age want to be seen as cool and talking about politics is seriously ‘uncool’,” she said.
The gang rape of a student in a moving bus on December 16, 2012, however, changed everything. “I was so angry because the rapists were not getting punished,” she said. The outrage, Gupta believes, forced her generation to raise their voice. “It made us feel that the system needs a change from within. It made us politically aware.”
Gupta lives with her family in Rohini’s Sector 11. Despite a cushioned lifestyle, Gupta faces the same insecurity that every woman in Delhi dreads each time she steps out. Women’s safety is her biggest concern.
“The person we choose should be able to see what we suffer every day,” she said. “The youth has never been happy with politicians and, in fact, the only leader I have been able to relate to is former president APJ Abdul Kalam, who was not a politician,” she said.
Also, Gupta cannot relate to the stereotypical khadi-clad, garlanded neta who visits every five years, asking for votes. “Many politicians are now on Facebook and Twitter. It is much easier to follow them online to find out what their views are and where they stand on issues that concern you,” she said.
Politics is rarely discussed in the Gupta household. Her father Sanjay Gupta, (47), who runs a printing and packaging business, or her homemaker mother, Anju (42), have never influenced her or her brother Anuj’s, (19), political choices. “My parents are staunch supporters of a political party as they believe in its ideology. They may also sometimes vote for a candidate just because she or he is from the bania community, to which we belong,” she said. “For me, it doesn’t matter to which community or religion a candidate belongs, as long as the person is honest and educated.”
• Tanveer Singh, 19
First-time voter, reluctant farmer
Fatehgarh Sahib, Punjab
Hailing from one of Punjab’s affluent villages, Tanveer Singh’s two-storeyed house is self-sufficient with a television set, refrigerators, a computer, a car, a motorcycle and a mobile phone. And, finally, a pug.
Pursuing a B.Tech degree from a private institute in Fatehgarh Sahib, the only time Singh was compelled to "speak up" on an issue of political importance was when Punjab saw protests over clemency for Balwant Singh Rajoana, a convict on the death row for the assassination of former CM Beant Singh. He vented his anger through a Facebook post.
After his elder brother died in a car accident a few years ago and his father passed away last year, the 19-year-old was pushed into farming. He manages his four-acre farm like one of the many young reluctant farmers of Attewali village who are studying alongside or have degrees but no jobs.
His wish list as a first-time voter largely constitutes a government that rewards degrees with jobs. “I had to pay `25,000 for a management quota seat in a private engineering college. Several others with engineering and management degrees are sitting idle. Some are into farming but others have taken to drugs and alcohol. We burn diesel every year to sustain the paddy crop even though returns are dwindling and inflation is rising. Educated youth like me would prefer to get a good job at a private company and give their agricultural land on lease to earn some rent. But I have no hope of finding one. Though my vote may not change anything, high prices, taxes, unemployment and corruption are issues that are frustrating the youth,” he says.
Ask him if religion, caste or ideology of a party would matter to him as a voter, and he quickly says no. Though Tanveer supported clemency for Rajoana, he defies the traditional mindset that religion should dictate one’s identity or voting. “I feel strongly for issues concerning Sikhs but still decided to cut my hair as it was difficult to tie the turban early morning for tuition and college. It is not religion, caste or class that matters to me as a voter but whether politicians relate to our issues and disappointments. If a candidate with a good track record is fielded, all other considerations are secondary,” he says.
• Tejaswati Dalvi, 27
MumbaiEvery time Tejaswati is stuck in her Mumbai office beyond 8.30 pm, her father, sitting 300 km away in Satara, is constantly worried. Anxious about her safety, his patriarchal instincts take over and their conversations often end with him ruing his decision to allow her to study and work in Mumbai.
That, in a nutshell, is why the 2014 elections are so important for her. After the brutal gang rapes in Delhi and Mumbai, the biggest electoral issue for her is the safety of working women. "Is there any leader who is willing to come out and take our responsibility? We need a leader who can assure us that all public places, be it the railway stations or open spaces, are safe for us at all times of the day," says Dalvi, sitting in her 100-square feet one-room home in suburban Ghatkopar that she shares with a roommate.
Born and raised in Satara, Dalvi is one of the many migrants who go to Mumbai in the hope of a better future. According to the 2001 census, 43.7 per cent of the city’s population comprises migrants. And 38 per cent of them come from within Maharashtra, says the Mumbai Human Development Index Report, 2009. Her father, a retired transformer repairman with the state electricity body, and her mother, a teacher, continue to live in Satara, surviving mainly on the latter’s salary.
While a strong-willed Dalvi managed to convince her family to let her shift to Mumbai, she wants her leader to step in for other women who can’t fight conservatism like she did.
In Mumbai for five years now, Dalvi completed her Masters in social work and works for Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action, a not-for-profit organisation, on child rights issues. While this is the first time that Dalvi will vote, it is her second tryst with electoral democracy. She played a big role in helping her family -- traditional Congress voters – to make up their minds and vote for Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in the 2009 state elections.
But despite the cacophony surrounding the next possible prime minister, Dalvi doesn’t get swayed by the debate. Her eyes are firmly on the local candidates and not the PM hopefuls. “One leader at the very top will not make a difference. I will choose from the local candidates,” says Dalvi.
