If Pranita Kulkarni had received her voter identification card in 2014, she would have voted for the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party. Ten years later, she is relieved that she did not have the required documents at the time to apply for the card. She explained that today, her political views have shifted. “Right now, it’s just the question of choosing the lesser evil,” she said.

A decade ago, she explained, there were two major developments that led her to believe that the country needed to vote out the ruling United Progressive Alliance at the centre. The first was the 2012 rape and murder of a young physiotherapist student in Delhi, in what came to be known as the Nirbhaya case, and the massive street protests that followed, for women’s safety. The second was the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare. Kulkarni’s home is in Pune, and Hazare is from the neighbouring district of Ahmednagar. “Since Hazare was a local influential person, I probably paid more attention to it,” said Kulkarni.

Around the same time, major corruption scams had also come to light in Maharashtra, such as the Adarsh housing society scam and the Lavasa land scam. “With these things happening, I was at that time being a part of the movement that wanted to see a political change,” Kulkarni recalled. “These events would have made me vote for the BJP.”

But since Kulkarni had moved out of her home in Pune to study journalism in Mumbai, and did not have a permanent address in the city, she struggled to register for a voter’s card. Now, ahead of the 2024 election, she has procured her card and is ready to vote in May in Delhi, where she now lives.

This time around, she is clear whom she does not want to vote for. “At this point, it has just become about stopping fascism,” Kulkarni said. “The problems of unemployment, the environmental concerns, these existed in earlier regimes too, but at least then there was space for opposition, for scrutiny, and for questioning, all of which is shrinking dangerously fast now.”

In fact Kulkarni noticed over the past decade that even at the state level, under regional parties, there was limited space for dissent. She witnessed this first-hand when she started working as a social media executive for a local Marathi daily after completing her graduation in 2016. “I was beginning to see some flaws there, like censoring reports we could do for some regional parties and filters on what we could write,” Kulkarni said. “But I attributed these problems to the media houses being small and regional, and decided that if I turned to more mainstream news, I could be doing stories that make a difference.”

With that in mind, Kulkarni moved to the national capital to first finish a post-graduation programme in journalism, and then join a magazine run by a large corporation. “After the government changed, they got a different editor in 2017 who was pro-BJP,” she said. This was the beginning of her realisation that national publications were also susceptible to shifts in power, and she found herself wondering whether, if a different party was in power, the magazine would “get an editor who is in the good books of that party”.

She realised that journalism had changed from that of earlier decades, about which she had learnt as a student. During her course, she had come across several instances in the past of journalism that had played a crucial role in driving change, such as the investigations into Harshad Mehta’s securities scam. Now, she realised, the media had become “biased, loud and dramatic”, a far cry from the “dignified” profession it once was. “When they were teaching us, they were showing us a different reality, because that is probably what our professors had known and seen,” she said.

Kulkarni worked in seven organisations between 2016 and 2023. In some of them, she noticed that editors would often subtly kill a story, or “spin it differently”, if it was not in line with the ruling party’s politics. She also heard numerous accounts from peers in different media organisations of how they were overworked and underpaid.

In journalism schools, she said, “they pump you up and tell you how you are the voice of the voiceless. They make you feel like you are an important person doing important work.” But, she added, “once I started working and getting the ground reality, I started questioning what they had taught.”

Just five years after Kulkarni graduated, she found out that two of her favourite professors, who were young and passionate about journalism, had left the field. “I could see people being disillusioned from journalism,” she said.

While she worked, she also witnessed the tactics that the present regime used to weaken independent media, including income tax raids, as conducted at the BBC’s Delhi offices, and police raids, such as those conducted at the homes of employees of The Wire and Newsclick. Further, in some instances, the regime froze government advertising spending to major newspaper groups when they published critical stories, and introduced limits to foreign direct investment in digital media companies, where no limits had existed earlier.

These oppressive measures were reflected in India’s decline in the Press Freedom Index rankings, from 140 out 180 countries in 2014 to 161 in 2023. “These are the last few days of independent media,” Kulkarni said. She believes that the ruling regime “will starve them in two ways – funding or raiding, and sometimes both”.

In 2020, Kulkarni decided to diversify her training by studying for a masters in development studies. She continued to freelance in journalism during this time. But by March this year, she decided to shift away from journalism entirely. She made these shifts “partly because of the politics of the current party”, she said.

Kulkarni now works with a development think tank in Delhi. She is aware that she has left one imperilled space and entered another – civil society organisations are also facing threats as the Centre conducts increasing scrutiny of their activities and cracks down on their finances, using the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, which governs organisations’ receipt and use of funds from abroad. “This is now a problem with any progressive space where dissent was allowed or counter view was tolerated,” Kulkarni said. “For myself, now after this change, I have no other Plan B.”