Desire for upward mobility unites India’s young voters

What’s common between a 19-year-old Brahmin in Dewas, a 20-year-old Dalit in Kolkata, a 19-year-old Muslim in Barpeta, and a 19-year-old from a tribe in the Nilgiris? They all voted for the first time in the just-concluded Lok Sabha elections, and each of them believed religion should be one’s personal business, and not a political tool.

The final verdict may or may not represent their belief, but they aren’t going to stop speaking their minds anytime soon. Eighteen million people between the ages of 18 and 23 were expected to cast their first vote in the 2019 national election.

Between January and May, Hindustan Times profiled a first-time voter every week across region, religion, caste, class, gender and sexuality.

The lived realities of these 15 people couldn’t be more different from each other’s, but their expectations from the country’s next political leadership often intersected.

Nothing united them as much as the desire to move up from their current position — in education, occupation, income, and social status. Many of them were the first in their family to attend high school or college. Most of them aspired to a job in government or in the information technology sector. Some of them were enrolled in coaching centres. Nearly all of them wanted to live in cities.

Kumkum Yadav from Ayodhya, who hailed from a family of farmers and belongs to the OBC (other backward classes) community, was preparing for the entrance exam to the Union Public Service Commission. “I’d like to work in the government. There is a lot of ‘bhed bhav’ [discrimination] between general and backward castes. We are kept back; not given the same opportunities,” Yadav said.

Nineteen-year-old Rutvik Patel from Gujarat’s rural pocket of Mehsana made his peace with his community’s failed struggle to secure reservations in government jobs. “That is over. We know we are not going to get reservations, no matter how many rallies are organised,” he said. The student of computer application at a private college is pursuing the second best option for his future: “IT job in a mega city.”

Many first-time voters expected the government to make these journeys easier for them. They wanted scholarships in higher education and subsidies in application fees for entrance exams.

Across India, young women struggled more while chasing education and jobs, and wanted more help from the government: safe public transport to their colleges and coaching institutes, subsidised hostels for those moving to cities, part-time work options for those managing households.

Caste-based reservations came up often in conversations with young voters. Those belonging to upper castes either wanted quotas scrapped or provided on the basis of economic deprivation. “We don’t even make ~2 lakh per year. Kehne ko general hain, but hum hain bahut neeche (we belong to the general category in name, but we are very low in status),” said Ayush Anand Malik from Dewas in Madhya Pradesh. Those from scheduled castes stressed the enormity of struggle they must undertake to reach even that status. “That I am getting to study today is because of (BR) Ambedkar. He wrote the Constitution that gave us these rights,” said Anjali Chanakya from Agra in Uttar Pradesh.

Their demands weren’t limited to education and jobs. Some of them spoke passionately about the need to protect the country’s borders, public institutions and secular tradition. “ Our seasons are more than one, our religions are more than one. Our diversity is our strength,” said Aryan, a recent migrant to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh who had just turned 18 at the time of the interview. The voting choices and rights of the others were influenced by their personal circumstances. In Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris, Vignesh from the Betta Kurumbar tribe was going to press NOTA [None of the Above] because successive governments ignored his community’s constant demand to implement the Forest Rights’ Act, which guarantees basic rights to forest-dwelling communities. In Assam’s Barpeta district, Abu Sayeed Ahmed, whose Assamese identity is currently being “doubted” by the state, wished to vote for any party that would “end all this citizenship issue.”

In Delhi, Mohul Sharma, who identifies as a transman, wanted to vote but could not get a voter ID card made because he did not have appropriate paperwork to “prove” his gender identity. If he could, he would’ve voted against the implementation of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, which was passed by Lok Sabha in December 2018. “If it is passed, it will make life very difficult for us,” he said.

The first-time voters also did what a majority of Indian voters do, which is follow the interests of their families and communities. In Ayodhya, Yadav was going to vote for the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance just like her father and grandfather. In Kolkata, Mou Mondal was proud to be the third-generation Trinamool Congress voter from her family. “They [mother and grandmother] have always told me that she is one of us and we have to support our didi [chief minister Mamata Banerjee],” she said. In Chennai, Inanalam was going to vote for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the party that upholds the social reformist and rationalist politics of his parents’ hero, (social reformer) Periyar, and his own, (former chief minister) Karunanidhi. In Mehsana, Patel said, “Since we were kids, we have been hearing that BJP is good for us.”

Most of them engaged with politics through the internet and social media — Facebook, WhatsApp, TikTok, YouTube, Hike. Some of them got in trouble for it. One Aligarh Muslim University student, Talha Manan, regularly posted political content on his Facebook page and hardly anyone objected. “But suddenly, my father was called in by the school because I had shared a post on Rohith Vemula,” he said. The bulk of political news and opinion they received via social media revolved around the prime minister and his party. They stood deeply polarised on the subject of Narendra Modi and his government’s performance. Not all of their opinions were based on facts.

In Tamil Nadu, Vignesh thought demonetisation had destroyed the working class. In Haryana, Aggarwal felt it was the smartest move made by the PM. “Look at how he timed demonetisation with surgical strikes. The fake currency coming in from Pakistan was stopped right at the border,” she said. In Maharashtra’s Wardha district, Vaishnavi Divakar Bhomle felt “Narendra Modi spent his tenure going to foreign countries and establishing rapport there. If he had spent that time strengthening the farmers’ community, we would be much stronger now.” In Madhya Pradesh. Malik thought the PM’s “foreign trips raise India’s stature in the international community.”

On Thursday, all of them will be eagerly awaiting the verdict.

First Published:
May 22, 2019 04:48 IST

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