Social media and shared consumption tastes among the youth do not offer reliable clues to their political attitudes
Blind focus on political preferences of youth is driven by dependence of political parties on market and election survey agencies
Romantic images of youth as a time of wanton freedom and exuberant spirits surround us. Youthfulness, it would appear, is an experience present everywhere at all times. In practice, however, this view will seem incorrect. Consider the Indian experience. For centuries, marriage at an early age and survival in a subsistence economy meant that the brahmacharya—the bachelor student phase of life in scriptural texts, a rough equivalent for the age now viewed as youth—did not exist for most people in India.
The spread of formal schooling and the arrival of higher education alongside the creation of an industrial economy, and the emergence of legal regulation of the age of marriage fundamentally transformed the experience of age and brought new demographic categories like teenage, youth, middle-class and, more recently, the millennials into public discussion. The enmeshment of “age" with social and political processes is often glossed over in public commentaries.
A recent report in The Indian Express observed that 81 million young Indians will vote for the first time in the 2019 general elections, and could decisively influence electoral outcomes in 282 parliamentary constituencies. The report also said there will be an estimated average of 14.9 million first-time eligible voters in each Lok Sabha constituency and this figure is larger than the winning margin in 297 seats in 2014. Reports like these tacitly suggest that the first-time voters, unlike the older ones, are impressionable and lacking in evolved political attitudes.
Are the millennials a political constituency? Do they share a distinct set of political views from having lived through a time of fast socio-economic transformations? Indeed, these questions are a natural corollary of the results of the YouGov-Mint Millennial Survey of over 5,000 respondents spread across 180 cities published in the pages of this newspaper. The survey showed that a large proportion of millennials (someone born between 1981 and 1996 and is aged 22 to 37 years in 2018, according to Pew Research Center) prefer to access news on digital platforms, spend their leisure time on social media and shop online.
Stark reality of political indifference
Speculations about the political inclinations of the millennials will need to confront the stark, sobering fact of high political indifference among the Indian youth. According to a 2016 report Anxieties and aspirations of India’s youth: Changing patterns by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)-Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), which surveyed over 6,000 respondents aged between 15 and 34 years in 19 states, 46% of Indian youth have “no interest at all" in politics and 18% only have “little interest".
The cross-cutting influences of gender, class, caste, religion and region, which powerfully shape social experiences in India, also demand a scepticism towards the “millennial" as a distinct category of the electorate.
The influence of gender on youth attitudes is strong and clear. Fewer women, for instance, are interested in politics than men. In a graphic illustration of the power of patriarchy, large numbers of male and female youth concur that wives should remain obedient to their husbands and not work outside the house.
Class and caste inequalities have major consequences for the social experience of youth. For instance, economic compulsions push the lower class youth to find work and take on adult responsibilities earlier in their lives than the middle and upper class youth. With a high likelihood of pursuing higher education, the latter defer decisions on employment and marriage and experience a longer period of youth.
Illustrating the strong correlation between class and caste hierarchies, the CSDS-KAS survey reports that over two-fifths of upper caste youth identified themselves as students, whereas only about one-fourth of scheduled caste youth and a mere one-sixth of tribals did so.
Making available different kinds of livelihood challenges, the class and caste locations of the millennials make them respond differently towards socio-political issues.
Contrary to popular impression, therefore, a large proportion of Indian youth support either caste-based and/or class-based reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. Only 17% of the respondents opposed any form of reservation.
Religious minorities and lower castes
The millennials among religious and ethnic minorities and lower castes experience higher job insecurity and workplace discrimination. While a 10th of the upper caste youth declared that they were either professionals or government employees, only 5% of the backward caste, scheduled caste and Muslim youth shared that self-description. Some 9% of the scheduled caste youth are doing low paying unskilled work whereas the corresponding detail for the Muslim and backward caste youth is 5%. Further, more than half of the tribal youth pursue agriculture and allied activities.
Needless to add, the complexity of social differences eludes the binary of majority and minority communities. As per the CSDS-KAS survey, Muslim youth were largely in favour of abolishing death penalty while Christian and Sikh youth were least supportive. More than two-thirds of Muslim youth consider beef consumption a matter of personal choice, but only a third of the Hindu and Sikh youth shared that view. Among the Hindus, the vegetarians disapprove of beef consumption more than the non-vegetarians.
A close affinity prevails between cultural attitudes to beef eating and political affiliation. Almost 90% of the Hindu youth supporters of Left parties did not disapprove of eating beef. Disapproval of beef consumption was the highest among the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters and found moderate support among the youth supporters of regional parties.
