Varanasi, the eternal city, now rivals Allahabad as an educational hub hosting students from all over eastern Uttar Pradesh, with districts like Ballia, Gonda, and Basti becoming the aspirational centre of one the most significant demographics in these Assembly elections the 13 million young voters.
Already, the effects of a younger, fresher electorate is making its presence felt in these elections the higher voter turnout in the first two phases has astounded many. What it hasnt done is, of course, stop political parties from giving tickets to candidates with tainted records. Nearly 35% of the candidates in the second phase of polling had criminal records.
I do find however, that unlike in the past, where there was a lot of cynicism with regard to elections, the youth are enthusiastic and consider their choices seriously, said Prakash Raj Arora, chief of Arora Classes, one of Varanasis biggest coaching centre for spoken English. The city has over a 100 such centres, and Arora says business is thriving. Most young people want to train for interviews in competitive exams. Some children who aspire for urban call centre jobs too have enrolled, he says.
For the last month or so, we have tailored our exercises on the elections, like having group discussions on electoral issues. I find that young people may not completely distance themselves from caste, but are questioning it as the only criterion for getting elected, he said.
While the rest of the country spent the 1990s and 2000s debating liberalisation, UP was stuck with the detritus of Mandal and Mandir politics. It seems that its time has come.
Radio jockey Shashank Mishra, who hosts a very popular breakfast show on one of the three FM channels in the city concurs.
Young people who I interact with on my show complain about unemployment and lack of opportunities at home for work and education. But now, at least educationally, Varanasi is as good as Allahabad, if not better, Mishra says.
The young demography has coincided with the push that parties have given to younger faces. Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav aside, Congress candidates like Gaurav Chaudhary in Lucknow and Sumit Bhibav in Agra, SPs Abhinav Sharma and Ujjwal Raman in Allahabad are some of the clean cut, tech-savvy candidates this time. Besides, a lot of campaigning is through social media sites. In Agra, political parties are hosting Facebook friends dinners to talk about elections and even Team Anna has got its act together.
Ever since Team Anna abandoned the anti-Congress plank and adopted the campaign of increasing voter participation they have been getting good response, Says Mishra.
In many ways, these elections signify a transition for Uttar Pradesh. Whatever said and done about the reluctance of political parties to abandon older tactics of muscle and money, the Election Commission's ever greater scrutiny has meant that younger voters have their say.