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Home / Politics / Policy /  Young, first-time voters: Why parties are paying them attention this election

New Delhi: In the third round of polling, held on 10 April, the constituency of Chandigarh reported an interesting statistic: While the overall turnout was 71.92%, voters in the age group of 18-21 saw a higher turnout of 77.93%.

Across the nation, of the 814.59 million registered to vote in the 16th general election, an estimated 120 million are first-time voters in this age category—around 24 times the population of Singapore.

However, they do not vote as a bloc and are spread across India, which means that while they can probably influence the outcome in constituencies, they are unlikely to determine it, unlike voting based on social identity.

According to the Election Commission of India (EC), the number of first-time voters in the 18-19 years category is 23.16 million, or 2.8% of the national electorate. Of these, 41.4%, or 9.59 million, are female and 58.6%, or 13.56 million, are male. In the battleground states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which together account for 120 seats, voters in the 18-19 years age category make up 2.8% and 2.7% of the total electors, respectively.

While the turnout in Chandigarh need not necessarily replicate itself across the country, political parties are sparing no effort to target this population group—almost invariably by promising jobs.

The Congress, being the incumbent party, is at a disadvantage. In the last 10 years the economy generated 15 million jobs, even while 12 million were being added to the labour force every year.

Articulating the need for jobs for the youth, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its manifesto said, “The country has been dragged through 10 years of jobless growth by the Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government."

The BJP, which according to opinion polls is expected to win the most number of seats, has promised to set up a National Youth Advisory Council and simplify student loans if it forms the next government. The Congress manifesto is promising a state-run employment exchange for those seeking jobs abroad. Similarly, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party has promised a focus on job creation.

“In India, there are 6,000 universities but still the quality of education is among the lowest in the world. Quality of education is very important to me as it impacts my chances of getting a good job," said 23-year old Rishabh Priyadarshi, who recently completed his electronic engineering course and voted for the first time in the Lok Sabha elections in Delhi last week. “I think the BJP is more suited to address the needs of the youth as AAP’s sole agenda is anti-corruption," added Priyadarshi, who plans to pursue his higher education in the UK.

This general election has a distinct youthful look to it—and not only because of the army of first-time voters—according to the EC, 52% of the electorate is aged between 18 and 40 years.

“We are becoming a progressively younger country. Demographically the challenge is skill training and jobs. Globalization has taken away old skills without the opportunity for reskilling. The National Skill Development Mission has been a big failure. The aspirations for the young are shared equally by them and their parents," said Manisha Priyam, a political analyst and a fellow with the Indian Council of Social Science Research.

India is home to the world’s largest population of illiterate adults. At 287 million, they form 37% of the total population of such people across the world, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Education for All report.

India’s Annual Status of Education Report, released earlier this year by non-profit Pratham Education Foundation, said while overall enrolment had improved, the quality of learning had either shown no improvement or had actually worsened during the UPA government.

So far the Lok Sabha has not reflected India’s demographic shift. There were 1,504 contestants in the 25-35 year age group in the 543-member 15th Lok Sabha. Only 23 won. The average age of lawmakers in the lower House of Parliament increased from 46.5 years in the first Lok Sabha to 55.5 years in the 13th before dipping slightly to 53.03 years in the last legislature.

“Jobs are the main concern given the age group that these first-time voters are in," said Mumbai-based political analyst Jai Mrug.

“Jobs, employment or livelihood are multiple ways of describing the same phenomenon. It also hints towards economic insecurity which is prevailing in the country," added Jagdeep Chhokar, founding member of the Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-political group aiming at governmental and electoral reforms.

However, one factor may end up limiting the influence of first-time voters: less than half (45.87%) of the 50.47 million youths in the 18-19 age group are actually registered to vote.

“While the young voters are interested in the electoral process, I don’t know whether they will have a decisive and determining impact," said Chhokar.

Mrug countered the argument, saying, “They will form a decisive segment as the normal swings in an election for an upset is 4-5 percentage points. We have seen turnouts going up by 4-5 percentage points across cities today. They will deflate votes of a political party by not adding to it."

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