On a Friday afternoon, Shubham Chouhan, a 23-year-old student who runs a media startup, is sitting in a popular cafe in Indore’s Vijay Nagar area, planning a job fair. “Five years ago, nobody knew what a startup was; look at how things have changed," said Chouhan, naming some of the city’s successful startups in the last five years.

Chouhan is part of a new, emerging consumer base in Indore—Madhya Pradesh’s most populous city—that has traditionally housed large businesses, back-end offices and home-grown financial services firms. As in many other smaller cities, expanding telecom connectivity and rising aspirations are shifting the narrative for consumers in Indore.

On the upcoming election and the kind of leader and party his vote would go to, Chouhan said: “We need someone who can make the country more self-reliant, someone who can make a push for startups and small businesses emerging from smaller cities and give them a platform."

Indore is home to more than 3.2 million people. According to C-Voter data, an estimated 2.1 million people are set to vote from the Indore Lok Sabha constituency this time. Of these, 180,000 are new voters.

Indore has emerged as a trading and manufacturing hub in central India for pharmaceuticals, apparel and packaged food. The industrial district of Pithampur flanks Indore on one side. Within the city, a number of malls have sprung up, attracting shoppers from its middle-income households. The city has also been adjudged the cleanest in a central government survey.

For voters in small cities, seeing direct gains from better infrastructure and the digital boom could be an important deciding factor in the elections.

Priya Shukla, 34, who runs a beauty salon in the city, said, “Today, everyone wants to look good, they are going for job interviews, eating out, attending parties and need beauty services." Though a beneficiary of these changes, she adds that small businesses such as hers were hurt by demonetization in 2016 and the implementation of goods and service tax (GST) the year after.

Mahendra Singh, a 31-year-old driver with ride-hailing service Uber, says he is happy with the health benefits from several government schemes implemented in the last five years. He also supports efforts such as Digital India that have helped him become part of the taxi aggregator business and quadrupled monthly income.

While technology and new businesses have helped the likes of Singh progress, not everyone has gained. For many of the city’s educated youth, prosperity lies in bigger metros. Gaurav, 23, who is on a break from his full-time job at a consulting firm in Hyderabad, is helping his father file GST returns at their 30-year-old convenience store in the New Palasia area. Gaurav says that lifestyles in the city have changed in the last five years. “People have more money to spend and they go out a lot. The demand for services has gone up," he says, pointing to food delivery bikes, a common sight across the city. Yet, these are not enough to bring Gaurav back home yet. “I’m making at least three times the money I would be earning here... We need more investment from large companies in our cities so that there will be better-salaried jobs in our hometowns," he added.

Outside the office of Teleperformance, a business process outsourcing firm, men are discussing politics and seem pleased with the development. “Railway connectivity has improved, investor summits have come up," said 25-year-old Aakash Khandelwal, adding new opportunities in IT services within Indore are a big draw. Khandelwal is rooting for a leader “who is trustworthy, honest and tech-savvy." He also praised India’s recent air strikes in Balakot.

Tauseef Khan, co-founder and CEO at Gramophone, an agritech startup, said India should pick a government that can build a narrative around development and governance. “Socially, the leader should be able to work by taking the entire nation together," he said. The focus should be on ease of doing business, he added.

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