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According to ECI, the number of first time voters in this category is 23.16 million. Taken together with the comparable age data from Census 2011, it shows that the voter registration is only 45.87% of the 50.47 million youth falling in this age group of 18-19 years. In other words, more than one in two voters of 18-19 years are not registered to vote. Photo: Mint
According to ECI, the number of first time voters in this category is 23.16 million. Taken together with the comparable age data from Census 2011, it shows that the voter registration is only 45.87% of the 50.47 million youth falling in this age group of 18-19 years. In other words, more than one in two voters of 18-19 years are not registered to vote. Photo: Mint

First time voters: myth and reality

Potentially India has 100 million plus first time youth voters in the upcoming polls, but the reality is more than half of them are not registered to vote

Last Thursday, the Election Commission of India (ECI) released a key voter metric—the first time voters in the age group of 18-19. It is data that political parties are scrutinizing closely ahead of the upcoming election.

According to ECI, the number of first time voters in this category is 23.16 million. Taken together with the comparable age data from Census 2011, it shows that the voter registration is only 45.87% of the 50.47 million youth falling in this age group of 18-19 years. In other words, more than one in two voters of 18-19 years are not registered to vote.

In the battleground states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which together account for 120 seats and are the nucleus of the electoral footprint of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the same proportion works out to 37% in each state—even lower than the national average as little under two out of three voters in this demographic group are not registered.

What would disappoint political parties is that despite a massive outreach programme undertaken by the ECI, the registration is only marginally above the existing enrolment rate of 35-40% for this category and way below the internal target of 80% for this election set by the Commission.

For the BJP, this is of particular concern. It believes this is a demographic segment to which its prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi with his electoral message focused on aspirations holds a natural allure. But it is also a fact, as evident in the just-concluded Delhi assembly election, the Aam Aadmi Party boss, Arvind Kejriwal, too struck a chord with the 18-19 year olds. Both of them, in entirely different ways, tie into the aspirational quotient of this demographic group.

However, given the national ambitions of the BJP, the stakes are naturally higher for it. It has over the last two years been assiduously working on nudging voters to enrol. From its point of view, a high turnout augurs well; in this way it is able to offset the minority vote share that is normally ranged against it because of its perceived ideology. In Gujarat, the home state of Modi, in fact the high voter turnout has been key to the BJP taking the state with such ease in the last two elections.

In contrast, the Congress sits pretty. Not only does it have a national footprint, given that it is the country’s oldest political formation, thanks to the big tent approach to ideology, it is also a natural fit for minorities. This is exactly why the Congress party has an assured 20-25% of the voting percentage, unlike its principal rival, the BJP.

Actually, the first time voter base is larger than just those falling in the category of 18-19 years (To be sure, even this is not the entire universe of first time voters. There may be people who are not among the youth and have been enrolled for the first time). This is because a large segment of the young population was not eligible to vote in the last general election held in 2009 as they had not become adults. From the Census 2011, we know that the universal set of these voters who have turned adults and hence eligible to vote correspond to the age groups of 15-19 years. This works out to 120.48 million. (Strangely, the ECI does not disclose age-wise voter metrics; what is the state secret that will be revealed is anybody’s guess.)

This said, it is a fact that the ECI has through its three-year outreach dramatically increased the voter base from 714.10 million in 2009 to about 814.59 million as on 14 February—an increase of about 100 million voters. To get a sense of this massive voter base, it is almost thrice the population of the world’s oldest democracy, the United States.

The increase was the outcome of a massive voter registration exercise undertaken by the ECI. Dubbed the systematic voters’ education and electoral participation programme, it has, since it was launched in 2010, increased voter registration. It has added nearly 30 million in the last two months. It will be interesting to see the final count ahead of this election, which can be announced any day.

Coming back to the issue of the first time youth voter, it will be interesting to see its voting preferences in the upcoming election. While they are a sizeable number, especially the first time youth voter at 120.48 million, they are not a cohesive group, unlike special interest groups defined around religion and caste.

As a result, often their voting preferences are along the traditional structural lines of caste, religion and creed. However, the emergence of aspirations as a key factor in this election could potentially disrupt this pattern.

In the just-concluded round of assembly election, we saw an interesting trend that suggests there are some cracks in this hypothesis premised on convention. Both in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, there was a visible collapse of conventional voting paradigms—keep in mind though that both are mostly a face-off between the BJP and the Congress—with the BJP drawing Dalit and Jat votes. Anecdotal feedback from western Uttar Pradesh, after the collapse of the traditional social compact between the Jats and the Muslims, suggest that a similar trend may repeat itself. Similarly, in the Delhi election, we saw an interesting trend wherein the AAP, which fought without leaning on the denomination of caste or religion, rallied votes based on its message of anti-graft and promise of structural change.

It is then clear that potentially India has 100 million plus first time youth voters in the upcoming election. But the reality is that more than half of them are not registered to vote.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com

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