Who says India is young and the young have a voice!
Caught in caste complexities, all political parties have somehow disregarded the youth and their issues in the country's most populous state Uttar Pradesh.
Ironically, this is happening when four young politicians - Rahul Gandhi (Congress), Akhilesh Yadav (Samajwadi Party), Jayant Choudhary (Rashtriya Lok Dal) and Varun Gandhi (BJP) - are out to establish their supremacy in the state assembly election. Even BJP national president Nitin Gadkari claims to be 'young after shedding some weight'.
Though the parties are underestimating the youth power, the highest number of young voters will exercise their franchise in this election. As a result of the Election Commission's special drive, the total count of first-time voters is 1.38 crore (registered after the 2009 Lok Sabha election). Nearly 55 lakh of them are in the age group of 18-19 years. Overall, there are 3.51 crore electors in the age group of 20-29 years.
Chief electoral officer, UP, Umesh Sinha says, "we can roughly say that about a crore voters (out of 1.38 crore), which comes to 9-10% of the total electorate in the state, would vote for the first time. Undoubtedly, there will be a 10% increase in the voting percentage, especially in the urban areas."
That's the key especially in 75-odd seats where the victory margin was low in the 2007 election. Political analysts believe the first-time voters can actually swing the election as they are more likely to vote on merit and ignore parochial considerations.
According to them, the young voters either take independent decisions or are influenced by their peer group in the urban areas which have 100-125 assembly seats. In the rural pockets, they live in caste ghettoes and are guided by their family or village panchayat.
This also explains Rahul Gandhi's emphasis on migration from UP and Mulayam's oft-repeated promise to give unemployment allowance and create jobs.
Zafar Bakh, who runs a career coaching institute in Allahabad, feels the leaders are unable to see beyond their selfish vote-bank politics to take up youth issues.
"But I have great hope in the youth who are mature enough to look beyond vote bank politics."
A quick statewide survey by HT revealed that quota, quality higher education, better civic infrastructure, social security and corruption are the key issues for the first-time voters in the age group of 18-19 years.
A student of the oldest girls' institution Isabella Thoburn College in the state capital says, "we must do away with quota as it discourages merit. Instead, the government can provide free quality education to the poor for inclusive growth."
Some students in Meerut, Agra and Bareilly want politicians to visit their colleges and explain their policies. Some candidates have sensed the importance of youth power. Thus, the Congress's Rita Bahuguna Joshi is visiting colleges in Lucknow and holding group discussions with students. And in Baghra (Muzaffarnagar), the Congress-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance's Pankaj Malik - a former student leader -has a good support base among youngsters and understands how to woo them.
This realisation is common among younger candidates.
"We will begin contacting students on college campuses after a week," says Abhinav Sharma, a post graduation student and Samajwadi Party candidate from Agra North.
The Congress's Anil Srivastava (Varanasi Cantonment assembly constituency) is the only candidate to have visited the Banaras Hindu University (BHU). None of the 36 candidates fielded by the Congress, BJP, SP and the BSP in Bareilly's nine constituencies has visited any educational institution. This is so though the city has half-a-dozen premier institutes, a medical college and Rohilkhand University. No wonder, the students feel neglected. "Election Commission officials say 'vote for a change', but I don't think anybody needs it," says a dejected first-time would-be voter Vandana Gupta.
(Inputs from S Raju, Oliver Fredrick, Pawan Dixit and Hemendra Chaturvedi).