100 million new voters are about to transform India


Young Kashmiri women wait for their turn to vote in India's elections, in May 2009. When India goes to the polls next month, young voters will be a powerful force.


Rouf Bhat

NEW DELHI, India — With only a few weeks until India elects its next prime minister, the country’s “demographic dividend” — the young people who provide its best hope of becoming a major economic power — is about to become its democratic dividend.

About 100 million Indians will be able to vote for the first time when the polling stations open on April 7.

That’s almost as many as the 132 million Americans who voted [pdf] in the last presidential elections.

Most of those new voters will be aged 18 to 23 years old, too young for the last elections to the Lok Sabha, India’s Westminster-style parliament, in 2009.

But the easy comparison with Western democracies hides the gargantuan task facing India’s Election Commission, tasked with giving the country’s 814 million registered voters their say.

Although polls open on April 7, they don’t close until May 12, five weeks later. The election officials need another four days just to get the votes together, then start counting ballots to announce the results on May 16.

So what impact could India’s youth have in this granddaddy of all elections?

First, the candidates. The election is cast as a fight between Narendra Modi, the charismatic Hindu nationalist candidate for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, and Rahul Gandhi, whose family has led the ruling Congress party since independence in 1947.

Gandhi would seem an obvious favourite for India’s youth. He is 42, has involved himself in Congress’s youth wing for much of his political career and says he want to include young people in the political process.

Yet it is the older Modi, 63, who appears to have captured young people’s attention.

“Opinion polling shows younger voters do prefer Narendra Modi to Rahul Gandhi more strongly than older voters,” Amitabh Dubey, the director of India research at Trusted Sources, an emerging markets research firm, told GlobalPost.

“Whether that translates into actual votes remains to be seen.”

Modi’s energetic campaigning, along with his story of economic development in the western state of Gujarat where he has been chief minister since 2001, seem to appeal to India’s youth.

He has been an enthusiastic user of social media. With around 80 million Indians using Facebook, many of them young and urban, some studies [pdf] say social media may prove a decisive factor in marginal constituencies.

The white-bearded candidate, whose jibes at Gandhi as ‘shehzada’ or ‘crown prince’ — drawing attention to his family’s dynasty — go down well at election rallies, divides opinion among Indians over his role in anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat.

Some accuse him of turning a blind eye to the bloodshed in which about 2,000 people died.

Yet the youngest of India’s new electors were only six years old when the riots happened. They seem to be more interested in his plans to create jobs and revive India’s economic growth.

“India’s youth are much more aspirational and increasingly they realise that their aspirations are not going to be met,” said Professor Jayati Ghosh, who lectures in political economics at Delhi’s prestigious Jawalal Nehru University. “They are much less satisfied with the idea that they should vote along the same lines that their parents did. It makes the whole election much more difficult to predict.”

Traditionally, Indians have voted along family and community lines — an oft-quoted maxim is that Indians do not cast their vote, but vote their caste.

This so-called “votebank politics” has seen politicians try to build alliances between different communities, such as Muslims and low-caste Hindus, in the expectation that people will vote mainly on caste lines.

But Professor Ghosh said she believes India’s economy is now the main vote-winner.

“Food prices and jobs, those are the two main issues,” she said. Food inflation has been severe under the current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led coalition.

And some have criticised the prime minister for squandering the economic liberalisation of the 1990s that led to impressive growth rates of almost 10 percent.

Politicians are likely to feel the impact of the new 100 million voters in their own pockets. It will cost them a lot more money to canvass 12 percent more electors than last time, especially given the widespread cynicism that many votes are bought by paying for a new temple, or a widescreen television for the village headman.

Parliament candidates are officially limited to spending 70 lakh rupees, or $115,000, but some studies say the true amounts could be much higher.

“The current limits are implausible but they are not enforced,” added Professor Ghosh. “It’s almost impossible for a candidate to fight a Lok Sabha seat on the current spending limits. And the fact the constituencies have grown means that, procedurally it’s a very big problem for the parties.”

Amitabh Dubey believes that although the parties need to find more activists willing to go to towns and villages to remind people to vote on election day, they also have more tools available.

“The growth in telecom is important. Millions more people now have mobile phones,” Mr Dubey said. Parties already use bulk SMS messages to persuade voters.

But India’s improved physical infrastructure may be more important.

“The roads are much better, transport is much better in most places,” he said.

The Bahujan Samaj Party, which seeks to represent lower caste Indians in the country’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, has barely any social media presence, Mr Dubey said. “The BSP is almost absent from social media, and even the mainstream media. But they do very well by using traditional methods.”