Over 1.5 crore "young voters" in the 18-19 age group will exercise their franchise for the first time in the upcoming elections being held from April 11 to May 19. And their wish list is dominated by farmers' welfare, women's rights, more jobs and freedom of expression.
Young and restless, anxious and ambitious, first time voters in urban India are going into this election with a clear vision for the country’s future and say they expect political leaders to focus on "real issues" such as jobs, women's safety and farmer distress.
They may be disparate in their life goals and choices of career but are one in reflecting the angst of the young and their hopes for a better tomorrow, many of them saying the country’s resources and energies must not be spent on things like monuments and statues.
At the cusp of their careers, many youth, from Haryana to Karnataka, also express their apprehensions about expressing themselves freely in public or on social media and want future lawmakers to change the narrative.
One debutant voter is 20-year-old Kanika, an English Honours student at Delhi University's Miranda House. "As youth, we are all concerned about jobs. The political leaders and lawmakers we elect should work on improving the employment scenario."
"But, more than that, I am concerned about my freedom of speech and expression, especially at a time when hyper-nationalism and jingoism are running high… My mother tells me I should not write so freely on social media as it may hamper my job prospects," she said.
Kanika, who belongs to Haryana, is one of the tens of thousands of young middle class women who have stepped out of their homes to study. She lives in a paying guest facility in DU's North Campus and alleges that safety of women is an issue that no political party has really addressed.
"As a woman, I still feel afraid to venture out," she said.
Hundreds of kilometres away, Madhumitha Priyadarshini, pursuing a bachelor's course at the Dayananda Sagar College of Architecture in Bengaluru, has similar concerns and considers women's safety and farmer distress priority issues.
"Every vote is valuable. I know the significance of elections. When I cast my vote, the farmers' issue will be the main deciding factor for me for electing the MP from my region," said the student who belongs to Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu.
Madhumitha said cases of trolling and backlashes have made her hesitant about expressing her opinions on public issues on social media. "I am always half-afraid... fearful at the thought that there might be repercussions."
Many of these first-timers dream about making it big in life and hope the political leaders they vote for will focus on "real issues" not "unreal” ones.
"As a youth, I feel the Statue of Unity was not needed at all, given the poverty in the country and the joblessness. That same Rs 3,000 crore could have been used for other projects that would have benefited the youth and the country," said Utkarsh Choubey, referring to the 182-metre statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Gujarat.
The Patna boy who is studying computer science at the RV College of Engineering in Bengaluru said many youngsters like him are "confused".
"We don't feel inspired by any particular party. All parties have their own issues," he said. Many other students echoed his sentiment about "monumental expenditures on monumental statues".
A good job, political stability and peaceful environment are on the wish-list of students from Jammu and Kashmir.
"The socio-economic conditions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are different so youths have different aspirations in these three regions. However, creation of well-paying jobs, political stability, and a peaceful, harmonious existence is certainly desirable for all of us," said Jammu girl Shreya Sharma, who is studying in Miranda House.
While many students across the country concurred that the aftermath of the February 14 Pulwama terror attack, in which 40 CRPF soldiers were killed, did weigh heavy on their minds, and had become part of their conversations, many said they were afraid to discuss the issue in public.
The backlash Kashmiri students faced after the incident is also a top of the mind issue.
A Kashmiri student from Pulwama, who studies at a leading university in Delhi, said on condition of anonymity, "We all want peace and harmony, as the youth of Kashmir and of this country. For me, education and healthcare are two main factors, because jobs come only if we are educated and healthy."
According to Bengaluru-resident Bilal Shariff, "Political leaders and lawmakers must focus on real issues instead of using caste and creed planks to trigger emotional frenzy among people to garner votes."
The 19-year-old alleged that the freedom of expression has been "compromised" in many ways today, and the issue of women safety has "not been really addressed" by any political party.
Representation of truth in the media is of concern too, said some first-timers.
"The nexus between knowledge and power has always been there. But the extent of this issue definitely gets intensified during election time," Shreya said.
Strength of first-time voters
According to Election Commission data, the "young voters" constitute 1.66 per cent of the total electors.
West Bengal has the maximum number of first-time voters in the coming Lok Sabha election, followed by Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
The EC data says, 20.1 lakh first-time voters will be exercising their franchise in West Bengal. Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have 16.7 lakh and 13.6 lakh first-time voters, respectively.
The number of people eligible to vote in Lok Sabha polls beginning next month has increased by 8.4 crore as compared to the 2014 general election, and these include 1.5 crore "young voters" who are in the 18-19 age group and would exercise their franchise first time.
Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have 12.8 lakh, 11.9 lakh, 8.9 lakh and 5.3 lakh first-time voters, respectively.
Delhi has 97,684 first-time voters.
Lok Sabha elections will begin on April 11 and continue for over a month till May 19 across seven phases. The counting of votes will be held on May 23, the Election Commission announced Sunday, kick-starting a mega electoral battle.
(With PTI inputs)