The Limits of the Youth Vote in Indian Elections

First voter

Can young voters play a decisive role in 2014 National Elections in India?

The national elections (Lok Sabha Election) are scheduled to be held in India in April-May 2014. Most political parties have already geared up for these elections. In a large country like India with an enormous diversity of languages, religions, castes and regional features, the issues which matter to people when they cast their vote vary across regions, states and from one constituency to another. Inflation, the fall of the Indian Rupee and the rise of prices along with corruption are widely believed to be the issues on which the forthcoming national elections will be fought. In recent times we have witnessed the mobilization of the youth on several social issues. On the issue of Anna Hazare’s call for the fight against corruption and the need for a Jan Lokpal Bill (a law aimed at preventing corruption), in 2011 the youth made it to the streets of Delhi and in various other cities and small towns. There are many who believe that the young voters, especially those 120 million youths voting for the first time (aged between 18-22 years) can have extraordinary impact on the outcome of the elections. It is no surprise then that some political parties have already started chalking out strategies to attract the young voters of India, by putting forward young candidates and reaching out to the youth in colleges and universities.  

India is a young country and with the average age of its citizens at only 25 years, the young voters are undoubtedly in sizeable numbers. Of around 790 million eligible voters around 120 million will have the opportunity to vote for the first time in the 2014 national elections; and besides them there are many other young voters as well. However impressive the vote share of the young electorate, those who believe that the youth votes will play a decisive role in the 2014 elections seem to overlook the characteristics and dynamics of Indian politics. It is not for the first time that a huge bulk of young citizens will be newly registered to vote, and the small margin compared to previous elections provides us with no significant reason to believe that the youth vote can be more influential in 2014 than it has been previously. The number of first time voters during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections may however have slightly increased since the 2009 elections due to the introduction of an improved voter registration process by the Election Commission of India.

Youth mobilization in India

The young voters have played an important role in Indian elections in the past and they have been instrumental in bringing about important changes in Indian politics. The youth, for example, formed the backbone of the anti emergency movement during 1975-1977 under Indira Gandhi which resulted in the defeat of the Congress in the 1977 elections and the formation of the first ever non-Congress led government in independent India’s history. The youth was also a significant support to V. P. Singh, who was voted Prime Minister in the 1989 elections. In the northeastern state of Assam a party mainly made up by the youth emerged in the 1980’s and was elected to head the state government in 1985.

These election events have certainly been massively influenced by the political participation of the Indian youth, but at the same time we should not forget that those elections happened under somewhat unusual circumstances: The national elections in 1977 were held after a 19-month long national emergency period, during which the political rights of all Indians were suspended and people expressed their anguish against the ruling authoritarian government; The 1989 national elections were held when senior Congress leader of that time, V. P. Singh (who became the Prime Minister after the 1989 National Elections) revolted against the Congress on the issue of corruption in a defense deal (known as the Bofors Deal) and there was a national mood of the people against the ruling Congress Party; The 1985 state elections in Assam took place after several years of a brutal movement against unregistered immigrants in the state led by the All Assam Students Union. These are examples of youth led political movements and mobilizations in the history of democratic India.

The youth vote in Indian elections

Studies have indicated that the youth have shown few tendencies to vote en-block for any political party at least in the last five Lok Sabha elections (1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009). They have in fact remained very much divided between various political parties: The two major national parties, the Congress and the BJP, have so far both received similar proportion of youth votes, however, in 1999 the BJP attracted more youth votes, which, besides other factors helped the BJP to win the largest number of seats in the Lok Sabha. Currently, there are indications that in the upcoming round of elections, the BJP will again be able to attract the votes of the young, at least in the case of the Hindi heartland (Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana). There has been hype around the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, ever since he was declared the BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister; Gujarat is associated by many with high levels of growth and infrastructural development, and the hopes of many are high that economic success could translate into an Indian-wide trend if Modi becomes Prime Minister.

However, Modi’s outreach has so far been limited to the states in the north of India, and has not yet tapped upon the southern states, the Seven Sister States in the faraway northeast of the country, and some states in the East. Hence, even if the BJP manages to win over the votes of more young people in the northern states, this is less likely to be the case for the other half of India’s young electorate in the many other parts of the country, where other political inclinations persist. So even if there were a tendency favoring the BJP in the states where the party has been gaining popularity among young voters, the youth in the other parts of the country will most probably not be part of this equation.

