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How India's 149 million new voters will make an impact

By Mayank Mishra
October 14, 2013 13:07 IST
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India's demographic dividend may not automatically give rise to tangible economic gains -- at least not with immediate effect -- but it is likely to have a big impact on the coming Lok Sabha elections, Mayank Mishra

Half the 762 million electorates is aged below 35 and about 149 million would exercise their democratic right for the first time. About four of every 10 young voters are from urban India and most of them are exposed to social media sites.

The combination of young voters, social media and the rapid rise in the number of urban constituencies is likely to make the 2014 elections very different from previous ones.

According to the latest Census data, of the 762 million eligible voters, 378.6 million are in the age group of 18-35. And, young voters constitute the majority in 26 states, including politically influential ones such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.

The predominance of young voters isn’t new to the country. What is unique about the 2014 elections is the entry of what is known as the post-liberalisation brigade of 149 million new voters. Analysts say this group is different from the rest in that it hasn't survived on scarcity of any sort.

These youngsters have grown up with the perception that if others can get what they want, so can they. The number of professional opportunities has multiplied and, with it, the possibility of making an impact.

For a generation growing up in such an environment, identity politics in the name of caste or religion is an error in modern history best discarded.

"In a survey of voters I conducted in Bihar after the 2010 Assembly elections, I found voters aged 18-25 were less likely than older voters to accurately identify the caste identity of the candidate they voted for. This was a modest effect, but it is suggestive of a shift underway.a This fits with the conventional wisdom that younger voters care less about so-called primordial loyalties," says Milan Vaishnav, associate, South Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

If primordial loyalties don't matter, what does? Debates on the social media platform? The current state of the economy? Political uncertainty and the impact it has had on policymaking? While it is hard to read young voters' minds, looking at what happened in the United States in the 70s, one can make an intelligent guess.

The US added about 70 million to its population between 1946 and 1964 -- popularly known as the 'baby boom' generation. Having grown up during the high of the John F Kennedy era and the low of Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal, this generation began to impose itself on American polity. Studies suggest the political behaviour of this generation was shaped by the experience it had during its formative years.

"Voters vote for the party (or candidate) they believe will deliver targeted benefits to them," says Devesh Tiwari of the University of California, San Diego.

Drawing from the US experience, one can assume the targeted benefits for the young generation are likely to include a strong economy, a responsive and transparent government wedded to a development agenda and an end to political uncertainty, as these are the concerns they have seen the country grappling with in their formative years.

The entry of such a large number of young voters wouldn't be the only distinctive feature of the 2014 elections. An estimated 78 million active users of social media sites, most aged 25-35, have added a whole new dimension to the way elections and public debate accompanying these are conducted.

The number of social media users is expected to reach 91 million in urban India by December 2013, according to a report by Internet & Mobile Association of India and IMRB International.

Recently, IMAI brought out a report that said 160 of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies were likely to be highly influenced by social media. Another 67 would see medium, while 60 would record low impact.

This means social media would have some impact on the outcome of the elections in 287 Lok Sabha constituencies, according to the report. High-impact constituencies, the report said, were those that had more than 10 per cent active users of social media sites as voters.

Given the sheer size of the active online community, it is hard to predict the political preference of this emerging group. But observers say the impact of social media on election outcome wouldn't be substantial in the near future.

"I think social media will largely determine the elite discourse, the media narratives and the talk shows. I do not think it will have a material impact on the elections. Having said that, it would play a part in mobilising party workers, which would have some impact, especially in urban settings," says Milan Vaishnav.

It would also raise awareness about candidates. Devesh Tiwari says, "I think in terms of electing honest politicians, social media can help because it helps accelerate the amount of information in the electorate. It is possible voters will use this information and vote against criminal or corrupt candidates."

Another aspect is issues related to the homogeneity of the social media space.

"Don't forget the topics discussed in the social media are picked up from the traditional media. Moreover, social media is not a homogeneous community. It, too, has divisions along caste, religion and community lines," says Anand Pradhan, associate professor at Indian Institute of Mass Communication.

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