India Elections: “I could relate to Obama”

As the general election juggernaut rolls on, India’s contesting political outfits stand a consummate chance of losing out on the most privileged of the nation’s establishment: the young urban literate electorate.

Well-educated, city-dwelling, young adults widely considered as the finest products of the Indian social loom just beyond the cusp of the national suffrage age, exhibit a certain disdain for the ballot that draws deeply from their demography.

From their perch, many young Indians associate better with US President Barack Obama rather than domestic politicians who front the country’s political parties. Not just that, there is also a recurrent demand to see these Indian lawmakers verbally fight it out on TV just like their American counterparts.

For some, the exit from the domestic political loop is so complete that their first intimation of impending polls come from physical changes that they see around them.

"I didn’t know that the elections were about to happen until I saw roads being dug up. It was almost instinctive, that when I saw perfectly fine streets being re-done, I asked my friends if the elections were around the corner. My guess was right," Opashona Ghosh, a 21 year-old mass communication student of a city college, claimed nonchalantly.

Others, though, perceive the issues tabled by political parties as having little relevance with their lives.

"I’m not sure how land reforms will affect my life. Unlike my college elections, where we vote for things like a broken lift or bad food at the canteen, the changes that this the general election can bring will hardly be tangible," first-year Jadavpur University student Arijit Sett said.

The disconnect, however, is much deeper. The country’s urban young feel substantially little, in the way of relating to the majority of those who occupy the lower house of the Indian parliament.

"I see most politicians with contempt. These are not people who I can look up to, rather I look down upon them. I would want to vote for those who can be role-models for us and I don’t see that happening. I refuse to vote for antiquated people who disrupt our lives," says 18 year-old Gaurav Guha, a possible first-time voter.

It is, therefore, hardly ironic that these aware young adults were significantly more attentive when Barack Obama and John McCain were slugging it out in the US presidential elections late last year.

"I could relate to Obama. He is young and speaks a language that I understand. He was someone I could connect with. Unlike an old Tollywood actor who is standing for the elections this time. In India, the way political parties market and campaign is clearly aimed at the rural population, not the educated middle class. We are a minority," Sett adds.

Interestingly, another factor that had many plugged into the Obama-McCain contest was the four presidential debates that directly pitted each contestant against the other.

"The overall media coverage of the American elections was great. The debates, in particular, were extremely interesting and provided an insight into the real characters of the candidates. I think it would be useful to have similar debates here, with the main prime-ministerial candidates putting across their points of views on a single forum," Guha suggests.

Ironically, though, Guha’s suggestions have been pre-empted by one of the candidates in the fray. Last week, BJP‘s prime ministerial candidate LK Advani mooted the idea of holding US-style TV debates before the country went to the polls.

The predominant feeling of derision notwithstanding, there are still those interested in taking a plunge into the occasionally murky waters of Indian politics.

"Although the issue of earning a livelihood dissuades me from pursuing politics as my primary career choice, this is something I would want to be involved in. Party offices should involve young people to help mobilise public opinion. There should be the option of being part of the political establishment and continuing with our careers. That way, making a full-time commitment to politics in the future won’t be very difficult," St Xavier’s College student Utsav Nath says.

This article was originally written for the Times of India. An edited version of the same appeared in the newspaper’s Kolkata edition on March 16, 2009.