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GROUPS TRY TO GET INDIANS FIRED UP TO VOTE

Turnout is poor among India's urban middle class. Activists want to change that.

Ankit Srivastava, 24, recently quit his high-paying job as an engineer with a multinational cellphone company. But it was not for better work or more money.

The rail-thin, soft-spoken Srivastava has taken on the onerous and unpaid task of cleaning up what he calls the "dirty politics" of the world's largest democracy. And he plans to do that not by asking for votes but by asking people TO vote.

"The educated, urban middle class in India only wants to give opinions about corrupt and immoral politics. They call it a gutter and spit in it, but they don't want to vote and clean it up," he said as he walked through the Delhi University cafeteria, asking young Indians whether they had registered.

Two months ago, Srivastava and 20 other young professionals formed a nonpartisan group called Vote India, aiming to rouse the country's burgeoning middle class from its slumber and propel its members to the polls in upcoming elections. Six states are to vote by the end of the year, and a national election is scheduled for May.

Of the 670-million Indians who were eligible to vote in 2004, 58 percent voted in that year's national election. In the United States, 64 percent of voting-age citizens cast ballots in the 2004 presidential election. But unlike in the United States, in India it is the under-privileged residents of rural areas who turn out in large numbers to vote. In the struggle for basic services, an election is often the only opportunity for the poor to have their say.

The urban middle class, by contrast, tends to be contemptuous of political culture and prefers to stay out of it. Analysts say the time may be right to change that.

Young voters

More than 70 percent of India's 1.15-billion people are younger than 35, and the young have shown impatience with the old ways of patronage politics. The challenge is to translate their dissatisfaction into action.

"For the educated, middle-class Indians, election day is a holiday to sit back, or shop, watch a movie and enjoy. They have distanced themselves completely from the process," said G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, an elections expert. "But, ironically, they are also the loudest critics of governance and the political system."

In recent decades, the country's politics have been dominated by questions of religion and caste. Indian democracy has produced many politicians from the lower castes who advocate inclusion for their fellow caste members through quotas and set-asides. The efforts gave rise to campus protests by anti-quota student groups in 2006. The growth of an aggressive brand of Hindu nationalist politics, as well as parties advocating for the rights of religious minorities, has also left a profound imprint.

Many urban, English-speaking, middle-class Indians - who are often members of privileged upper castes - accuse politicians of dragging the country backward by their relentless focus on such divisive matters.

"Only the urban middle class can change political priorities in India. Otherwise, we will be stuck with religion and caste forever," Srivastava said at a meeting at Delhi University recently.

Wake up and vote

A year ago, a popular tea brand, Tata Tea, launched an advertising campaign it called "Jaago Re," or "awaken." A commercial showed a young man inviting a candidate for a cup of tea and aggressively questioning him about his ability to run the country.

Since then, the Jaago Re campaign has expanded, with Tata teaming with a group working for better governance, Janaagraha, to launch a national voter drive. A new tea ad airing this month shows people being admonished for not voting and asks, "If you are asleep on election day, how will this country awaken?"

"Tea is a way of life in India and symbolizes mental and physical rejuvenation. It is a natural fit for our message of social awakening," said Sushant Dash, Tata's marketing chief. "We are telling the youth to not just wake up every morning but awaken. It is a call for action."

Online registration

It's not merely apathy that keeps people from the polls. Many middle-class Indians are reluctant to visit grimy, crowded government offices, stand in long lines and deal with callous clerks to get registered. To counter that, the Jaago Re Web site offers online assistance.

"People don't know how to register, who to apply to, where the polling office is, what is the name of their constituency, who are the candidates. They can fill in the registration form online, and we send them periodic e-mails and text alerts about all their questions," said Rajesh Choudhary, technology coordinator for Janaagraha.

The Jaago Re team will meet with young people at colleges, call centers and technology companies in 35 cities. Vote India also plans to e-mail detailed information packets on candidates five days before each election.

The Election Commission of India says voter registration has increased in the past two years and that about 480-million identity cards have been distributed.

"We paid extra money to our polling officers to go to every home to update voter rolls. We reduced the unwieldy size of the voter photo ID card. We are digitizing rapidly," said Naveen Chawla, the election commissioner. "But we need to shake the middle class on election day, and citizen campaigns like these will play a vital role."

Srivastava, the engineer, said it is now up to the middle class to set things right in Indian politics.

"The middle class is doing very well in India. We are not fighting for basic needs anymore. We are now affluent and confident," he said. "Now we want more. We are restless for good, clean governance that takes India forward, not backward."

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