As the stakes for the 2014 elections get higher and the debates more acrimonious, Dalvi admits there isn’t much connect that any of the popular leaders make with someone like her. “Which is why, the last button on the voting machine (none of the above) remains a realistic option for me,” she adds.
• Anshu Rani, 23
This debutant elector from Champaran is the bold new face of her generation. She values her vote and wants to use it to usher in a regime that is sensitive to concerns such as safety of women and better job opportunities for young graduates like her.
A village girl, Anshu Rani could move to Patna for her higher studies only because of the ‘enabling’ environment provided by the Nitish Kumar regime after it first came to office in November 2005. "Till 2005, Champaran’s villages lived in the mortal fear of dacoits," she recalls.
But now that her independent existence in Patna has exposed her to a new world, she wants more than just safety. Studying for a master’s degree in social work (MSW) at the Indira Gandhi National Open University, Rani wants to be gainfully employed as a social worker. “I want to do my bit for the society. In return, the job should pay me enough to take care of my financial needs,” she says with clarity and a little hesitation.
For Rani, the concept of a traditional vote bank is passé. “My thinking has been tailored by my own life experiences, which are very different from those of my parents,” she says. “For me, bread and butter issues will matter much more in shaping my voting preference than plain rhetoric. I hope the same will hold true for other young voters.”
It will be quite something if this holds true. According to Bihar chief electoral officer Ajay Nayak, people in the 18-30 age category constitute about 33% of Bihar’s total voter population of around six crore.
Rani says her choices in the coming elections will emerge out of an inter-play between the candidates she thinks she can trust to represent her interests and the party fielding that person.
“Parties are important as they will be the ones forming the government that will dictate my security environment and job concerns. At the local level, the character and persuasions of the candidate will be critical,” she says.
Rai Atul Krishna
• Mehtu Ram Netam, 37
For the tribals who inhabit the Maoist-affected Bastar region in Chhattisgarh, political change is creeping in very, very slowly. A new India through the eyes of the Adivasis largely remains the same old Bharat but aspirational change is taking root, bit by bit.
The slogan of ‘bijli, sadak, pani (electricity, roads and water) is giving way to a feeling among tribals that they can now also initiate a political change and influence the fortunes of parties and their candidates.
Netam, a Gond tribal in Sambalpur village of Kondagaon district, now speaks of health and education and wants to be a part of the economic boom the rest of the country has seen. Access to television – antennas are visible atop thatched hut roofs -- has brought in a realisation of what can be and a desire to change their present.
The high turnout during the recent assembly elections in Bastar despite the Maoist threat exemplified the tribals’ trust and conviction in the democratic process. “We defied the Maoists’ diktat but live in fear. Had the parties done something significant, for education and employment, the Maoists effect wouldn’t have spread so much. The innocent villagers booked on flimsy charges of having links with Maoists made the situation worse,” says Netam.
He held the tribal leadership accountable for failing to work for the welfare of the Adivasis. “Why then should we blame the non-tribals for exploiting us?” asks Netam.
Heading a family of five, Netam’s grievance against politicians’ apathy was evident. But he says they’ve learnt to convert apathy into action through the ballot. Like most tribals in Bastar, Netam is politically conscious. Every eligible member – 32-year-old wife Jayanti and 94-year-old mother Bimla Bai – exercised their franchise. During the polls, they looked at the candidate’s record and analysed what the BJP and Congress could do for them and their region.
“As villagers, our expectations remain simple. The party should remain sensitive to our problems and assist us in addressing them. Development and welfare schemes should reach us,” says this marginal farmer who represents a large swathe of voters who have not hesitated to switch sides from the Congress to the BJP.
• Hema Das, 40
Head of a rights-based NGO
Damin, a village in Arunachal Pradesh bordering Tibet, was upgraded to a circle soon after the Chinese incursion in 1962. At that time, however, the district headquarters was a week away on foot. So they preferred trekking to Tibet for essentials. In the 1970s, district officials employed tribal witch doctors to dissuade locals from crossing the “evil” border.
"There still is no road to Damin and so people walk for four-five days to reach Koloriang for their necessities," Hema Das said. Her father was Damin’s first circle officer before being posted out two years after her birth.
Married to a businessman in Tezpur, Das spends six days a week in villages under four panchayats in two districts. Maduribeel is the remotest of these, though only 30km from Tezpur. It has no electricity, drinking water facilities or roads. “The people here are so used to neglect that they think it is the norm, and they also think the government is something that takes money and gives nothing in return,” Das said.
What she wants from Delhi is a little more understanding of the region’s “fringe people” so that they don’t feel alienated — her relatives in Damin wish they could go back to the days of walking to Tibet for their daily needs.
For her and many others here, the ideology of one party or the charisma of another leader does not matter. “It would take one good and considerate person to make our lives more meaningful and help us feel that our votes do not go to waste,” she adds.
But then, Das is aware that the onus is on local representatives. “We possibly lose out in the numbers game with only 25 MPs among eight states. But we have, perhaps, also been unfortunate in finding the right persons to be our voice,” she says. “We have taken recourse to RTIs to make leaders accountable, but at the end of the day, it all boils down to the choices we have. Certain developments like the Aam Aadmi Party have given us reasons to hope for a change in the days ahead,” she said.