India’s Youth in the World’s Biggest Election
April 9, 2014
Election fever is at an all-time high in India as polling for the 16th general elections began on Monday. In sheer numbers, the election is the largest in the world, with 814 million people registered to vote for 543 representatives of the lower house of parliament at nearly a million polling stations between April 7 and May 12. Political pundits and the international media have been closely watching the run-up to the elections. Dogged by allegations of corruption and poor governance, the incumbent Congress-led government is expected to underperform, paving the way for the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and potentially the new kid on the block – the Aam Admi Party (AAP).
For months now, political parties have been campaigning hard to reach voters through public rallies, newspaper and television adverts, billboards, radio jingles, and even auto-rickshaws. The Samajwadi Party, one’s of India’s major regional parties, even bought the rights to adapt Billy Joel’s historical anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for the party’s campaign song. Amid these tried and tested campaign strategies, what is markedly different this election is the extensive use of social media.
Political parties from the Congress, BJP, and AAP have taken to social media sites Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and YouTube to campaign, interact with the public, and in possibly a first, respond to voter questions online. The media has been quick to draw comparisons with U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign that incorporated social media, especially Facebook, to connect with young voters. With an estimated 150 million 18- to 23-year-olds eligible to vote for the first time, this is perhaps not surprising. But the big question is, what will be the most important issues that drive the youth vote?
India is one of the youngest countries in the world, with an estimated 65 percent of the population under the age of 35. Born in the post-1990 era of economic liberalization, this group is unfettered by memories of partition, economic shortages, and political uncertainty, unlike the older generation of voters who were significantly influenced by these events. The increasing integration of the Indian economy into the global market, rapid urbanization, the rise of the IT and services sector along with increased access to information and education, has empowered the youth with global aspirations. A number of youth surveys suggest they are driven less by conventional identity and religion-based politics and are more concerned today about corruption in government, unemployment, inflation, safety of women, and education. They are also more politically vocal about issues that concern them as demonstrated by extensive youth participation in the 2011 anti-corruption protests, the 2012 protests against the Delhi gang rape case, and the rapid rise and the overwhelming popularity of the Aam Admi Party as a young, urban middle class political formation.
To date, India’s youth bulge has been at odds with its political system dominated by older leaders in their late 60s, 70s, and even 80s. The fielding of younger candidates, extensive use of social media this election, and efforts by political parties to build a youth following in rural and urban areas is an effort to play catch up. But going beyond these elections, key to India’s economic growth and development over the next decade will be its ability to tap into and channel the aspirations and energy of the youth.
Estimates suggest that over a million people enter the Indian job market each month, and many of these new workers are under the age of 30. The rapid growth of India’s Tier II and Tier III towns and cities (classified by the 2011 census as cities with a populations of 50,000-100,000 and 20,000-50,000, respectively) has also seen a steady migration of rural youth to urban areas in search of new opportunities. According to a recent survey by the Centre for the Study of Development Societies (CSDS), as many as 76 percent of rural youth interviewed said they did not want to take up agriculture as an occupation. However, the unemployment rates among the urban and rural youth have also been growing. A survey conducted by the Labor Ministry last year estimated that nearly 13.3 percent of those in the age group of 15-29 (133 out of every 1,000 persons) were unemployed. This is a worrying trend for India’s policymakers. To capitalize on the country’s “demographic dividend,” in the coming years India needs to make significant investments in creating new jobs (10 million a year according to one estimate), improving access to affordable and quality education, healthcare, skill development, infrastructure, and affordable housing. In addition, policymakers need to find more effective ways to engage the youth in decision-making processes.
On May 16, the results of India’s massive elections will be announced. While it remains to be seen which way the youth vote will swing, it is clear that no matter which political party comes to power, the issues and concerns of young India will have to be a significant part of the new government’s reform and growth agenda.
Mandakini Devasher Surie is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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