We’re a week away from what is being pegged as the most crucial election in India’s history, one that will see over 45 million new, young voters eligible to lose their voting virginity this year. And as unemployment hikes and development slopes downwards, even the young, wild and free among us are being forced to tame their tracks, give a shit, and make each vote count.
While some are fighting for the voting rights of those behind bars, some are raising the bar by making sure they stay woke and vote. But between all the fake news and propaganda pushes plaguing sentiments this season, there’s a stench of ambiguity in the air. To find out what first-time voters are feeling ahead of getting their fingers inked, we spoke with young Indians across the country.
Talha Mannan Khan, 21, Uttar Pradesh
VICE: Personally, why do you think it’s important to vote?
Talha Mannan Khan: Voting is my way to protest the system and a way to change it. Following the 2014 elections, communalism has spread like never before, whether at the state or school level. State-sponsored missionaries are spreading communal ideas, and organisations also use this to gain votes. If anyone says anything against the ruling government, it is seen as anti-India. Even Hindu festivals like Holi, that used to be celebrated within localities, are now taking place on the streets and associated with things like the Indian flag and chants of ‘Vande Mataram’, even though they are community festivals. I even lost a school debate I was sure I would win because the topic was ‘nation over religion’ and I spoke against it, and wasn’t even allowed to go to Gorakhpur for a friend’s wedding by my family because of a mob lynching incident that had happened there.
How important do you think social media is going to be in determining who wins?
I have been observing that even if I haven’t liked or subscribed to certain parties’ pages, I am shown things that are sponsored. If someone is a general user who doesn’t have knowledge and doesn’t read up, he will click on it and because it is framed in a certain way, they will believe it, so it plays a big role.
What recent event makes you feel most unsettled about how these elections will go?
After the Pulwama attacks, Modi recently made a statement that Hindus are historically not terrorists and I see this as a way to show them that he is protecting the community.
At my local level, the MLA does a lot of gundagardi (violence) and enlists youth from Bajrang Dal to fight with even rickshaw-walas. Small issues are given a communal colour. But if we surrender hope, we surrender ourselves. Badlav ki bahut umeed toh nahi hai (not much hope that things will change), but we must focus on electing better local leaders.
Sargam Sharma, 24, New Delhi
VICE: How does it feel to be voting for the first time, especially in the national capital?
Sargam Sharma: I’m from Patna, but I’m voting for the first time in Delhi out of sheer convenience since I don’t have holidays. But even if did, I think in Bihar, the regional party in my area is doing very well and BJP will lose there, so it’ll make more of a difference if I vote in Delhi to see the changes I’d like to see in the government.
But while voting is important, there is so much more to building a democracy. We can form groups, participate in protests and even file RTIs (Right to Information) if we suspect wrongdoing, so voting is just something I don’t feel that greatly about.
Do you care about how a party looks on social media?
I don’t have a TV anymore so more than directive posts, YouTube comments give me the most information about what people are thinking. Recently, Kanhaiya Kumar had a debate and over comments, people were having a very serious conversation about what people were proposing, but also with a lot of humour involved. This happened even after Mission Shakti with people joking about the Rafale scandal. The humour is an indication of what they think, while Twitter quickly becomes a cesspool and only shows me one side.
What are you most concerned about?
I’m concerned about the onslaught on minorities in this country, which I feel is a result of the government. This is policy-based and the effect the government has had on people is so strong that now, you can’t even have a conversation with someone you disagree with. The despotism of power is like never before; when Manmohan Singh became PM we didn’t know who was projected to be PM. Its wasn’t about one person; it was about two parties, but that’s all changed now.
After the Pulwama attacks, it seems like there has been an eye-wash and all discourse has been shut down to avoid any kind of opposition. Reports even claim that Nitin Gadkari was trying to organise an anti-Modi group within the party and even that backfired. The centre has shifted to the right. It’s extremely disillusioning and I’m worried that things will be getting only worse.
Priyanka Paul, 21, Maharashtra
VICE: How does it feel to be voting for the first time?
Priyanka Paul: I’m ecstatic! I’ve wanted to vote ever since I turned 18. It makes me feel part of something bigger. I’ve always believed in change happening through collective effort. Political waves in a country like India are historical, so knowing that you’re a small part of how the current times and subsequent history will be shaped is important and exciting to me. I’ve heard people my age say, “I’m not into politics” so often, that it’s not even funny now. What does that even mean? Unless it’s packaged into a trend for people to consume, voting isn’t very appealing now and that saddens me.
What issues are you most concerned about?
As a Bahujan woman, or as a person from any marginalised community, I believe we have to sift through all these political agendas and recognise what’s bait and what’s a genuine promise. Also, representation is so important in this aspect. Nehru once said that it’s not important what the majority thinks, but how the minority feels. There is a disconnect that needs to be bridged, and further discord and alienation will not help, which is why tokenism will also not help.
As a queer woman, the fact that we’re not majorly in any election manifestos says that there’s such a long way to go in terms of even visibility. Parties can start by acknowledging us, not erasing our history, spreading awareness, formulating better policies, oh and better scrap that bullshit Trans Protection of Rights Bill.
What makes you feel unsettled about how the elections will go?
In the last elections, the lowest voting numbers in Maharashtra were recorded from those areas that are considered elite or posh like Bandra or Fort, and that’s honestly shocking to me. How do you come from so much privilege and access to knowledge and not understand how important it is to vote? Lower voter turnouts are an issue. There’s also a Shiv Sena stronghold, the undying Vidarbha issue, and all the farmer’s agitations. If Mumbai is a city that never sleeps, we must ask why it doesn’t and then we must vote, in hopes that at least some nights are peaceful.
