Editor's note: This is a multi-part series of reports from West Bengal's smaller towns and cities. It examines how young urban voters view elections 2019, and what they expect from the political process.
“My first vote was NOTA.”
Avijit Das said politics disgusted him. He remembered filling out a form from the union at his college in Krishnanagar in West Bengal. One of the questions was about which party he liked.
“I left it blank. But the dada who gave me the form said I had to fill it up,” Das said.
So he did.
“I filled the name of the ruling party. It seemed the wisest thing to do,” Das added.
But it left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Das graduated from college in 2017. He said his parents are not highly educated. He didn’t have anyone to guide him about what to study, what courses to take. He took a course in Goods and Services Tax. It seemed practical. Now he is back in Krishnanagar helping run the family fertiliser business.
Yet, despite all this Das is optimistic.
“I think India is headed in the right direction,” he said. He has seen some economic data to back up his optimism. He thinks the Indian Army feels "less restrained" under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But he’s also acutely aware that the little of the fruits of that “right direction” have trickled down to him. He has little patience for local politicians.
“The faces don’t change, just the party colours do.”
In Bengal, the BJP senses an opportunity in the frustration of the likes of Das. At an election rally in Chinsurah, party head Amit Shah rattled off the Modi government’s vikaas statistics. Gas cylinders. Eight crore toilets. Two-and-a-half crore homes. Electricity. “But Mamata didi is not letting Ayushmaan Bharat come here,” Shah thundered. “We will make Sonar Bangla golden again.”
The crowd claps on cue.
But outside the rally, young people do not see politicians as having any solutions for the problems that keep them up at night.
“The campaign has nothing for the youth,” said Rajnandini Singh, a student at the Asansol Girls’ College. “Being a first-time voter does not excite me at all. I told my mother I don’t want to go vote. She said voter card kharaab ho jayega.”
Singh will vote. As will her classmates. But with little enthusiasm. “Where are the 20 to 30-year-old candidates?” wondered her classmate Arpita Dutta. “They would understand how scared we are about unemployment. I used to want to be a politician. Now, I just want a corporate job.” Singh wants to work in defence. Another classmate, Sakshi Thakur, is getting ready to take banking exams. None feel confident about the future. “My friend got through the banking examination, but still was not selected,” said Thakur. “Someone gave money to a politician and got in instead.”
Cities such as Asansol, Krishnanagar, Chinsurah are part of Bengal’s industrial, cultural and colonial history. But now they are mostly dusty cities staring at an uncertain future. Kolkata, the city much of India thinks of as the metropolis that got left behind, is the aspirational big city here. In Asansol, I spot the Calcutta Gift Store. In Krishnanagar I see Calcutta Tailors.
The Trinamool government has set up colleges, universities and polytechnics all over the state. Getting a college degree has never been easier. Getting a job after graduation has never felt so difficult. And the jobs are mostly outside Bengal.
Aniket Mitra, 29, has a degree in history from Krishnagar Government College, a famous institution older than the Indian Mutiny. He remembered his first job interview just after he completed his master’s degree. There were already more than 70 people ahead of him, including those pursuing their PhDs, for a post at a small suburban college.
Mitra landed a part-time teaching job. He considers himself lucky.
Another friend got a part-time job at a school. He quit within days because the salary was so low.
The afternoon sun is fading. We are sitting in the greens behind the government college, on tiered steps Mitra calls "the gallery". Boys are playing cricket. Seniors are on their evening walk. Kids take their bicycles for a spin. A few young men are racing bikes. These grounds are the lungs of Krishnanagar. It’s also where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Shah held rallies to appeal to voters like Mitra.
Mitra comes here to sit and catch the breeze with his girlfriend. He said there’s little for a young couple to do here. “We have nowhere to go, but stand on the road. Maybe sit here now that they have cleaned it up. It used to be an addicts’ den. There are a couple of malls. We can go window shopping.”
Real shopping is out of the question. Mitra earns about Rs 200 per class. For larger classes he earns Rs 300. It comes to about Rs 7,000 to 8,000 a month. “Even a head mason makes more than me,” he said with a smile. “But I am stuck. I can’t go lower than this. I have an MA after all.”
