Prodding Middle-Class Indians to the Polls

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

NEW DELHI -- Ankit Srivastava, 24, recently quit his high-paying job as an engineer with a multinational cellphone company. But it was not for better work or more money.

The rail-thin, soft-spoken Srivastava has taken on the onerous and unpaid task of cleaning up what he calls the "dirty politics" of the world's largest democracy. And he plans to do that not by asking for votes but by asking people to vote.

"The educated, urban middle class in India only wants to give opinions about corrupt and immoral politics. They call it a gutter and spit in it, but they don't want to vote and clean it up," he said as he walked through the Delhi University cafeteria on a recent morning, asking young Indians whether they had registered.

Two months ago, Srivastava and 20 other young professionals formed a nonpartisan group called Vote India, aiming to rouse the country's burgeoning middle class from its slumber and propel its members to the polls in upcoming elections. Six states are to vote by the end of the year, and a national election is scheduled for May.

Of the 670 million Indians who were eligible to vote in 2004, 58 percent voted in that year's national election. In the United States, 64 percent of voting-age citizens cast ballots in the 2004 presidential election. But unlike in the United States, in India it is the under-privileged residents of rural areas who turn out in large numbers to vote. In the struggle for basic services, an election is often the only opportunity for the poor to have their say.

The urban middle class, by contrast, tends to be contemptuous of political culture and prefers to stay out of it. Analysts say the time may be right to change that.

More than 70 percent of India's 1.15 billion people are younger than 35, and the young have shown a growing impatience with the old ways of patronage politics. The challenge is to translate their dissatisfaction into action.

"For the educated, middle-class Indians, election day is a holiday to sit back, or shop, watch a movie and enjoy. They have distanced themselves completely from the process," said G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, an elections expert. "But, ironically, they are also the loudest critics of governance and the political system."

In recent decades, the country's politics have been dominated by questions of religion and caste. Indian democracy has produced many politicians from the lower castes who advocate inclusion for their fellow caste members through quotas and set-asides. The efforts gave rise to campus protests by anti-quota student groups in 2006. The growth of an aggressive brand of Hindu nationalist politics, as well as parties advocating for the rights of religious minorities, has also left a profound imprint on political debate.

Many urban, English-speaking, middle-class Indians -- who are often members of privileged upper castes -- accuse politicians of dragging the country backward by their relentless focus on such divisive matters.

"Only the urban middle class can change political priorities in India. Otherwise, we will be stuck with religion and caste forever," Srivastava said at a meeting at Delhi University recently.

A year ago, a popular tea brand, Tata Tea, launched an advertising campaign it called "Jaago Re," or "awaken." A commercial showed a young man inviting a candidate for a cup of tea and aggressively questioning him about his ability to run the country. Since then, the Jaago Re campaign has expanded, with Tata teaming with a group working for better governance, Janaagraha, to launch a national voter drive. A new tea ad airing this month shows people being admonished for not voting and asks, "If you are asleep on election day, how will this country awaken?"

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