Mohaseb Noushad, 23, Kerala
VICE: What issues are you most concerned about as a first-time voter?
Mohaseb Noushad: I’m concerned that the current counting of Voter Verified Payment Audit Trails (VVPAT) slips, albeit convenient, is prone to manipulation. Many have claimed manipulation within the 2014 Lok Sabha elections as well, but the ones who claim to have any first-hand knowledge to this are either under political asylum elsewhere or dead. This eradicates all purpose of having a democratic state and of the Constitutional duty of authority deriving its power from the citizens of the country.
India’s happiness index has also fallen drastically, being 133rd out of 156 countries surveyed, 58 places behind Pakistan! This is not an issue as just a minority, but also as a citizen, and it is quite worrying for those of us who are just going to step into, or just have gotten into the job market.
Has any recent event reinforced your belief in voting?
I’ve always been into politics and feel ecstatic about being able to vote. But only recently have I been made aware of how much worse these scenarios can get when I got into a political conversation with my local butcher. I asked him his opinion on our current situation. He immediately seemed uncomfortable, shifting his eyes around to see who else was around. Since this was around noon, there weren't any other customers, so he asked me my name. When I told him and he was assured of my religious affiliation, he just went, "aapko to pata hi hai kitni gandi haalat mai hein hamaara desh (You know how bad the current condition of our country is)." And that's when I realised, this is what fear looks like.
What scares you the most about our current situation?
Our founding fathers established this country not to reflect a Hindu version of Pakistan, but a state which has no official religion so that those who chose to stay in this country, do not feel wronged by the decision. We are a cultural thali, and to make anyone feel like they’re second class citizens is their worst nightmare come true. The common question I hear is: If not Modi, then who? And honestly, if you're looking for a good stable party, it doesn't exist. But what we need to realise is, this election, we are not voting for the same reasons we voted for so far. We are voting to remove the cancerous lump of hate that has been growing.
Mriganka Kar, 22, Assam
VICE: How do you feel about the upcoming elections and to be voting for the first time?
Mriganka Kar: I remember listening with great interest when in 2016, Obama addressed the Parliament saying the US was the oldest democracy, while India was the largest. It’s our responsibility as the largest democracy to exercise our voting rights and take our future in our own hands. I have been standing in school elections in Assam since 2013, and am an active part of the National Students Union of India, the student wing of the Congress party, so I’ve always been involved in politics. I think we need to empower more students and take into account what they want. You can’t not vote and then say you feel like you don’t belong to this country when you’ve been given the right to.
What issues are you mainly concerned about?
Unemployment is at its highest in three years and talks of privatisation of universities means the fees of even Delhi University—which is about Rs 8,000 now—will increase. I feel like what’s the use of spending all that money on college if I have no guarantee of getting a job. Demonetisation didn’t do much, the Human Development Index (HDI) has fallen and terrorist attacks like Pulwama are still prevalent. I feel anguished, but I also need to be optimistic about the future.
The Northeast has its set of issues, but something that really concerns me is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016. I’m a Bengali whose family has always been settled in Assam. I try to be rational and realise there is a scarcity of resources and refugees who came to India in 1971 have now settled here and should have a right to apply for citizenship if they have no cases against them. But while the issue of terrorism is reducing, the Bengali minority will face an identity crisis in Assam if this bill is passed. So, we need to vote and use our right to change ideologies.
Nauman Shaikh, 21, Goa
VICE: Why do you think voting is important?
Nauman Shaikh: I work closely in the field of sports and while the ministry had promised a budget for holding national and international games, it never showed interest, which I did not like. In Goa, I feel like everyone votes for a person who can help them get their work done. If my vote can give a chance to someone who might not get it otherwise, then it makes a difference.
How much influence does a social media campaign have on you?
I think social media lets you see what the parties are up to and keep a sort of check on them. It is also a place where people discuss and debate, which broadens the user’s knowledge. I know if a minister is taking part in a women’s drive or doing something positive and I can also track the negatives.
What issues are you most concerned about?
Prices have gone up, the market has completely shattered, roads aren’t being built. There’s a monopoly with the taxi mafia in Goa, who charge exorbitant rates for short distances and are known to get violent. There needs to be an initiative like what Manohar Parrikar, the former Chief Minister of Goa who recently passed away, did by starting the Kadamba bus system to create better public transport system for the people and reduce prices.
Politicians should promote ethical means of doing things and values like road safety, but corruption plays such an integral role that it’s more about paying people off to buy votes.
Shrishti Matthew, 21, Chennai
VICE: As a first-time voter, what makes you think this election will be crucial?
Shrishti Matthew: Politics in Tamil Nadu have always been more about caste than religion, right since the Dravidian movement. This time, the heads of both parties, Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi, have both died. The AIADMK has now aligned with the BJP which is very non-Dravidian since its more upper caste, which is what the movement itself is against.
Secondly, the Karnataka elections in which there was no clear majority. While Congress made a post-poll alliance with JD(S), the BJP basically said that they would come up with a majority by buying out the leaders through horse trading or tie up with junior member parties. This attempt to steal the majority is very scary because we’re a democracy and we will fall apart if we don’t even follow the rules.
What issues are you most concerned about this election?
I’m most concerned about the rise of fundamentalism. The world needs to be an inclusive place. We’re the world’s largest democracy. We cannot sustain so much intolerance in the long run.
Interviews have been condensed for length and clarity.
Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.