(by Jason Motlagh, WashingtonTimes.com) NEW DELHI – Balloting is in full swing across the world’s largest democracy, and, for the first time, millions of young Indians are playing a pivotal role, energized by the descendant of a famous family and focused on issues such as the advanced age and low ethical standards of some Indian parliamentarians.
“These old men can barely walk, so how can they be expected to run a government?” Milan Yadav, 20, said, referring to senior leaders from both main parties – the ruling Congress party and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “We are tired of the same promises and advertisements. This time we are standing up to demand results.”
Mr. Yadav is one of about 200 million Indian voters younger than 25, half of whom will be casting their first ballots this year. Many have been drawn to politics by Internet-based tools – such as Facebook, personal blogs and text messaging – and they are looking for new representatives.
According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, an independent election monitoring and advocacy group, almost a quarter of the 543 standing members of Parliament are under investigation for criminal charges, some as serious as rape and murder. These charges, along with shady financial records and bloated assets of some parliamentarians, are being discussed vigorously online and on the street.
The Indian Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the statistic. Under Indian law, those charged with criminal offenses still can be elected to Parliament. Sometimes the charges are made by political opponents and are eventually dismissed, said an Indian official who spoke on the condition that he not be named.
“There is a feeling among the youth that India has not prospered enough after 60 years of independence. Unless we are active participants, we cannot demand accountability,” said Vandana Krishnan, a representative for Janaagraha, an urban-development nonprofit in Bangalore.
It takes India a month to elect a new Parliament. Voting is staggered over five rounds in different regions of the vast subcontinent, so the impact of the youth contingent won’t be known until several days after May 13, when the last polls close. About 720 million people are expected to choose from among more than 4,000 candidates in 45 registered parties.
In an effort to stimulate young voter interest, big-name Bollywood stars have ramped up the elections buzz with promotional appearances and commercials. A Bangalore-based rock band has toured major cities with a hit song titled “Shut Up and Vote.”
“There is a whole new level of awareness now,” said Yogesh Pawar, 18, a recent high school graduate and first-time voter. “Imperfect as the system is, we know that [voting] is the only real way to force change in this country.”
Janaagraha, the Bangalore-based group, has partnered with Tata Tea, India’s largest tea company, and six months ago launched the nationwide “Jaago Re [Wake Up] One Billion Votes” campaign aimed at stirring young voters to action. Their slogan: “If you are not voting, you are asleep.”
The campaign has sponsored free concerts and on-campus events….
Ms. Krishnan said the Web site has helped hundreds of thousands of young Indians register to vote. The focus now, she added, is to ensure that people turn out “to be the change that you want to be.”…
The looming threat of terrorism illustrated by November’s attacks in Mumbai – where the government response was slow and ill-equipped – widespread poverty, abuse of power and job security are the most commonly cited concerns.
Tanvi Aggarwal, 20, an engineering student at the University of Delhi, is troubled by rising unemployment and sagging infrastructure that causes traffic snarls and makes her commutes two hours long on some days. “It’s not about who it is anymore; it’s about what they do,” she said during a break between exams.
Pritika Rathee, 20, said she is worried about India’s national security but that the harassment she faces regularly as a woman in the capital’s streets is more pressing. The English major said she will vote for the Congress party because it’s in better touch with the hopes of young, educated voters.
This is the image party leaders have tried to cultivate and one that Rahul Gandhi, 38, seems to embody.
No relation to the independence leader, Mr. Gandhi is the descendant of three prime ministers – his late father, Rajiv, his grandmother, Indira, and great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru – and attracts thousands when he appears at universities and in downtrodden rural areas.
While he has called on young voters to question dynasties such as his, Mr. Gandhi is clearly being groomed for the prime minister’s post and is working to build a base. In the run-up to elections, he canvassed the country to recruit new members to his Indian Youth Congress, the party’s youth wing, with pledges of transparency and merit-based promotions.
