For India’s 84 million first-time voters, election finally gives them a voice

In less than a month, the world’s biggest democratic exercise begins in India. And out of a total of 900 million eligible voters, a staggering 84.3 million — including 15 million aged 18 or 19 — will be casting ballots for the first time.

So what do they want from their politicians?

Tolerance, according to Shreeparna Chatterjee, a 22-year-old arts student in New Delhi going to the polls for the first time.

Voting will be held in seven phases across the vast country, from 11 April to 19 May, with the result announced on May 23. The Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which stormed to power at the last general election in 2014, is battling a challenge led by the secular opposition Congress party

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed a record-breaking 282 seats in the national parliament five years ago. Critics accuse his party of fostering religious polarization to woo support from the country’s Hindu majority.

“With this government, I feel it’s been very heated religion-based and caste-based politics,” Chatterjee told CNN.

She has not yet decided who to support but does want to see a change in an increasingly toxic political climate.

“It has become very hardcore right wing and a one-colored opinion. If I were to vote for someone, I would like to see acceptance in terms of difference of opinions by the current political party,” Chatterjee added.

Secularism vs Hindu nationalism

Utsav Vasudeva, a 22-year-old law student in the southern city of Bengaluru, says the BJP “has done a lot of good work” but he is uneasy about its religious underpinnings.

“Any time that (situation) happens it is chaotic for the system, and I feel one thing Congress stands for is secularism, which the BJP does not,” he said.

Modi’s rise has left many Indian liberals worried about an increase in religious intolerance at the expense of Muslims and other minorities. In contrast to the Congress Party’s secular stance, the BJP is strongly aligned with conservative Hindu nationalists — the more extreme of whom want India governed in accordance with strict Hindu beliefs.

Eshna Kutty, 22, was born in the southern city of Chennai, grew up in New Delhi and now studies dance therapy in Mumbai. She is concerned about the next leader’s approach to governing a diverse country.

“In a country that has different religions and cultures, Modi as a leader, his party being in power, means that a huge population is ignored and sidelined,” Kutty told CNN.

“I am Hindu, I come from a privileged background, so for people like me, no matter which party comes to power, we aren’t going to face the brunt of it. The most affected are the minorities and the poor… If a certain party comes to power, these people will face huge problems.

“They are the people I want to keep in mind when I choose a party.”

For Aastha Kulshrestha, a 23-year-old law student from New Delhi, her expectation of the next government is that it should not pit one group or religion against the other. “It is a great impediment to the growth of the nation, a nation that is democratic, socialist and a republic,” she told CNN.

“If you want to make a change… you vote”

Political apathy

Young voters could have a huge influence on the outcome. For some, casting their ballot is an exciting “coming of age” moment. But many are disenchanted.

John Simte, 22, a law student in Bengaluru, says he is “thrilled to be a part of the world’s largest democratic project.” He admits a “deep sense of apathy” amongst his peers but is nonetheless optimistic.

“It (political apathy) has seeped into their minds because of the kind of politics the parties do. Going forward, it is important to restore confidence in the electoral system we have,” Simte said.

“The moment we restore that confidence, there will be a social and political transformation. More people will come out and vote, more people will stand for elections.”

Mumbai-based student Kutty believes “voting gives you the right to critique the government.”

“If you want to make a change, you cannot just complain about it — you do your part and you vote,” she said.

Kulshrestha, from New Delhi, wholeheartedly agrees.

“It is absolutely pertinent that every citizen exercises their right. It is very easy to later sob about the policies of the government and the socio-political climate of the country if you haven’t actively done anything to change it,” she said.