Opinion | The thought processes that underlie voting decisions

It’s a puzzle why young Indians who consider themselves left leaning end up voting for rightist parties

An old adage goes: “The greatest crime-fighting tool available to society is a 30th birthday". Adolescence and young adulthood is when we make crucial, life-altering decisions, packed with danger and prospects. We are likely to overthrow the status quo, participate in revolutionary wars, and bring about political upheavals. With two-thirds of India aged 35 or below, and 15 million first-time voters, the results of this election may largely be determined by young people. However, many are also disenchanted and chose not to vote (Bangalore, for instance, saw a turnout of 50-65% voters this election). Even among voters, a substantial number tends to choose the None-of-the-Above (NOTA) option. For example, in the Madhya Pradesh assembly polls, NOTA votes were more than the margin of victory in 22 assembly constituencies. Voting NOTA, while constitutional, is pointless, because the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. In the face of such a reality, how do people who vote for a particular party, despite not entirely agreeing with its ideology, make that choice?

Over the past year, we asked 553 individuals (netizens largely comprising the urban youth) to voluntarily and anonymously report their political leanings, and the parties they wanted to vote for. About 39% said that they leaned left, compared to 11% right-leaning respondents; 28% preferred the ideological centre.

The rest either did not answer or held apolitical views. As for party preferences, 21% said they would vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), 12% preferred the Congress, 6% other national parties, and the rest either said they would vote for state parties or did not disclose their choice. This discrepancy in ideological versus party preferences makes it imperative to understand voter behaviour.

In the 2014 Lokniti post-poll survey, 40% voted for the party they believed would win. This is not very surprising, because we often tend to align ourselves with the winning team. This occurs especially when voters are non-partisan, generally unaware of political processes, or when information other than mass opinion is not available. Further, by jumping onto a bandwagon, we ensure that the party seen to be winning actually wins by increasing the votes it gets. Interestingly, a survey on Indian youth in 2017 indicated that their most preferred party was the BJP, though their ideologies did not align with that of the party. However, more than 40% of those surveyed still indicated that they do not prefer any one particular party, while 10% stated that they preferred the Congress.

In our study, about 29% of the total respondents, of which 85% were below 30 years of age, said they would not vote for any party at all, a sign of disenchantment with the performances of previous governments and other options. Moreover, 32% responders below 30 said they would vote NOTA, compared to only 11% above 30 years of age. Though our sample was small and need not be representative, it would roughly correspond to about 390 million people. However, election trends show that a declared NOTA preference need not translate into a NOTA vote.

One reason why younger Indians might be geared towards voting for a party that does not fit their personal ideologies may be temporal discounting—the relative value they place on immediate effects of their choices, rather than the long-term implications of their choices.

In simple terms, this is associated with instant gratification by immediate rewards, rather than bigger long-term rewards. Thus, if individuals are convinced by a political party’s promise that it will provide them with something they had no access to (say, skilled jobs), they may vote for these prospects rather than think about how it may be feasible in the long run.

Another reason for the discrepancy might be the mixture of conservatism and liberalism that today’s youth embodies. For instance, an individual who roots for affirmative action (social liberalism) may also be a big believer in free markets and lower government involvement in running businesses (economic conservatism). If the business aspect is a greater concern, she or he may opt for a right-leaning party, even if her or his other stances might be liberal, creating a dissonance. In this context, choosing NOTA might just mean forgoing the discrepancy in favour of passivity.

Individuals often resort to utilitarian or deontological processes to make decisions. Deontology implies decision-making strictly in line with personal principles, while utilitarianism refers to choosing the greater good. Those undecided on their personal preferences would be more likely to weigh the pros and cons of available choices and pick what they perceive as “the immediate greater good". The cascading effect of this is often overlooked. Most undecided voters might still not choose NOTA, considering its negligible impact, and make a forced utilitarian choice of a national party. They may vote for the party they believe will win, or one that represents their own social group (even if it is ideologically unappealing). In the worst case scenario, they may choose not to vote at all.

Even if younger voters are disgruntled by political processes, voting is the least they can do to change the establishment they are discontent with. Squandering votes is ineffective.

Arathy Puthillam is a research assistant in the Department of Psychology at Monk Prayogshala

Sampada Karandikar a psychologist at Monk Prayogshala and the co-author of Twisted: A Profile of Indian Serial Killers