India's Youth Vote Rises From Ashes Of Mumbai Attacks

Posted in India | 07-Apr-09 | Author: Emily Wax| Source: Washington Post

Kaizad Bhamgara, 19, and his friends launched a Web site that urges their peers to vote in India's elections.

MUMBAI -- Before the November terrorist attacks on this city left three of his friends dead, Kaizad Bhamgara, 19, spent his evenings jamming with his hipster goth-rock band or chilling on the wave-sprayed boulders along the high-rise-ringed shoreline.

But the pain of his loss and his frustration over the ineptitude of the government's response to the attacks moved Bhamgara to put down his drumsticks and pick up his laptop.

He set up a Facebook page called "Rise Up Mumbai! Rise Up India!" It soon expanded into a Web site, a YouTube channel and a blog, all devoted to encouraging his peers to vote in India's national elections, which will be held in five phases from April 16 to May 13.

"For young India, there was an explosion of anger after the Mumbai attacks. We didn't want that energy to be wasted," said Bhamgara, at the popular Leopold Cafe, one of the 10 sites attacked. "Young India is restless and desperate for honest political leaders, for better security, for a voice. Earlier, we just weren't sure how to go about it."

The three-day siege that left more than 170 people dead and more than 230 wounded has spurred India's disillusioned middle-class youths to previously unseen levels of political action. At a time when young Indians have rising aspirations for their own futures, the attacks forced them to question why their expectations for their political leaders have fallen so low. Indian political analysts say young voters will play an unprecedented role in this year's vote, which will determine the composition of India's next government.

Known as India's 9/11, the assault on Mumbai exposed governmental dysfunction and security gaps that allowed 10 gunmen to bring one of the country's largest cities to a standstill. Tips about the attacks were ignored; untrained police lugged rusted muskets to the crime scenes; and members of India's elite National Security Guard spent nearly two hours stuck in traffic.

In past elections, India's middle-class youths blew off voting as a waste of time. The country's often-Kafkaesque bureaucracy exasperated them, as did politicians' well-earned reputations for corruption and criminal behavior. But now, the same high-tech tools and toys of youth culture that help teenagers engage with one another are being used to expose the misdeeds of political leaders. In the past, police harassed young people when they massed for street demonstrations, but Indian youths now gather on Facebook or organize over text messaging, a powerful medium in India, where 385 million people own cellphones, according to the Cellular Operators Association of India.

Sabita Pradhan, 24, an event manager for fashion shows in Mumbai, said she never thought voting mattered.

"We have so many problems: poverty, water, education," she said on a recent Sunday afternoon, putting on her iPod to listen to other young people talking about how they would vote. "After the attacks, I thought, I'd better vote. Indian youths have to care about our own country."

Youths elsewhere across India are also becoming more active.

In the capital, New Delhi, Charu Khera, 22, said he was inspired by Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, which many young Indians say reminded them that democracy can work.

"The American election motivated me to vote and to think that maybe we can get India's Obama, someone with a dynamic nature and not the kind of politician that we currently have," said Kehra, who writes about technology for a magazine.

Ankur Dwivedi, 22, of Lucknow, in northern India, said he had never voted before this election. But after watching a Tata Tea ad campaign that chastised youths that if "you aren't voting, you are asleep," he felt motivated to register. Lately, he is even interested in politics.

"I was watching TV, and that campaign just got stuck in my mind. I thought, 'Okay, if I can log on the Internet and chat online for three, four hours, why can't I register myself for this voting thing?' " said Dwivedi, whose aunt was killed in the Mumbai attacks. "In our generation, every third person wants to become a doctor or an engineer; nobody wants to be a politician. It came to my mind that why can't I be a politician if I have interest in politics?"

Although older generations allowed their politicians to become aloof, young Indians have embraced the technologies that make it harder for politicians to hide. Some youth organizers, for example, have started text messaging the jail records of lawmakers in a country where nearly a fourth of the 543 members of Parliament face criminal charges, including rape and murder, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms.

In recent weeks, dozens of new and youth-oriented political parties have formed, led by Web designers, call-center employees, Bollywood script writers and musicians. Their platforms include fighting terrorism, stemming job losses, and improving the nation's crumbling public schools and roads.

In India, dubbed "Youngistan" by some commentators, a quarter of the 721 million registered voters are younger than 25, and about 100 million first-time voters are expected to cast ballots, according to the Election Commission.

"We can't just sit in our beanbag chairs and crib about all the problems. We have to get out the text messages, get the issues on YouTube. Technology gives us this voice," said Prashant Singh, 31, president of a new party called Jago, which means Wake Up in Hindi. "Maybe the older generations at first will ignore us, then criticize us. Then acceptance will come. Then one day they will join us."

Jago will be fielding 25 candidates in places where the party feels India needs them most: the financial capital, Mumbai; the vast northern state of Rajasthan, which has a history of corruption; and in the eastern state of Bihar, one of the poorest and most lawless parts of the country.

Singh knows Jago may not win any seats. But the party appears to be attracting attention. Some of his candidates were recently offered money to quit Jago and join one of the larger political parties, he said. Instead, the party's young doctors, technology gurus and artists posted items on blogs saying that young India is sick of "goondaism," a Hindi word that means thug-like behavior.

In response to Jago and other similar movements, both major parties are trying to repackage themselves as the choice for India's young and restless. Each has sent text messages in recent weeks promising to field young candidates. The ruling Congress party has decided to offer 30 percent of its slots to young contenders.

Congress has also been playing up Rahul Gandhi, the 38-year-old heir apparent of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, who draws thousands of marigold-tossing youths to rallies. The wavy-haired and dimpled politician often visits campuses, where students jostle to take his picture.

One campaign billboard has Gandhi wearing a Nehru coat, named after his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru. "On the footsteps of the past, we are looking at the future," it says. Never mind that the next prime minister probably will be the incumbent, 76-year-old Manmohan Singh, who recently had coronary bypass surgery.

Meanwhile, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party -- the Congress's main rival -- has made an effort to woo youths by inventing its own version of Facebook, where candidates continuously update their profiles.

At rallies, organizers introduce their gray-haired, octogenarian leader, L.K. Advani, as someone who "loves chocolates, movies, cricket and always carries an I-pod." Advani has his own blog.

"The BJP is conservative, but we are also the party of science -- we took the risk of a nuclear test," said Prodyut Bora, 35, head of the party's technology initiative, who has a videoconferencing phone that flashes pictures of lotus flowers -- the party's symbol. "Our goal is to offer a buffet of technology. We want to be the party of Facebook."

The past three Indian prime ministers have been older than 70, and all have had health problems. Politics across South Asia is largely dynastic, which by nature tends to exclude fresh leadership. Gandhi's grandmother was a prime minister. His great-grandfather was the country's first prime minister.

"Our leaders are old. But this is young India's moment," said Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, a Bollywood filmmaker, who is directing advertisements that encourage youths to vote. "We have paid such a heavy price for turning away from our problems."

Special correspondent Ayesha Manocha contributed to this report.