There are other layers in the social picture. The idea of inter-caste marriage, according to the CSDS-KAS survey, found greater acceptance among the married respondents, even as the bulk of them had married within their own caste. Further, about a half of the unmarried youth preferred an arranged marriage and only around a tenth among them wish for “a love marriage". And, in a clear illustration of the economic distress of rural India, the number of unmarried youth in rural areas is rising sharply when compared with that in cities.
Strong appeal of regional identities
Regional cultures offer a space of belonging in the lives of youth. While many millennials strongly identify as Indians, regional identities also have a strong appeal to them. A close embrace of regional identities—the Malayalees, the Assamese and the Gujaratis, among others—is likely to matter in the scheme of their political priorities. The Kannadiga millennial might not have taken to the streets over the use of Hindi language in metro stations in Bengaluru last year. Yet, she vigorously supports the Kannada cause on social media platforms, assists in the development of free software to help non-Kannadigas learn Kannada and helps build internet content in Kannada.
It appears that the millennials share more with the older generations inside their states than with their peers elsewhere in India. For instance, in states where the older voters prefer regional parties, the youth too supported these parties. Indeed, the support for regional parties among the youth matches that for the BJP and far exceeded that for the Congress.
Inside the states, political culture shifts between urban and rural areas. In rural India, where ties of clan and caste tend to be strong, familial inheritance of political power is more likely to seem acceptable than in urban India. Whereas the countryside demands adequate farm prices and affordable education and healthcare, urban India tends to obsess more over the quality of physical infrastructure. A healthy diet, clean air and respect for animal rights, which are among the values shaping the moral imagination of the urban middle-class youth, hardly resonate as political issues in rural India.
The urban and rural locations of the millennials, therefore, translate into a marked difference in their political values.
The urban-rural divide parallels the linguistic divide between English and Indian languages. The recent remarks of the head of the Karnataka BJP social media unit, Balaji Srinivas, disclose an awareness of this detail: “We have concentrated on generating content in Kannada this time around—95% of our content will be in Kannada. The remaining 5% will be in English to cater to the urban audience."
The deep self identification of the Janata Dal (Secular) as a farmers’ party with a rural base has meant a near indifference towards cultivating support among urban voters. Nearly all of its spokespersons transact only in Kannada and do not display urban savviness. Since rural communitarian culture is found among the migrant as well as the non-migrant populations in cities, “the rural" and “the urban" are better seen as forms of social dwelling rather than spatial categories.
The specificities of regional socio-economic structures make for a varied millennial experience. Higher levels of university education and greater exposure to social diversity and new economic opportunities among the millennials in the cities of South India sets them apart from their counterparts in some of the northern states. The all-English interaction with Congress president Rahul Gandhi seen in Stella Maris College in Chennai is hard to imagine in an undergraduate girls college in Uttar Pradesh.
The regional variations in social media ecologies reflect the above diversity. The aggressiveness with which the BJP supporters intervene in Karnataka’s social media, for instance, contrasts starkly with their diffidence in social media groups in Nagaland. Likewise, the Congress’s affirmation of Christian values on social media platforms in Nagaland stands in sharp contrast with its official secular self-image.
The role of digital and social media
In both Bengaluru and Dimapur, most youth access information on smartphones from the similar websites and aspire to a similar lifestyle, but their political preferences can diverge sharply. Social media dependence and shared consumption tastes among the youth in themselves do not offer reliable clues to their political attitudes. Memes, news clips, home videos, fake news and an assortment of other materials in digital space have shaken up the horizons of millions of Indians. The social media technologies alongside greater domestic and international travel and new cultures of consumption and entertainment have indeed influenced the cultural tastes and political values of the millennials.
The influence though unfolds against immense social heterogeneity across the country which precludes the emergence of millennials as a singular political community. The appeal of the category of “millennial" in election discussions then probably owes to the growing dependence of political parties on market and election survey agencies for gauging the mood of voters.
Hindi films like Dil Chahta Hai (2001) and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), which celebrate a consumption-driven hip urban youth culture detached from community life, were blockbuster hits in big cities but failed to click in small towns. A sense for the ethos animating the lives of small town youth can be found in films like Masaan (2015) and Mukkabaaz (2018), where protagonists find themselves in painful entanglements of caste, class and gender.
The millennials in contemporary India inhabit very differing cultural predicaments. Any claims about them being a distinct political community therefore ought to seem shaky.
Chandan Gowda and Vikas Kumar teach at the School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.