Want reservation scrapped for all, says a 19-year-old first time voter
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Want reservation scrapped for all, says a 19-year-old first time voter

18 million people between 18 and 23 are estimated to vote for the first time in this year’s Lok Sabha polls. What do they want? In Haryana’s Mahendragarh, which has the lowest sex ratio in the country, this 19-year-old woman will vote for Narendra Modi’s vision for India.

lok sabha elections Updated: Jan 14, 2019 10:47 IST
Snigdha Poonam
Snigdha Poonam
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
first time voter,reservation,Lok Sabha polls
18 million people between 18 and 23 are estimated to vote for the first time in 2019 Lok Sabha polls. What do they want? (Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

In 19-year-old Komal Aggarwal’s life, only some years stand out. The year 2014 was certainly one. She thinks it’s when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) beat “60 years of Congress rule”. Even more memorable was 2017, when Manushi Chhillar, the winner of that year’s Miss India pageant from Haryana, became Miss World.

“She was from my university in Sonepat. Her success inspired normal girls like us because she made it big without having any connections in high places. She made us believe that even girls who live in villages can do something. So many girls in my college took to modelling after her win. Even I gave it a thought at one point,” said Komal, whose other role models also happen to be women achievers from Haryana, from wrestlers to judges.

Komal was born in Ateli town in Mahendragarh district where her father runs a ration depot and her mother, the house. Mahendragarh makes news for one thing alone: its missing girls. The oldest of four siblings (three sisters and a brother), she has kept track of every female achievement in the area.

“Two seniors from my school in Narnaul have become IAS officers. One is a judge posted in Rajasthan. Girls in this part of Haryana are very advanced in education,” Komal said.

Indeed, Mahendragarh records a female literacy rate of 64.57%, higher than Haryana’s average of 56.91%

Court vs. Kitchen

A second-year law student in Bhagat Phool Singh Women’s University in Sonepat, she wants to take entrance exams for the post of judicial magistrate after finishing her Bachelor’s and Master’s courses.

When she is not running between college and hostel in Sonepat, she is home in Ateli with 20 other members of a joint family spanning three generations. Few of them have gone to college.

“My father only studied up to class 10 and my mother up to class 12,” she said, surrounded by her female relatives in the family home’s courtyard. Only one of them is more educated than her at this point. “My bua [father’s sister] has finished her graduation,” Aggarwal said. Is she headed for a job? “No. She is headed for marriage. She is 23, after all,” the grandmother, Sumitra Aggarwal, seized the question.

Komal says, in many ways, her Haryanvi family is typically conservative. “My mother says girls shouldn’t speak that much. When I was younger, I wasn’t allowed to leave the house alone, but my brother was. When I wanted to opt for law, my uncles discouraged my father from letting me. My father himself wasn’t very keen on women entering the world of courts.”

It’s equally true, she says, that things are slowly changing in her family and community. “My father is still wary but he has left the decision about working after university to me. My grandmother still believes in arranged marriage, but she is making her peace with love marriages — as long as the girl doesn’t elope from home but shares her desires with her family. My mother still believes in different rules for boys and girls, but she is open to listening to me.”

Girls, she says, must talk to their families. “If girls won’t speak for themselves, how will they get ahead in life? Every time we fight, my cousin says, ‘Stop dreaming about joining the judiciary; all you are going to do is work in the kitchen!’ I talk back to him, ‘Let’s see in a few years who idles on the cot and who earns a salary!’”

BJP good for Haryana

Her family partly attributes the change in mindsets to the BJP government’s policy initiatives. “Just four or five years ago, we heard news every day of someone or other in the town getting arrested for killing girl children. Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao is changing that,” said her mother, Sarika Aggarwal. The state’s SRB has risen steadily over the past few years. In 2018, all but two districts recorded an SRB of over 900 girls to every 1,000 boys. Mahendragarh was one of the two, but at 894, the numbers have improved from 770 in 2012.

