Study: What our children and youth think of politics and political leaders

Key findings from an online study across multiple Indian cities to understand how children and young adults view politics and political leaders

On February 1st, the finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, while presenting the union budget for 2022-23, announced a plan to steer urban planning and development, referring to the fact that by 2047, half of India’s population will be urban. Her budget speech proposed nurturing of megacities to become centres of economic growth and preparing tier 2 and 3 to take on a similar path in the future. Her proposal included setting up a high-level committee consisting of urban planners, urban economists and institutions to make recommendations on urban sector policies, capacity building, planning, implementation, and governance. 

As our cities grow larger, we cannot rely solely on top down structures of governance to nurture them  as megacities: citizens will need to play an active role to help our democracy function smoothly. A great opportunity to begin citizen engagement is with young people, given that  41% of our population is below the age of 20. 

Albert O Hirschman, an economist and Nobel laureate, in his book “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty” speaks about how citizens, when they find government services deteriorating, either exit the system or voice their concerns. Unfortunately, a recent study we conducted showed that more and more young people are leaning towards “exiting” the system.

Kuviraa, a non-partisan initiative looking to build political engagement and leadership among young girls, conducted a study to understand political perceptions of children and young adults across India. The survey was shared through an online form in Hindi and English and received 419 responses from young people between the ages of 11 to 24 from multiple Indian cities across 24 Indian states with most responses from Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad.

Through this study, we learnt that most young people do not view politics and India’s politicians positively, with respondents using corrupt, dirty, and complicated/confused as the top adjectives to describe their opinions on Indian politics. 

Read more: Voice of Indian youth: Where do I want my country to go from here?

Politics is bad

Our study further showed that political awareness among children increases with age, but at the same time, cynicism towards political leaders also increases.  For instance, 19% of our respondents between the ages of 11 and 17 reported familiarity with local political leaders and political processes, which increased to 47% in the 21-24 year old group reporting familiarity with their local leaders. 41% of this older age group reported familiarity with political processes. 

Candidates win by demeaning other candidates, instead of (discussing) their policies or what they are bringing to the table. Also, less public interaction. Not seen any candidate being engaged in constructive debate or conversation. Or if they do it is not in public view for us to know them or their opinions.

– Female respondent, 22 years, Ahmedabad

While 40% of respondents from the ages of 11 to 17 have a positive perception of Indian political leaders, only 29% of 21-24 year old respondents reported having a positive perception of our political leaders. 

Interestingly, when we apply a gendered lens, our study showed that at a younger age, girls are more interested than boys in politics, but when they are eligible to vote, boys’ interest overtakes that of girls (despite both groups’ interest growing with age). With such a negative perception of our politics, young people have less aspirations to be politically active, with only 20% of female respondents and 32% of male respondents reporting interest in getting involved in politics in the future.

Exposure to politics at a young age increases political interest 

Our data showed that knowledge of and exposure to politics increase political interest among respondents. The trend showed that young people who participated in democratic processes such as elections in school or colleges know more about India’s political processes and are likely to be more interested in politics compared to the young people that reported not having participated in any democratic process at the school or college level. 

A similar trend was seen when young people reported knowing someone who has been involved in politics. 50% of respondents that participated in school or college campaigns or elections reported positive interest in politics, compared to 39% of respondents that did not participate in school or college elections and reported political interest.

What kind of political leaders does India need in the future?

People with actual empathy. Politicians need to understand real situations and not create diversions. Economy, Healthcare and Social Justice are the biggest topics that need more discussion in our politics. I wish future politicians have in depth knowledge of these topics.

– Male respondent, 21 years, Mumbai

India needs more leaders from marginalized communities who are willing to represent their community’s interests independently. Leaders need to be community-oriented, well-informed, enthusiastic about building bridges, committed to systemic change and compassionate.

– Female respondent, 21 years, Hyderabad

Getting children involved in democratic processes

We asked our respondents what were the most urgent challenges they think next generation political leaders must address, 75% of the respondents thought poverty & inequality is an urgent issue, with healthcare and environment issues following at 70% and 69% respectively. Unsurprisingly, a higher percent of female respondents (69%) thought women’s issues were an urgent challenge as compared to male respondents (58%). Female respondents also prioritised environment issues compared to male respondents. These young people lack opportunities or a platform to express their concerns to elected representatives.

Climate march by children in India
Misplaced perceptions undermine the ability of children and teens to have serious opinions on issues. Yet children across the world have come together to fight various issues such as climate change and taken on the mightiest powers. Pic: (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

We have constantly observed how power is withheld from young people and misplaced societal perceptions undermine their ability to have their views or opinions be taken seriously. An example of this is seen in children across the world that are coming together to fight against climate change, an issue of their time, but very few world leaders are representing their concerns or acting on it. As civil society, we need to work together to create opportunities for them to participate in such governance issues and have their voices heard.

It is crucial to get this demographic to participate in democratic processes and give them the opportunity to discover the importance of their views, as well as respect the views of their peers. Being involved in local governance processes also gives young people the opportunity to take ownership of their neighbourhood and hold their public officials accountable. 

Read more: Climate Strike comes to India — three things to keep in mind

When there is a lack of opportunities for young people to be engaged as active citizens, it leads to a sense of helplessness and frustration as they cannot make a difference on issues they care about. As young people, especially the marginalised communities including young girls, do not have equal opportunities to participate in issues of governance that are most critical to them, such issues are not prioritised at the city level. 

When young people are involved in democratic processes, it facilitates collective action and also brings forward the voices of groups that would have remained unheard otherwise. More importantly, the willingness and ability to exercise rights of citizenship tend to persist well into adulthood when a strong foundation has been laid at an early age.

Therefore for India to flourish as a healthy democracy, we need to start demystifying politics for children and engaging them in various democratic processes from an early age. This year, India is scheduled to have several municipal elections across cities. This could be a good starting point to get children familiarised with the challenges within their wards and voice their concerns to their councillors.

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