Independence Day: What's on the minds of India's youngest eligible voters?

How first-time voters might shape the electoral fate of parties in 2019 remains in the realm of speculation
Politics is rarely a welcome subject in Sharanya Venkataraghavan’s home in Bengaluru. But there was a recent moment when it took centre stage, recalls the 18-year-old at the Symbiosis Law School, Pune.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi said something religiously charged. My mother reacted by saying she would vote for Rahul Gandhi,” she recounts. “My whole household rose in revolt. They told her, ‘It’s okay to not vote, but don’t vote for Rahul’.”

Venkataraghavan belongs to the generation of India’s youngest voters — those who will cast their ballot for the first time in the 2019 general election. This is a lot that sports its new eligibility to elect with a mix of strong opinion and scepticism, something politics unfailingly invites. It is a segment that has in the past played a critical role in defining the political course of the country. Five years ago, after all, it was this young lot that voted overwhelmingly for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), specifically Modi, adding to the momentum that helped it cruise to a historic one-sided win.

It is instructive to understand what this category of voters is thinking and feeling — and perhaps missing. That this young bunch is more politically engaged than those of previous decades has been established. According to a 2016 report by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), interest in politics among the youth (aged 15-34) had grown from 37 to 51 per cent in 20 years. The institute analysed first-time voters for five general elections beginning with 1996.

Says Sanjay Kumar, director, CSDS, “The average overall turnout tends to be 58-60 per cent, and that of young voters about four to five per cent lower. But in 2014, the average was 66 per cent and the young voter turnout was 68 per cent.”

Venkataraghavan’s idea of India is a democracy that has tackled inequality, with special attention to women’s empowerment. Born to a homemaker mother and a research scientist father, she says she realised early that any compliment that began or ended with the phrase “for a girl” wasn’t genuine. “I feel like I’m but a desperate little creature hoping to gain a little respect that is not rightfully mine,” she wrote as a 16-year-old on her blog (Feminism and Fries). “My decision to study law was the result of wanting to directly impact society,” she says, hoping for a more inclusive India.

Five years ago, Modi, chief minister of Gujarat at the time, captured the imagination of urban youths with a speech at Delhi University’s (DU) Shri Ram College of Commerce. He appears to have retained his popularity as a national leader among this constituency, despite coming under criticism from several quarters over his government’s economic policies and the growing polarisation in society.

But there is also a sense, as expressed by Chennai residents S Raghul, 17, and R Jagannathan, 18, that democracy ought to ensure social and economic equality, and should weed out religion- and caste-based politics.

Sharanya Venkataraghavan
Some young voters also show a preference for different political parties at the Centre and in their respective states. For instance, Prashant Singh, a second-year BSc student of Life Sciences at Ramjas College, DU, supports the Samajwadi Party for his home state (Uttar Pradesh), but bats for Modi as prime minister. He does say, though, that Modi’s decision to demonetise 86 per cent of the country’s currency impacted people adversely.

A schoolteacher’s son from Etawah, Singh is also concerned about the way people are being viewed through the prism of religion. “Hindus and Muslims are all the same; no one has come from outside, but people’s mindset has changed,” he says. His classmate, Ashu Khan, has another concern — that farmers are not being valued and are being forced to send their children to look for jobs in cities. Himself a farmer’s son, he says, “Governments at the Centre and in states are only talking about improving our future. Nobody is addressing our present.” Both sound unhopeful about their job prospects, despite gaining admission in the coveted Delhi University where cutoff percentages are absurdly high.

Such insecurities about the future are one reason that reservation, whether for college/university admission or a job, remains a sore point. Research by the National Institute of Skill Development shows that 300 million youths in India are under-employed or unemployed, and that only two per cent of the total workforce has undergone skills training.

Manasi Vijay Gadgil, a student of Pune’s Fergusson College, says to build a “new India”, the issue of reservation needs to be revisited. Why base reservation on caste, why not on a person’s financial standing, she asks. “On account of reservation, merit fails to get its due,” adds Arkaprabha Das, a second-year mechanical engineering student from Kolkata. If you don’t honour talent in the country, youngsters will opt to go overseas, he says.

Some also hint at the curbs on civil liberties, reflected in the attacks on individuals over eating habits or for expressing dissent. The last time Lalith Govardhan, a first-year student at St Joseph’s College, Bengaluru, had a tiff with his friends was over the ban on eating beef. It quickly boiled down to which party one would vote for. “When there’s politics involved, the argument can get serious,” he says.

“We are fighting over ‘Indian ethics’ and are forgetting that we should start out by respecting one another,” says Govardhan, who wants India to be an open-minded place that is tolerant of differences. “After all, isn’t that the idea of democracy?” he adds.

