- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

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 wont 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, driving traffic to a dedicated Web site (www.jaagore.com) whose offerings include a breakdown of the rules and logistics of voter registration, voting-related myths and directions to polling sites.

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,” paraphrasing an adage from Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi with elements of President Obama.

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.

• Jason Motlagh can be reached at jmotlagh@washingtontimes.com.

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