An analysis of policies, programs and manifestos of various political parties suggests that there is no political party which is directly addressing and catering to the youth in India. The parties from the political left marginally attract greater support from the youth for their political agenda, but they have hardly shown any effort in addressing the issues of the youth, with unemployment being the largest concern. Not only parties have lacked vision, even the youth has not shown a great effort to demand policies that respond to their concerns. Under these circumstances, the youth remains invisible as an electorate that deserves particular attention.  

This lack of addressing the youth in politics may backfire, as the fear persists that many of the young citizens may be reluctant to cast their vote in the upcoming elections. There is evidence that in the national and state elections since 1996, the voter turnout of the youth has been around 5 per cent less than that of older age groups. The reasons for the youth’s reluctance to vote and hence the lack of political participation are difficult to pin-point. One could assume that the youth in India may feel alienated towards their political leaders, who at an average age of 65 years are the oldest policy makers in the world. But even the young politicians in India fail to convey a motivating message to the young citizens to come out in bigger numbers to vote: A study was conducted in select constituencies where a young politician (between age 25-40) either got elected into parliament or ran for elections in 2009. The outcome suggests that even in constituencies with younger politicians, the voter turnout of youths is equally limited. The two major national parties, the Congress and the BJP, both show positive effort to put forward younger candidates in the next elections, however this will have very limited impact on the voter participation of the youth as none of these parties address the issues related to youth.

With family ties representing a common entry ticket for many young MPs into politics, and the widespread fatigue among Indians towards this dynastic inheritance of power (with the most prominent example being the Nehru-Gandhi family), it may not seem surprising that young politicians are unable to reach out to the youth; According to a study by Patrick French in 2009, out of the 38 youngest MPs in the Lok Sabha, 35 have entered politics through the help of relatives. A similar scenario is true for the women in the Parliament’s lower house – at least of what is known of the 24 women MPs representing the Congress Party, of which 19 have gained their seats through hereditary means. This tendency becomes worrying if 33 per cent of seats were reserved for women, as would be the case with the long awaited passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill; if male MPs were obliged to step down and would hand over their seats to female members of their family, the Indian lower house of parliament could become a playground for the power of existing political families.

Youth identity and the elections

The parties who are now developing their strategies to mobilize the youth are most likely to fail in their approach. This is primarily due to the larger equation of identity which is also the biggest denominator in a person’s choice to vote. The average Indian has multiple identities of caste, class, region and religion, besides the identifying factors of gender and age. These identities of the average Indian voter are usually predominant and outshine the other identities. In the case of young Indians, this means a division of the youth over their class and caste identities, rather than feeling united on the basis of age and the issues which concern them in particular. The data from a detailed research conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) over the last years has indicated that the gender and age identity of Indian voters, including the youth, is very weak. This also becomes evident in the case of women voters: there is no mentionable example of a state or national election in which women have cast their vote for one particular party, even if the candidate was a women, such as Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh or Sheila Dikshit in Delhi.

However, electoral reforms and curbing corruption in India’s governance are some of the issues which are particularly supported by the young. There also seems to be greater support amongst the youth for the new law which allows voters to reject all candidates with a “none of the above” (NOTA) option on the ballot paper. This law was enforced recently, hoping to increase the voting participation among people who do not know whom to vote for, and in turn to incentivize parties to put forward clean candidates for elections. Young people are also increasingly supportive of fixing an upper age limit for candidates who contest in the elections. Not only is the support for ideas of electoral reforms higher amongst young voters, they also seem to be less divided across caste or class lines on this particular issue.

The political parties need to present before the young Indian voter an innovative agenda which is achievable; simply installing a young leader with a catchy slogan will hardly attract an increasingly demanding electorate, especially the young, who are increasingly educated. The Election Commission of India is putting in considerable effort to motivate the youth to vote, and these initiatives have shown a degree of success, especially in the urban centres. However, it is up to the political parties who are contesting in the elections to come up with a positive and honest agenda which for the young voters will be worth voting for.

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