Aratrika Rath, a copywriter in the wealthiest district of India’s financial capital, couldn’t be bothered to vote in the 2009 federal elections. As Mumbai headed to the polls today, she’ll be among those casting ballots.
“India is in a bad shape because of corruption,” said Rath, 26, whose South Mumbai neighborhood is home to Indians with a net worth of at least $64 billion, more than Uruguay’s gross domestic product. “All our taxes are wasted. I want a government that is strong and less corrupt.”
Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party sees voters like Rath as crucial to ending the Congress party’s 10-year rule and forming a government with a minimal number of coalition partners. The BJP estimates that stay-at-home supporters cost it 70 seats in the 2009 election.
With advertisements covering the front pages of India’s leading dailies, Modi’s party is pushing for a high turnout that can put it past the 272-seat mark needed to control the lower house of parliament in elections ending May 16. Polls show the BJP winning the most seats while falling short of a majority.
“Voters were lazy and assumed change would happen on its own,” said Prakash Javadekar, the BJP’s New Delhi-based spokesman, referring to the 2009 election. “That won’t happen this time.”
Modi is telling voters each ballot counts and could mean the difference between majority and minority. Targeting those who use Facebook Inc. (FB:US)’s social networking site, he says “Update your country before you update your status.”
In early signs more people were coming out to vote, the capital region of Delhi registered a record turnout of 65 percent on April 10. That compares with 52 percent in 2009, when Mumbai saw a record-low turnout of 41 percent.
“History does partly reinforce that the high turnout could result in a strong showing for the BJP and their National Democratic Alliance,” though not enough to back some surveys that predict as many as 265 seats for the group, Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts Jyotivardhan Jaipuria and Anand Kumar wrote in a research note dated April 21.
In districts where elections have already ended, the average provisional turnout was about 65.7 percent through April 17, according to data from the Election Commission.
The latest opinion poll released on April 14 by Hansa Research for the NDTV television channel predicts BJP and its allies taking 275 of the 543 parliamentary seats, three more than they need for a majority. The nine-phase polling will end May 12, with counting on May 16.
The increase in turnout could also be a result of greater awareness and more younger people heading to the booths, according to Bank of America. About 100 million young voters will be casting ballots for the first time, according to the Election Commission of India.
Besides the tasks of tackling inflation, reviving manufacturing, creating jobs and combating corruption, any new government must also deal with urban squalor as cities including Mumbai struggle with infrastructure ranked below that of Guatemala and Namibia in quality by the World Economic Forum.
“The BJP is very much hoping that the high voter turnout means the electorate is demanding a change and that would give Modi a mandate,” said B.G. Verghese, an analyst at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.
Not all voters want Modi to take power. Bharati Thakore, 31, a film maker and writer in South Mumbai, is rooting for the Aam Aadmi Party.
“Earlier we were in our own little cocoon,” Thakore said. “Even if the AAP doesn’t win, they will be a strong opposition, and that’s what we need.”
Aam Aadmi, which means “common man” and was born out of an anti-graft movement in 2011, garnered global headlines when its founder Arvind Kejriwal became the chief minister of Delhi by promising to tackle corruption. He resigned in less than two months after lawmakers rejected his anti-graft bill.
Thakore will be voting for Meera Sanyal, a Harvard Business School-trained former India head of Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc.
Billionaires Adi Godrej and Uday Kotak were among some top industrialists from South Mumbai who endorsed Sanyal’s opponent Milind Deora, a junior minister in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, according to a statement dated April 20. Others who may be voting in the same constituency are Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, and his younger brother Anil, as well as Kumar Mangalam Birla and Ajay Piramal.
Soubhik Mukherjee, 29, a digital media strategist in New Delhi, says he voted against the BJP because it is a divisive party that sows seeds of religious hatred. He cites Modi’s handling of the 2002 Gujarat riots that killed about a 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. The chief minister of the state has denied any wrongdoing.
“I know it might not be enough, but at least I know that I tried,” Mukherjee said.
Among those encouraging voters to visit polling stations are companies including Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. and Bharti Airtel Ltd. (BHARTI), India’s biggest phone carrier. Virgin is offering upgrades to those who vote and fly on election days, while Bharti is offering 50 megabytes of free Internet usage for some of its customers in Mumbai “to make an informed choice.” Uber Technologies Inc. is offering free cab rides, plying voters to and from polling stations in Mumbai and Chennai, the city previously known as Madras.
“There’s been a significant increase in urban voters, primarily due to awareness,” said Sandeep Shastri, director at the Centre for Research in Social Sciences and Education at Jain University in Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore. “Younger voters feel that they have a larger role to play in governance.”
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