This sort of shake-up is improving Congress’ appeal in places such as Punjab state, where Mr. Gandhi is supporting five young parliamentary candidates.
Said Youth Congress spokesman Pradeep Kumar: “We have an electrifying leader like Rahul Gandhi. The BJP doesnt.”
Analysts and students said Mr. Gandhi’s stock is rising quickly even though the party still stands behind incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 76, who recently underwent coronary bypass surgery.
At 81, Lal Krishna Advani, the BJP’s man for the job, is even less appealing to the youth vote, though he has gone to great lengths to update his image, boasting that he is an active blogger and has a Facebook page and an iPod.
Copyright 2009 News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of the Washington Times. For educational purposes only. This reprint does not constitute or imply any endorsement or sponsorship of any product, service, company or organization. Visit the website at www.washingtontimes.com.
1. The population of India as estimated by the CIA World FactBook is 1,166,079,217. (Do you know what the population of the U.S. is?)
a) Approximately how many people are eligible to vote in India’s current general election?
b) Approximately how many of India’s eligible voters are under the age of 25?
2. How have many young voters become interested in politics and voting in India?
3. a) Approximately how many of the current members of Parliament are under investigation for criminal charges, according to the Association for democratic Reforms?
b) Why can people charged with criminal offenses be elected to Parliament in India?
4. What is the purpose of the Jaago Re campaign?
5. What issues are most important to younger Indian voters?
6. a) How is the BJP Party’s candidate Lal Krishna Advani attempting to appeal to younger voters?
b) Do you think he will succeed? Explain your answer.
7. What matters more to you: a candidate’s position on issues important to you and/or to the country, or whether you feel he/she can relate to you as a young person? Explain your answer.
On India’s Electoral Process and Government: (from wikipedia.org)
The Parliament of India comprises the head of state (the president) and the two Houses (Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) which are the legislature.
The Lok Sabha (the House of the People) is the directly elected lower house of the Parliament of India. The Constitution limits the Lok Sabha to a maximum of 552 members. Each Lok Sabha is formed for a five-year term, after which it is automatically dissolved. The 14th Lok Sabha was formed in May 2004 and will be in place until the April-May 2009 general elections are completed.
The Rajya Sabha (the Council of States) is the upper house of the Parliament of India. Membership is limited to 250 members, 12 of whom are chosen by the President of India for their expertise in specific fields of art, literature, science, and social services. These members are known as nominated members. The remainder of the body is elected by state and territorial legislatures.
Terms of office are for six years, with one third of the members facing re-election every two years.
The Rajya Sabha meets in continuous session and, unlike the lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, is not subject to dissolution. The Rajya Sabha shares legislative powers with the Lok Sabha, except in the area of supply, where the Lok Sabha has overriding powers. In the case of conflicting legislation, a joint sitting of the two houses is held. However, since the Lok Sabha has more than twice as many members than the Rajya Sabha, it holds de facto veto power in such joint sessions. The Vice-President of India (currently, Hamid Ansari) is the ex-officio Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. The Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, who is elected from amongst its members, takes care of the day-to-day matters of the house in the absence of the Chairman.
The President of India is elected by an electoral college consisting of elected members of both houses of Parliament and the legislatures of the states for a five-year term (no term limits); election last held in July 2007 (next to be held in July 2012). The President is the head of state and first citizen of India, as well as the Supreme Commander of the Indian armed forces. In theory, the President possesses considerable power. With few exceptions, most of the authority vested in the President is in practice exercised by the Council of Ministers, headed by the Prime Minister.
The prime minister is chosen by parliamentary members of the majority party following legislative elections (general elections currently taking place).
For information on India’s election and results, go to indianumbers.com/elections/results.
For a map and background on India, go to the CIA World FactBook website.
Visit India’s Association for Democratic Reforms website at adrindia.org.
Visit the website for Rahul Gandhi and current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s political party congress.org.in.
Visit the website for the other major political party BJP to read about their candidate for Prime Minister, Lal Krishna Advani at bjp.org/content/view/726/399.