Young Indians Helped Put Modi in Power. Can He Count On Them Again?

Young Indians Helped Put Modi in Power. Can He Count On Them Again?

                                                 
Young Indians Helped Put Modi in Power. Can He Count On Them Again?
                        
INDORE, India — At an engineering college in the middle of India, three first-time voters stretched out on classroom benches and debated whether to re-elect Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Monika Khichi supported Mr. Modi, arguing that he was fashioning India into a new world superpower. Her friend, Ajay Kirar, was a bit less sure of how he would vote, describing the election as a “political drama” dominated by two large, flawed parties.
Arunoday Singh Parmar, a budding social activist, grimaced at the idea of giving the prime minister another term. He weighed the rise of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party against shrinking space for India’s minorities.
“India is a secular country, but for political benefits, they are trying to make it a Hindu country,” he said. “I am anti-Modi.”
Five years ago, young voters turned out in large numbers for the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., seeing in Mr. Modi a soaring orator whose pro-development record suggested he could meet one of the biggest challenges facing India: how to sustain an economy that absorbs hundreds of thousands of new workers every month.
Exit polls found that turnout in that election among Indians ages 18 to 25 surpassed that of the general population for the first time, hovering around 70 percent. India’s youngest voters were the most likely of any age group to support the B.J.P.
Over the next few weeks, as Indians head to the polls in the world’s largest election, young people will once again mostly back Mr. Modi, according to a pre-election survey. But conversations with them suggest they have some reservations.
High unemployment, the spread of Hindu nationalism and a spike in hate crimes against Muslims are among the issues on the minds of newly eligible voters, who number about 130 million nationwide, according to census data. Activists and analysts say India is more divided today than when Mr. Modi was elected.
“In 2014, Modi undoubtedly represented hope,” said Ashutosh Varshney, a professor of political science at Brown University in Rhode Island. “In 2019, Modi represents a mixture of fear and hope — fear that the state would punitively hurt and repress those who dissent and disagree, and hope for those who still think he can take India higher.”
The demographics are favorable for Mr. Modi in Madhya Pradesh, a vast, mostly Hindu state that votes throughout this month before results are announced on May 23.
Some of the prime minister’s youngest supporters in Indore, the state’s largest city, said the B.J.P. had proven itself capable of remaking India from the ground up. They could see it right in front of them.
Not too long ago, Indore resembled other crowded Indian cities, with a population of about two million. Mangy animals roamed streets piled with garbage. Waste management was abysmal.
Over the past few years, an aggressive cleanup campaign led by the B.J.P.-controlled local government — and supported by Mr. Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission — changed that.
Residents now gush about the improvements, highlighting Indore’s high livability ranking and recent experiments with technology, including a traffic intersection managed by a giant robot.
“Indore is the No. 1 cleanest city in India,” said Aaradhya Bhatt, 18, who plans to cast his first vote for the B.J.P.
By contrast, Mr. Modi’s primary opponent, Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Gandhi-Nehru political dynasty, was seen by some voters in Indore as worse at governing, speaking Hindi and relating to ordinary Indians.
In 2014, Mr. Modi shoveled disdain on Mr. Gandhi’s Indian National Congress, which was mired in corruption scandals. The party’s reputation for slippery deals persists: Mr. Bhatt said that Congress would “give us potatoes and keep gold” if voted into power.
Mr. Modi’s young critics agreed that Mr. Gandhi was a tough sell. But mostly they wanted to talk about jobs.
Rajat Sharma, 20, who comes from a family of B.J.P. supporters, said he was torn about whom to support after it emerged earlier this year that Mr. Modi’s government had suppressed a report showing a 45-year high in unemployment.
Recent data from the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, a research company in Mumbai, showed that India lost as many as 11 million jobs in 2018. The competition for employment is often impossible: Last year, 19 million people applied for 63,000 menial jobs with India’s railways.
“Employment is one of my biggest concerns,” Mr. Sharma said. “The Modi government is hiding data from us.”
Others said that the B.J.P.’s effort to improve infrastructure by building millions of toilets and electrifying villages was hardly different from policies supported by the Indian National Congress.
What did differentiate the two main parties, they said, was the B.J.P.’s interest in furthering Hindu nationalism in India.
Mr. Modi rose to political power through Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a far-right Hindu nationalist group. Though he played down that history in the 2014 election, more recently he has embraced a Hindu-first agenda, using a military confrontation with Muslim-majority Pakistan to stoke nationalist sentiment with fervent religious rhetoric.
It remains unclear if Mr. Modi’s strategy will work with voters. In December, the B.J.P. suffered its worst defeat in years in elections held across five states, including Madhya Pradesh. Some analysts saw those elections as a referendum on campaigning appealing to communal divisions that had previously worked for the B.J.P.
Over breakfast one morning in April, three generations of Mr. Sharma’s family sat on couches behind his aunt’s clothing boutique and pondered the place of religion in Indian politics.
Mr. Sharma said hate speech had gotten worse under the B.J.P. as India underwent a “rightward shift.”
His uncle, Prem Sharma, 44, saw no problem with the B.J.P.’s muscular assertion of Hindu identity. He viewed it as protectionist. In India’s majority-Hindu neighborhoods, he said, Muslims were not pressured to assimilate, but in a reverse scenario, “Hindus would be forced out.”
From the doorway, Seema Sharma, 38, Rajat’s mother, quietly interjected.
“Not all Muslims are the same,” she said.
Similar conversations drifted through Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya, a public university with several thousand students, where Ms. Khichi, 22, and Mr. Parmar, 22, assessed the last five years under Mr. Modi.
They thought it was a mistake for the B.J.P. to appoint Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk with a history of demonizing Muslims, as the leader of Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state.
They agreed that the party’s attempt to rout out black money by invalidating most of India’s currency, known as demonetization, had not really worked.
But the question of whether Mr. Modi was responsible for his government’s more polarizing moments divided them.
Ms. Khichi, a senior who plans to work for the consulting company Deloitte after graduating, said “bad people” in Mr. Modi’s party were taking advantage of his popularity to insert religion into politics.
“It is not Modi who is promoting Hinduism,” she said. “It is the people behind him.”
Mr. Parmar raised the case of Gauri Lankesh, an Indian journalist and critic of the government, who was murdered in 2017 by members of a militant Hindu group.
After her death, a man who described himself on Twitter as a “Hindu nationalist” wrote: “One bitch dies a dog’s death all the puppies cry in the same tune.” Mr. Parmar pointed out that Mr. Modi was following that person.
“It means Modi is supporting him,” he said.
The third person in the classroom, Mr. Kirar, 23, said he was still undecided. Choosing between the B.J.P. and the Indian National Congress, he said, was like picking one of two snakes.
Regardless of which gets chosen, he said, “they are both going to bite you anyway.”

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