India's youth voting for change, firm leadership

HAJIPUR, India - Mr Amarendra Kumar Bhagat, 21, works in a restaurant during the day and spends a good deal of his leisure time tracking the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi on social networking sites like Facebook.

Mr Bhagat, a waiter who has his sights set on a managerial job in a big city, hopes his fortune will swing for the better along with Mr Modi's in India's ongoing general election to elect a new Parliament and government.

"I went to Delhi and Jaipur, looking for a job after doing a course in hotel management. I didn't get one, so I had to come home," he said recently in an interview.

"But I am hopeful things will get better. Modiji will make a difference," said Mr Bhagat, who grew up in this town whose claim to fame is its small, sweet "chiniya" variety of bananas.

Some 20km away, in a nearby village called Halia, 19-year-old Mohammed Halim is getting ready to apply to colleges.

The young Muslim is no supporter of Mr Modi or his Hindu nationalist party, but only hopes that the next government will provide jobs for young people like him.

"For me, what is important is getting a job. I see a lot of unemployed youngsters and I am fearful. So I hope there will be change in the economy," he said.

Mr Bhagat and Mr Halim are first-time voters from Bihar, a state with one of the biggest populations of young voters.

In this election, one in five of India's 814 million voters is a first-time voter, between the ages of 18 and 23, the biggest proportion ever.

Connected by a common desire for a better future, these young voters have grown up in a decade of Congress-led rule which saw slow growth, rising prices, increasing unemployment and corruption scandals in its last term.

They have already made their presence felt on political and social issues ahead of the elections.

Thousands took part in an anti- corruption movement in 2011 led by social activist Anna Hazare.

Following the gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi in December 2012, they exploded in anger, taking to the streets and catching the attention of political parties.

They are a diverse lot, yet have key things in common.

Said political analyst Sudhir Panwar: "The young voters are heterogeneous and as divided as older voters. But in the young, there is an aspiration for change and development that is common.

"A desire for decent jobs is the thread that holds them together."

He added: "In cities, growth and employment are major concerns. At the village level, youngsters want alternatives to agricultural jobs. Those in farming want extra money.

"The BJP has targeted them well and it is to their advantage that growth rate is half of what it was in the 2009 (elections)."

According to a survey by the United States-based Pew Research Centre, young Indians think the BJP is best suited to deal with India's problems.

Some 66 per cent favoured the BJP while only 19 per cent favoured the Congress and 11 per cent other parties.

Apart from the BJP, the anti- corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and a clutch of regional parties have been trying to woo young voters.

They have held out promises of creating millions of jobs by expanding manufacturing and opening up the economy in select sectors while promising better educational facilities.

The AAP has made a decided push for the undecided first-time voters, calling itself a young party that champions the youth cause.

"We are the only party that has proposed bringing down the age of contesting elections from 25 to 21. And we have many young women candidates contesting elections," said Mr Dilip Pandey, an AAP spokesman.

"At the AAP, we are a group of young people. The BJP and Congress are young only in name.

"Most of their leaders are above 50. In our party, the average age group is between 25 to 40," said Mr Pandey.

In the 2009 elections, the Congress came to power after winning the support of young Indians.

Now, many speak of voting for change.

"India is a strong country but the pilot is not good. We need strong governance," said 18- year-old Pankaj Kumar from Pawapuri in Bihar.

Ms Nikita Bihani, 21, a finalyear student at a science college, concurred.

"For me, it is important that a government come to power that will fix the economy. Most of my friends think that way," she said.

The last six phases of voting have given little indication of how the youth vote will play out, but there are clear signs of an upsurge of voting among urban youth.

They have been tweeting and uploading pictures of their fingers stained by the indelible ink that is marked on a voter's finger.

"I voted for change, did you?" asked multiple posts on Twitter.

This article was published on April 29 in The Straits Times.

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