Tech workers ignite Indian elections

Hard times push young techies to voting booths

A new, vocal group of voters - outsourcing workers, many from India's tech hub Bangalore - are shaping the country's upcoming elections, says Saritha Rai.

Vandana Prasad, a 29-year-old team leader at the Bangalore-based outsourcing arm of HP, recently got herself a voter ID card.

This week Prasad will stand in line alongside thousands of young, middle class Indians, many of them working for an array of global employers ranging from Silicon Valley technology firms to London-based banks to Scandinavian telecom companies, to vote in India's countrywide elections.

Like never before, hundreds of thousands of outsourcing workers in India's tech hub, Bangalore, are galvanised over India's month-long elections that began on 16 April.

Pink slips in the outsourcing industry, the gruesome terrorist attacks in Mumbai last year, and a spike in moral policing in pubs and night clubs have stirred the conscience of India's young workers.

Prasad has never voted before but said she realises now that it is important to vote. She will no longer wait for the "perfect candidate".

"Layoffs, rising prices, attacks on women... I cannot be mute to the suffering around me," Prasad said.

Her friends and colleagues want to vote too, even if it means having to work an extra day to make up for the day off they will take off for voting.

In the cafeterias of outsourcing firms, in employee smoking corners and on company buses, the chatter revolves around India's elections.

Outside, Bangalore is almost festive. Larger-than-life digital images of leaders and candidates adorn roundabouts, streets are festooned with party colours and megaphones broadcast candidate's slogans.

About 720 million Indians, a number equal to the population of the whole of Europe, are entitled to vote in the month-long elections. As with elections past, this one involves a profusion of political parties, a crescendo of campaign promises and allegations of crime and corruption.

Until recently politics has largely been a dirty word for India's urban working class, and politicians generally considered villains. Most middle class Indians in cities like Bangalore did not even show up at the voting booths on Election Day.

But this election has fired the imagination of a mass of young Indian voters. Bangalore's outsourcing workers have launched massive campaigns to enroll voters. Political parties, election manifestos and candidates are being discussed threadbare on blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Some workers are even canvassing for candidates.

Satish, a people manager at HP who only wanted to give his first name, said every one of his friends and colleagues has taken a hit recently in one way or the other.

A friend of his was laid off after an eight-year career in another company just as he was on the verge of buying his first car. The price of everyday supplies such as rice has nearly doubled in the past year.

In a city of gleaming shopping malls and modern residential high-rises, recent layoffs are beginning to hurt an estimated three-quarters-of-a-million employees in the technology and outsourcing industry.

"I'm anxious to get good people elected so that we can have a stable economy," said Satish. Change is in "our collective hands", he added.

But not all are convinced that voting will change anything.

Chandra Shekhar, a 27-year-old sales manager at Dell's Indian bureau, is registered as a voter in Patna in Bihar. But he will not be going back to vote.

He is concerned about issues such as price rises, terrorism and the lack of infrastructure. When they hang out, he and his friends discuss political parties and their promises.

But when it comes to voting, "not all of my team members will vote", Shekhar said. Why? Because not everybody is convinced that life is going to change if they vote, he explained.

Still the dynamism of younger voters makes candidate Krishna Byregowda enthusiastic. At 36, the US-educated Byregowda is a relatively young political candidate for leading Congress Party in the Bangalore South constituency, home to many outsourcing companies and their workers.

As he trawls the parks, colleges and crowded markets in his constituency for votes, Byregowda has a short postscript to the standard election pitch. When he sees a group of young people, Byregowda does not fail to remind them, "Come out and vote".