In a country where two-thirds are under 35, parties compete to appeal to the youth vote [AFP]

Ask English teacher Thomas Uledar whether he is planning to vote in the April and May general election and he begins recounting the horror of gunshots and screams in the maternity wing of Mumbai's Cama Hospital on November 26, 2008.   

He had come to admire the baby girl his sister had delivered when two of the 10 attackers who were to plunge the city into a bloodbath began striding up the stairs towards the ward.      

Uledar's terrified sister hid her baby under the sheets. Nurses ordered mothers to breastfeed their babies to keep them quiet. But the men marched in and lined the men up against the wall. 

"I knew I was going to die. I was counting one, two, three, to my death. They tried to shoot us but their machine guns jammed and they went away," the 26-year-old Uledar said.

In the last election, Uledar did not vote. "Not only am I going to vote this time, I have checked out the education and qualifications of the candidates to see who is best," he said.

Changing mood

The change in his attitude reflects a new mood among India's youth who are expected to play a pivotal role in the polling which begins on Thursday. 

Last year's terrorist attack in Mumbai made Indians feel vulnerable and unprotected by their leaders. A realisation dawned on the urban elite that things were rotten in the Indian state and it has spurred them into political engagement for the first time.

"People realised that politics could not be left to the politicians. They had to get involved, stand for election themselves or make a point of voting for the right person," said RV Krishnan, a marketing expert.

Krishnan is the founder of the new Professionals Party of India which has doctors, scientists and engineers running in the election.

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These were precisely the kind of people who, for decades, had stayed away from politics considering it a 'dirty' matter best left to politicians while they pursued their professions and businesses.

It used to be rural Indians who came out to vote in large numbers, surpassing the turnout in urban areas.

The policy of benign neglect by the urban elite worked as long as the state seemed to be in good hands and could protect its citizens.

But the feeling that the state failed to prevent 170 people dying in the Mumbai attacks, teamed with the growing number of criminals in politics - a quarter of MPs are convicted criminals or face criminal charges - has forced the middle classes to take an interest in politics.

New political weapons

Large sections of India's population - two-thirds of whom are under 35 - have been galvanised into political activity by these developments.    

Blogs, networking sites, TV and radio advertisements, online campaigns and text message campaigns are buzzing with one message for young Indians: vote.

This election will see 43 million new voters, taking the total from 672 million in the last election to 714 million.

"I think the greater level of political engagement could push the turnout in this election up from the 58 per cent turnout we saw in 2004," said Satish Jacob, a political analyst who has been following the campaign in south India. 

In Hyderabad, south India, at a Cafe Coffee Day outlet, young IT professionals are gathered around their laptops. They are browsing the website of a group called the Association of Democratic Reform which exposes unsavoury candidates.

"We meet here every Sunday to see which candidates in the city are corrupt or unsuitable and then send out texts and e-mails urging people not to vote for them," Ashish Rao, a 24-year-old call centre supervisor, said.

This is the first Indian general election in which text messaging and the Internet have assumed such prominence. 

As internet penetration and the use of mobile phones have spread, the tools which Indian youth normally use for social networking are being turned into political weapons.

'Waking up'

A website called Rise Up Mumbai! Rise Up India! encourages the young to vote. Other similar online campaigns are 'VoteIndia' and 'Let's Vote'.

The Association's campaign, called Sachche ko Chune, Achche ko Chune (Vote for the Honest, Vote for Good People), comprises TV and print ads, internet and mobile phone messages.

Several campaigns have been set up to encourage young Indians to vote [AFP]
"We also have an SMS campaign which lets you send a text with your zip code and we send you the latest information about your constituency and the candidates," said Jagdeep Chhokar, an Association member.

Even corporations are urging the young to vote. The Times of India newspaper is running a campaign, managed by twentysomethings, called Lead India.

Mobile phone operator Idea Cellular has a My India campaign and Tata Tea has tied up with voluntary group Janaagraha for its campaign called JaagoRe, or "Wake Up".

The Tata Tea advert shows a young man scolding a woman for not bothering to vote. "If you aren't voting, you are asleep," he tells her.

His words shook telecom sector analyst Neha Kapoor, 23, out of her political apathy. She used to spend several hours a week at her New Delhi home trawling matrimonial sites in search of a husband.

After watching the Tata Tea ad, she decided to use some of that time to become politically aware. She had to take an interest in candidates and vote, she realised, because it was the only way to ensure that a better government, one that could protect the lives of those she loves, would be brought to power.   

"A close colleague of mine died in the Mumbai attack. He was only 25. I realised that if I don't vote, I don't have the right to complain when the government fails us," said Kapoor.

Reaching out

In trying to connect with India's young voters, both the main parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the ruling Congress Party are using blogs, networking sites and text messages.

Lal Krishna Advani, the BJP leader who is in his eighties, visited a gym and lifted weights for the photographers seemingly with the aim of showing how fit he is. On his blog, he writes about how he always travels with his iPod.

The Congress has the 38-year-old Rahul Gandhi as its youth icon. Gandhi has tried to persuade his party to choose younger candidates this time.   

But Yogendra Yadav, a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in New Delhi, cautions against the view that young Indian voters are somehow different from the older generation. 

In a large study of youth voting, CSDS discovered that young voters are like other segments of the population in their attitudes.

Namely, they support democracy, have a moderate interest in politics, and hold opinions on major issues that are no different from older Indians.

"They are not a different species and they don't stand for different principles," Yadav said.

"It's naïve to expect the youth to be a distinct group voting in a distinct way just because they are young."

Source: Al Jazeera