A stranger sitting next to us is eavesdropping on the conversation. He butted in. “See if you were a girl, you could at least just get married,” he said, after which he ambled off. Mitra looked at him and shook his head.
“Dada, we are all broken,” he said quietly.
It’s not that the Trinamool government has done nothing. Even those who dislike the Mamata regime can see the improvements: roads, hospitals, streetlights. But when it boils down to their own future, they see little to be hopeful about, nationally or locally.
The election campaign feels like it’s happening in another world. There are debates on secularism, nationalism, terrorism, Rajiv Gandhi on TV and social media. Young people worry about those issues. Sitting in a canteen at the recently-opened Kazi Nazrul University in Asansol, fourth semester Bengali student Roma Mondal said, “Personal freedom is my democratic right. You can’t just call someone anti-national for speaking their mind.”
Her friend Riya Roy bristled that students who speak up are branded troublemakers. “Our V-C said do you want to turn this into Presidency University or Jadavpur?” Those are Bengal’s answer to JNU, clearly. Roy retorted “I replied, no I want to make Kazi Nazrul University a better Kazi Nazrul University.”
“But where is the infrastructure? Where are the hostels?” complained her friend Sampa Ghosh. “They just keep us excited with ustavs (festivals) instead.” These young voters want to hear candidates talk not just about Pulwama and patriotism, but also about SSC examinations and Teacher Eligibility Test.
When I ask them for adjectives about Modi, they are all over the political map: Inspiring. Exploitative. Theatrical. Motivational. Smart. Manipulative. Hypocritical. Good orator. Some are fans. Others cannot stand him. Modi might be labelled the 'Divider-in-Chief' on a recent Time magazine cover, but politics is not the great divide in these classrooms. There are touchier subjects. “We cannot talk about reservation among friends,” said Rajnandini Singh. Someone always has a story about someone else, a Muslim student with a lower score, who got a job because of “quotas.”
But in Asansol’s Muslim neighbourhood of Rail-paar, Tarique Anwar, a school teacher, said most young people in the neighbourhood are in dead-end jobs like “vendoring, rickshaw pulling, video photography, sand mining, bahut hua toh primary school teacher.” He looked around and smiled sardonically. “But everyone has a phone.” Anwar’s father is a bus worker, his mother a homemaker. His father made news once when he found a bag with over Rs one lakh by the road and turned it into the police station. “The police told him the money is yours. But he returned it. I am proud of him,” said Anwar, who struggled to become a teacher, taking a four-year gap after his tenth standard just to earn some money as a salesman. But he managed to get his BEd.
“I will give credit to my mother. She compelled my father to send their children to school. Two of my sisters are pursuing PhDs. One has written books,” he added.
Despite all these challenges, faith in education as a way to get ahead remains strong. At the Asansol Girls’ College, a young woman named Indrani Ghosh was silent throughout the conversation. Finally, she said hesitantly, “I come from a small village in Birbhum. Really small.” Even Asansol, where I get the same Ola driver twice over two days, is a big city for her. “There is no change in my village, election or no election. The poor just stay poor. We have a lot of dreams, but they just stay dreams,” she added.
She said her village has no proper roads. The jungle is all around. “So girls like me just get married off. Our parents say there is no need to study further. All my friends are married, you know.”
The class fell silent in the hot summer afternoon. I asked her what she wanted to be.
“If I can be a teacher, I’ll be happy,” she said. “It’s a small dream.”
I am sure Indrani voted this year, though I fear it was out of obligation, not hope. Her classmate Dutta said she would vote this time, but in 10 to 15 years she is not sure elections will mean anything to citizens like her.
I wondered how many of these youths will vote NOTA.
Then I remembered Riya Roy, the fiery young student at Kazi Nazrul Islam.
“NOTA is not an option,” she said firmly. “We need a mass movement. We need our Arab Spring.”
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Updated Date: May 12, 2019 11:06:55 IST