How India’s Young and Restless Are Changing Its Politics

How Indias Young and Restless Are Changing Its Politics

Soma Chakraborty moved to Bangalore as a new bride in November, excited to join her husband, Avishek, in a place known for fun, freedom and opportunity. That notion lasted about a month. “I’m trying to love the city,” she says gamely. But the city has not made it easy. Soma, 24, hasn’t been able to find work — in a recession, no one’s interested in her master’s degree in psychology without experience — and Avishek’s once coveted job at the outsourcing firm Satyam now depends on the whims of the scandal-tainted company’s new owners.

To save money, the Chakrabortys stopped going out to nightclubs, not long before a spate of so-called “moral policing” attacks in which women were assaulted in public by small groups of unidentified men for wearing jeans and sleeveless tops. “I have a tough time getting out of the house,” Soma says, making it difficult for her to find friends or new professional contacts. They don’t want the government to bail them out, but they do want a city that understands and encourages their ambitions.

A generation ago, a young couple like this might have simply tried to leave India in search of a better life. Avishek and Soma plan to do something more radical. They will vote in the national elections — which began April 16 and are staggered over five weeks — in a conscious effort to hold their government accountable. The Chakrabortys are part of India’s youth vote, a demographic that is too large for any political party to ignore. Of India’s 1 billion citizens, 40% are under 18; 70% are under 35. In the cities, voting rates among younger citizens are as many as 20 points lower than they are in rural areas, but growing. “Urban youth is emerging as a key electoral group,” says Jai Mrug, an election analyst based in Mumbai. “It could be a huge sample of voters freshly added to the polls.” The country’s political future belongs to those who understand that their issues are India’s issues.

Disrupted Lives
the sleek third-floor lounge of the Ista, a boutique hotel in downtown Bangalore, is a good place to try to understand how young Indians are changing politics. Many of the young employees of this hotel are upset, in a visceral way, about the recent incidents in Bangalore, which occurred a few weeks after a more vicious, videotaped beating of a group of young women at a pub in Mangalore, a much smaller city 220 miles away. “It gets you really angry,” says Deepak Sampath, 30, the hotel’s front-office manager. “It’s not something that you’re doing wrong. It’s still a democratic country. You’re not intruding into anybody else’s place.”

Moral policing might sound like a minor quality-of-life issue, but for young Bangaloreans it is symbolic of a broader failure of governance. “You know that the government can do something about it,” says Michelle Sebastian, 26, marketing manager at the hotel. But no one has been arrested in Bangalore, and she still feels unsafe going out at night. “We pay taxes. Where’s the money going” Instead of putting more police on the streets, the local government is using the incidents to justify new restrictions on bars and restaurants. The employees at the Ista worry that disrupting local nightlife won’t just hurt their business; they fear that it hurts Bangalore’s reputation as a safe, cosmopolitan place for young people to start their careers — a reputation that has turned the city into India’s fastest-growing metropolis. The attacks on women are a symbolic rejection of the open-minded, modern India that they all want to be part of. “On the one hand, India is developing; on the other hand you’re seeing a U-turn,” says Jai Pais, a 21-year-old intern at the hotel. “You’re going backward.”

Frustration is a common theme in interviews with young people in many parts of India: they simply want a government that works. This was most clear in Mumbai after the November terrorist attacks in which nearly 200 people were killed. There was certainly anger directed at the terrorists and their sponsors, who are believed to be in Pakistan, but the more enduring feeling was disillusionment with the city’s own inadequate response. Mihir Joshi, 28, is a DJ and musician in south Mumbai who says he has become politically active for the first time in his life because of “26/11.” What still troubles him isn’t the motivation of the terrorists. Instead, he wonders, “How could this happen What is our system doing How the hell did it take four days for this to be resolved” he says. “That is what is appalling. How can we get someone in power that can make something happen”

Skeptics say that the new activism of young urban voters is nothing more than an élite phenomenon, and that this Indian election, like nearly every one that has preceded it, will be decided by the masses in India’s villages, who vote for the candidate most likely to bring them bijli, pani, sadak — power, water and roads. But even young people in rural areas are looking for something new: not just a better life, but a better system. Vikram Rai, for example, is a 29-year-old college lecturer in Darjeeling, in northeastern India, who can’t understand why the water from the lush green countryside is only enjoyed by some people. He has had to buy all his water for the past five years — not just for drinking, but for every household need in the 100-year-old cottage that he shares with his wife, daughters and parents. “It’s not like there is no water,” he says. “But most of it is sourced out to VIPs and the big hotels for more money, and the taxpayers have to pay for that.”

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