Is there a youth vote?
Is there a youth vote in the country? No, says Yogendra Yadav, a Senior fellow at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The country’s youth share the same political opinions as the rest of the population, he says.
A good deal of the media coverage of this election assumes that the youth (18-25 years) make up a political constituency. There is no dispute that there are a large number of voters who are young. The proportion of youth among voters is larger in our country than most developed countries, thanks to what is called the ‘demographic dividend.’ Our country is passing through a short phase when the proportion of young adults in the population expands.
The idea that a larger proportion of youth will lead to a greater role for youth in politics is based on the assumption that they constitute a distinct political constituency — a section of population with distinct political preferences, attitudes and voting patterns. Let us examine this belief with the help of evidence gathered by the various National Election Studies conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
The level of interest of the youth in politics is no different from the rest of the population. The National Election Study 2004 found that 39 per cent of those below 25 years are interested in politics, only marginally above the 38 per cent for the entire population. When it comes to polling, the percentage of youth that vote is less than the average turnout.The percentage of votes cast by youth in the last four Lok Sabha elections has been two to four percentage points lower than the national average. Besides, the turnout of the youth was not homogenous. If the turnout was 50 per cent among urban youth, it was 56 per cent among rural youth. Within rural youth, there was a 10 point gap between women and men who turned out to vote. Gender and locality mattered much more than age.
If we look at who the youth vote for, we find no distinct pattern. In the last four Lok Sabha elections, for which we have reliable data, the youth vote for the major political formations has been within a two percentage point band around their average vote share. The Congress has done a shade worse among younger voters but the difference is less than one percentage point.
The BJP has secured between one to two percentage points more votes among the youth than its average vote share. The BSP did much better among the youth in 1996 and 1998 but this difference was evened out by 2004. The Communist parties actually do a little worse among the youth than the rest of the population.
An analysis of the trends of youth voting at the State level adds some nuances, but does not change this basic picture. Age makes much less difference to voting choice than class, caste, locality or gender. This makes India very different from Europe where age divisions have been the driver of many new political trends like the Green parties.
Finally let us turn to political opinions and attitudes: are the youth distinct at least in this respect? Sadly, the answer is no. The CSDS has completed a major study on the attitudes of the Indian youth (Indian Youth in a Transforming World : Attitudes and Perception, to be published by Sage).
The report reaffirms what those who study public opinion in India have known all along: in their political opinions, the youth are not very different from the rest of the population. They support democracy, have a moderate interest in politics and hold opinions on issues of our times that are no different from the older generation. They are about as egalitarian and radical as the rest of the population.
The Indian youth of today are not the epitome of cosmopolitanism, not the votaries of globalisation, and not the advocates of radical politics. There is a generation gap, but when it comes to politics, there is no generational divide.Youth is but a stage in life that people pass through. The youth are more impressionable and thus more open to new ideas. They are not yet part of the system and thus open to radical politics. They are unencumbered and therefore in a position to shape their own lives and pursue what they believe. That is why the youth can be more radical and pro-change. But this is not true all the time and everywhere.
The youth become a distinct group if there is a robust tradition of student politics. They may be converted to radical ideas if there are strong political currents inside and outside campuses. It would be naive to expect the youth to be a distinct group just because they are young.