“Earlier, families only celebrated the birth of male child through the ritual of kuan pujan [worshipping a well]. Now they get ₹50,000 to do the same for baby girls. Everyone has started doing it,” said Komal’s aunt, Kavita Aggarwal. “Families are lined up to open accounts for their girl children under the tax-free Sukanya (Samriddhi) Yojana. I also deposit ₹1,000 for my daughter every month. She can use the fund after 14 years for her education,” Kavita added. “The average age at which families are getting girls married has gone up from 18 to 24,” said Komal.

Some of this perception doesn’t match reality. The recorded numbers for child marriages, murders by family members over relationships, and rape, are on the rise in Haryana. However, Komal and her family believe in BJP’s vision for the state. “[Mahohar Lal] Khattar is doing good work. Roads have become wider, sewers have been dug, exam papers are not getting leaked, people are getting jobs without channelling connections, and government offices are accepting applications without asking for bribes. We got subsidy on electricity bills and are getting included in Ayushman Bharat scheme,” said Kavita.

Modi fever

Narendra Modi’s last election pitch made such a strong enough impression on the Aggarwal family that they switched their votes from the Congress to the BJP. When Komal casts her first vote this summer, she won’t have to think at all. Modi is the only Indian political leader who makes her hopeful about the country. Her image of the Prime Minister is perfect even if not always accurate.

“He has been on so many world tours, but always at his own expense. Under his regime, there have been more encounters in Kashmir than ever. Look at how he timed demonetisation with surgical strikes. The fake currency coming in from Pakistan was stopped right at the border,” she said.

“His biggest problem is people – they don’t listen to him,” she added, shaking her head in exasperation. “If people stop thinking only about themselves, they will see the wisdom in his moves. GST [Goods and Services Tax] will simplify taxes even though it has made things difficult for now. My chacha, my mama–all of them in business–are no longer so keen on Modi. But you have to give him more time for the results to show. What can a man do in just five years!”

The World Wide Web

Komal and her family get all their political news from Facebook. “We follow various pages: ABP News, Aaj Tak, Amar Ujala,” said Kavita. They are suspicious of WhatsApp posts forwards, however. “Most of it is fake,” she pointed out. How do they differentiate real news from fake? “You know from taking one look at it. You apply your mind; you ask yourself what can and cannot happen in this country,” she explained.

Whether real or fake, the internet is Komal’s go-to place for most of her needs. She uses YouTube to prepare for her exams. “The teachers don’t even show up for class in our government college. Our entire syllabus is there on YouTube channels. Students don’t even buy textbooks anymore,” she said. For fun, there is TikTok. On this teen-friendly video-based social-media app, Komal is the leading star of her life as she posts 15-second clips of her acting, miming, dancing and lip syncing. “I have kept my account private. Only my family follows me,” she said. Her relatives are as proud of her whacky talents as they are of her academic ambition. Members of her joint family – sister, uncles, aunts-- also feature in these videos jointly scripted and shot at various locations in the house.

Ram Mandir Now, Jobs Later

It’s a pity she won’t be allowed to carry her smartphone into the poll booth. That doesn’t dampen her enthusiasm about her first vote, though. What will she be voting for? “My first demand is that reservations be scrapped for everyone. People should work hard to get ahead. Mukesh Ambani didn’t get reservation. Narendra Modi didn’t get reservation. They worked hard,” she said. “I also want the end to male domination. In every position of power in India, there is male, male, male!”

She thinks religion shouldn’t be on any political party’s election agenda, but this excludes the demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya. “Ram Mandir should be built. It is very important. Otherwise Hindus will say that this government has done nothing for us.”

What about jobs? “This government has increased the number of available jobs,” she said. Reminded that the government’s own data contradicts this view, she said she wasn’t going to judge Modi’s performance based on jobs. “Not yet. I don’t have to think about jobs for another 2-3 years. Then I will.”

First Published: Jan 14, 2019 10:36 IST