Home / Opinion / Limits of the youth vote

A simple calculation of the number of votes polled by major political parties in the 2009 Lok Sabha election suggests the Congress got 119 million votes, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 78 million votes, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) 26 million votes, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) 22 million votes.

It is widely believed that in the forthcoming national election, first-time voters (those in the 18-22 years age group) can bring about a big political change. They can defeat or help a party win the 2014 Lok Sabha election with their strength, just because they outnumber the total votes polled by the Congress that won the most number of seats in the previous Lok Sabha election and formed the government in coalition with other parties.

Those who share this view are mistaken. Banking too much on the youth vote or the votes of the first-time voters may ultimately backfire, the reason being the Indian youth hardly votes as the “youth" or the “young". Like any other Indian voter, the young voter shares multiple identities of caste, class, region and religion, besides gender and age. The caste and class identities of Indian voters are much stronger than their other identities. To some extent, they do share identity of region and religion as well. So the youth get divided on the basis of their other identities—caste and class—rather than being united on the basis of their age or on issues that particularly concern them.

Data from research conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) over the last several years indicates that the identity of Indian voters (even among the youth) with respect to gender or age is very weak. There has hardly been any election, national or state, when women have voted in proportionately higher numbers for even parties headed by women leaders such as J. Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh or Sheila Dikshit in Delhi. Neither have we witnessed any election when the youth have voted as “the young".

Studies indicate the youth have never voted en bloc for any political party, at least not in the last five Lok Sabha elections (1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009). They have remained divided between various political parties like voters of any other age group are divided between various parties. The two national parties, the Congress and the BJP, have received almost similar proportion of votes among the youth as their national average. The BJP attracted youth voters in much higher numbers in the 1999 Lok Sabha election, which, besides other factors, helped it win the most number of seats in the Lok Sabha. However, it seems the BJP lost that advantage among young voters in the subsequent elections.

It will be a gross misjudgement if someone believes the youth will determine the outcome of the 2014 Lok Sabha election. In a large country such as India, with enormous diversity of language, religion, caste and region, local civic issues or the caste of the candidate or the other identities of the young become an important factor for political mobilization, and the youth not only become a part of that mobilization process, but also get divided on these lines while voting. This should not surprise anyone as it is a reflection of how political parties engage themselves in politics. A comparative study of policies, programmes and manifestos of various political parties suggests that there is hardly any political party that pays much attention to issues concerning the Indian youth. Even parties with Leftist ideology, which marginally draw greater support among the youth, have failed in crafting a strategy for solving the problem of unemployment, the biggest concern of the Indian youth.

But there are indications of some change. The youth may not have voted as “young voters" in the past, but they do show signs of being a bit more cohesive as a “youth group" this time. There are indications of some shift among young voters in the Hindi heartland (Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana) towards the BJP and for the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. We do not see this trend in the four southern states (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala), in the eastern states (West Bengal, Odisha) or in the north-eastern states (Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim). So even if the youth votes for one party (BJP) in sizeable proportions in the 2014 national election, they will still remain divided as we might not witness such a trend in many other states.

Sanjay Kumar is a professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

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