Mrinalini R from Chennai, too, feels that freedom means not being judged by anyone and not being jailed or punished for expressing one’s views. “As a democracy, India needs a lot more transparency in terms of what’s happening politically, legally and economically.”

They might be voting next year, but there are some who say it is impossible to identify with any one political party completely at this point. A voter may grapple with the dilemma of voting for a party that she doesn’t entirely relate to but one which she thinks has a better chance of ousting the existing dispensation, says Maitreyi Jha, a second-year history student at St Stephen’s College, DU.

On account of reservation, merit fails to get its due, says Arkaprabha Das, a student in Kolkata
In that respect, NOTA (“none of the above”) is a welcome option, adds Manvi Mudgil, a first-year statistics undergraduate student from Delhi. “I didn’t have any political icons growing up, though I expected Modi to move things forward. But we are still talking about developing like we did 60 years ago,” she says.

The last election was in many ways a turning point for young voters (18-22 years) who came out in hordes to vote. The BJP polled 31 per cent of the overall votes, but 36 per cent of the youth votes. Kumar of CSDS says that 36 per cent of Indians across age groups said they would like to see Modi as PM in 2014. The number of first-time voters who said the same stood at 44 per cent.

Having learnt from experience, this time round, more and more political parties are vying for their attention. If the BJP — the richest party by a mile — set the trend by exploiting digital media to target all segments, especially the young voter, the Congress is playing catch-up.

Ruchi Gupta, national in-charge of the Congress-affiliated National Students’ Union of India, says that ahead of 2019, the party’s student arm will run a “constructive campaign” called Future of India. “We are going to draft the top three priorities of young people across India and push them into the Congress agenda, after appointing ambassadors who will give us feedback.”

She adds that education and employment matter most to this section — and, of course, “strong leadership”. These are issues that the campaign will seek to address.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which enjoys a strong presence on social media, meanwhile, projects itself as one that naturally allies with the youth. Its social media head, Ankit Lal, says parties have always targeted the young because they are malleable. “Our outreach to youths is topic-based. Many of them are well-travelled and have been to various states. We try to show them what the AAP government in Delhi is doing and how they, too, can be a part of the change,” he explains. He is of the view that there is much discontent among the youth because the BJP has not performed along expected lines in terms of employment and law and order.

The BJP denies that there is any crisis of confidence among the youth. The party’s IT cell head, Amit Malviya, says, “India doesn’t have a job problem, but a problem of missing data on jobs.” He maintains that Modi remains a credible option for the youth.

Both the Congress and the BJP say they are reaching out to young people by helping them enrol as voters, by running voter-registration camps and also by signing them up for party membership.

Asked about the party’s approach in the lead-up to 2019, Malviya says, “We are looking to communicate the Modi government’s achievements to them, and what those mean to them and the country. The medium of expression is going to be aspirational and in a language that they can relate to.”

Even as opposition parties struggle to rally around a single leader to challenge BJP, a band of student leaders and activists has hogged the limelight in the last few years. Among them are former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar and Bhim Army leader Chandrasekhar Azad “Ravan”.

Shehla Rashid, former vice-president of JNUSU, who along with Kumar was catapulted to the limelight following a sedition case against the latter and a few others in 2016, points out that a sizeable section of youths from marginalised backgrounds (Dalits, Muslims, the disabled, homosexuals) relates to their politics of social justice. “Our support base cuts across ideologies. People from Ambedkarite organisations and women, especially, support us.” But, she adds, there are concerted attempts to undermine them and strip them of a mass base.

Kumar of CSDS agrees that there has been a clear shift towards right-wing politics. He explains that interest in politics among the youth was triggered by the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal. But the BJP reaped the benefits of this by fetching the decisive turnout.

How first-time voters might shape the electoral fate of parties in 2019 remains in the realm of speculation. Many are still trying to work out their personal politics, as though solving a jigsaw puzzle. 

Eloli Achumi, a first-year political science undergraduate student in Delhi, confesses that she’s politically naive. But the recent protests over the traditional lack of women in politics in her home state of Nagaland have affected her considerably. It left her confused, she says, that while women supported the idea of greater participation in politics, many choose to remain silent for fear of antagonising tribal patriarchs.

Achumi can’t name any politician as an idol, neither in Nagaland nor anywhere else in India. She simply says, “Not only women, even men and animals are not safe today,” referring to the recent gang rape of a goat in Haryana.

Come 2019, she will vote — for a better India.
/> Avishek Rakshit and T E Narasimhan contributed to this report