What’s behind first time voters’ lukewarm response in these hot summer elections?

Voting is every citizen's right and duty but why are young voters not enthusiastic about making a difference in the world's largest democracy?

“Just, I mean, I don’t feel like voting. This politics and all. I didn’t even apply, I think I was late,” rattled one of my students when I asked if they had all registered to vote as most of them had turned 18 one or two years ago. 

This was pretty much the chorus. They spoke about how it was too late when they tried to register, how it was so difficult (which was promptly rejected by those who had done it), how they were in a different city, how they were not interested in politics and how it was not related to them. Some also said there was no interest among the youth to get involved in this election because of how politics is unfolding. 

Of course, there were a few who had diligently registered and voted thereafter. 

It isn’t difficult to find numbers and anecdotes to support completely contrasting viewpoints or hypotheses in India. So when reports about lack of enthusiasm among first time voters or young voters began to emerge, I wondered if we were being too harsh or judgmental in the classic – “In our times it was not like that… This generation is this and that…” 

But as one witnesses the campaigns and their outreach, especially for the young voters, it does become clear that young voters haven’t registered with much enthusiasm. And perhaps, those who have, may not actually come to cast their vote. 

Lack of interest in voter registration

If my interaction with the youngsters I know is any indicator, it does seem that there is limited interest. These are of course urban and middle or upper class students. They come from the milieu which is traditionally known for its apathy for elections. 

In the past one year, there have been several voter registration drives and more recently, several civic groups have come forward to help people register. The ECI has specifically tied up with civic bodies for voter awareness campaigns. 

However, simmering temperatures, polarised public meetings, little focus on local issues, political defections have resulted in limited or lukewarm discussions among common people.  

The usual energy in the public domain, with groups of people — students, workers, women and commuters — discussing and debating about various issues and candidates – is not there. Citizen Matters and students of Dayanand Sagar University did a survey about opinions about candidates in Bengaluru Urban. The lack of interest of voters in candidates and selection being driven by party and ideology was palpable. 

Have people accepted the political leanings and refrained from healthy debates to avoid unhealthy disputes? 

Could this have spilled over our young population? 

Voter disconnect with governance 

Many youngsters feel that they are unable to identify with the issues that are being discussed in the campaigns and public meetings, they don’t identify with their constituency candidates. It’s a gap that’s hard to bridge by the usual spiel of voting being one’s duty and an integral part of healthy democracy. 

When I asked a few other youngsters, they said, “None of this is about us. We can’t relate to what is being talked about.” They were not keen on discussing major statements made by either PM Narendra Modi or Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, despite having strong views about both. 

However, a quick glance over various indicators of growth and development in the country, shows a severe unemployment challenge. There can’t be a more direct reason to invest yourself in the formation of a government that will be able to change this bleak situation.

Issues such as environmental concerns, climate change, infrastructure for transport, housing, public health systems, affect one and all, including the young. However, they do not feature prominently in the speeches of major leaders. 

The youth, especially the ones who come from urban and at least moderately well-to-do backgrounds, are not directly affected by any of these challenges.

Activist Dolphy D’souza, President of the Bombay Catholic Sabha, which is conducting voter awareness drives, spoke about how “disgusted” people were of all defections and party-hopping that was going on in Maharashtra. He articulated deep disillusionment of the people and spoke about how several people felt let down by their leaders and representatives.

However, he emphasised again and again that, no matter what citizens and especially young voters, should understand that opting out voting does no good to people eventually. It is the only way to hold our representatives accountable.  

Read more: Voters’ dilemma: How to choose your MP?

Why are some young voters interested? 

Some of the reasons that youngsters, who were keen on voting, spoke about were about doing their duty as a citizen and being curious about the outcome of the election. 

Adithya S said he was keenly observing the “two tigers – Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi.” He said, no matter which party wins, he would post about their accomplishments or the lack of it on social media after the elections. 

picture of first time voter
Aditi Kowligi voted for the first time in Lok Sabha Elections. Pic: Aditi

Aditi and Navya, who both registered recently, also spoke about exercising their right to vote. However, they were pretty okay and unsurprised about their friends who did not wish to vote.  

However, student activists who are affiliated with causes and movements such as Fridaysforfuture, Bahutva Karnataka and so on have a different perspective. They not only are keen on voting themselves but are also actively volunteering to work voter awareness and registration.    

Commission response to get more voters

The Election Commision has recognised this and has made the right noises to nudge young voters to register and vote. On their website, they observe, “The Commission has on various occasions identified urban apathy and youth apathy as a cause for concern in its quest to improve voter turnout. ECI campaign ‘Turning 18,’ in the run-up to the 18th Lok Sabha Elections, specifically targets young and first-time voters. The primary objective is to galvanize (sic) youngsters to participate in the upcoming elections and address the critical issues of urban and youth apathy noticed in previous elections.”

Using themes, strategies, branding, infographics and so on, the ECI claims, “The impact of the ‘Turning 18’ campaign is substantial, with widespread amplification facilitated by State Chief Electoral Officers (CEOs) and the national public broadcaster, DD News and Akashvani.”    

“This concerted effort helps disseminate the campaign’s message across diverse segments of society, effectively reaching its target audience and generating significant momentum for the forthcoming poll days,” says the ECI. 

However, what followed in the phase 2 elections and voter turnouts hovering around 50%  in urban centres such as Bengaluru, leaves a lot to be desired.  

The challenge of the youth feeling disconnected with current politics and the process of formation of the government must be tackled urgently as without them, the government and democracy at large will be missing out on a crucial partner. 

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