By: Katherine Davis, Chhaya Nene, Rosalie Murphy and Kaysie Ellingson
Samyak Chakrabarty spent the past six months helping 40,000 ’20-something’ Indians register to vote. But he’s not stopping there.“If young people don’t join politics, then nothing will change,” Chakrabarty said.
Chakrabarty, 25, organizes social events and casual town-hall meetings to connect politicians with young people through his “Operation Black Dot” youth empowerment campaign. He’s eager to get his peers involved with politics. But this election season, he’s seen politicians push their own outreach to India’s youth. And it’s no wonder why as more than 65 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people are younger than 35, according to Census data, and nearly 20 percent of the population will be first-time voters in this election.
India is one of the youngest nations in the world, and the first-time voter has strong opinions to express at the polls. A recent Pew Global Attitudes survey shows about 70 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds are dissatisfied with the state of Indian politics for a variety of reasons.
Sneha Gomes, a 25-year-old from Mumbai, is among the disenchanted. “How many public toilets do you see in Mumbai that people can use?” she said, “It’s not there. You will not find benches or anything like that—basic things. I don’t see any party that is doing that right now be it Congress or BJP. And the AAP—they have no experience.”
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Gomes’s dislike for India’s leading political parties has led her to not vote. That frustrates Chakrabarty, who said it’s a common response by many 20-somethings.
“I met a lot of young people. When I asked them, ‘why won’t you vote in politics’ they said, ‘Nothing will happen.’
Chakrabarty wholeheartedly believes his generation can change things and the numbers agree. Many analysts have said that the country’s youngsters could be the deciding group in this year’s elections. That is, if they vote as a bloc.
While surveys like Pew’s may give some sense of trends among young Indians, the demographic can be a confusing group when it comes to political and social opinions.
Simpreet Singh, a Mumbai social activist and Ph.D. candidate with the Tata Institute for Social Sciences, explained, “I see young people getting more progressive and holding onto their tradition.” While more young Indians take on IT jobs, move into apartments on their own and take on more Western lifestyles and liberal social values, they are also adopting Hindu nationalism, rooted deeply in conservative tradition. “These are two contradictory things happening at the same time,” he explained.
That leaves politicians with a difficult task when wooing young voters.
India’s ruling party, the Indian National Congress, has natural appeal for some young voters. At 43, Rahul Gandhi, the party’s leader, is a relatively young face in the political sphere. He also heads up the party’s Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India.
Gandhi’s party’s manifesto has a specific “youth agenda,” which focuses on education and youth programs. The manifesto also highlights progressive issues like rights for minorities and women, and promises employment opportunities for 100 million young people.
Vikram Shetty, 22, said the platform won him over. Congress programs allowed Shetty to get his education and ultimately a career in management. “Because of Congress, I have got lots of advantages. Where I am now, it’s all because of Congress,” he said.
The Congress party has also utilized social media to attract young voters. Milind Deora, INC MP of the Mumbai South constituency, says he has received “great feedback” on his policies via Twitter. Deora, who portrays himself as a youthful, hip musician on his website, organizes Twitter chats and Google Hangouts where he discusses political issues with constituents.
Deora hopes social media engagement will convince young voters that his party is accessible and transparent. However, as more first-timers point to corruption as the top issue in this elections, Congress may need more than Twitter to convince these voters that their party will not maintain the habits of previous administrations.
The INC’s main opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party, hopes young voters are looking for change and will turn to a different set of leaders.
Although the BJP is known for more conservative values and its 63-year-old leader Narendra Modi is a few generations removed from first-time voters, the party represents a shift in the country’s politics.
“I think I might go for BJP because I think there is some hope there that they might do something different. I think Modi has shown some difference in Gujarat,” Karishma Vadya, a 24-year-old voter, said.
BJP’s manifesto includes a section geared toward the younger generation, who, it says, are “making India unstoppable.” But much of the manifesto focuses on Hindu nationalist ideals through preservation of cultural traditions, rather than looking to the future for change.
Ashish Shelar, President of the BJP in Mumbai, admits India’s younger generation is more socially liberal than his party. For example, party leaders have spoken in support of Section 377, a law banning homosexual sex. But Shelar said while young voters are important, his party will not change their positions simply to pander to young people.
“We don’t believe in appeasement politics. Just because they’re voters, I should appease them? I will not do that,” Shelar said.
A new political force, the Aam Aadmi Party, hopes its socially progressive policies will grab the youth vote. The left-leaning party wants to inspire young voters with their impassioned rhetoric.
“I think young people everywhere in the world are idealistic and what the Aam Aadmi Party offers is just that,” said Meera Sanyal, AAP candidate from the Mumbai South Constituency.
The AAP released its manifesto piece-by-piece on Twitter last week. The move was unconventional, but certainly not surprising in these elections.
Whatever the outcome of the election may be, Samyak Chakrabarty is happy to see politicians showing so much interest in his generation.
“Youth obviously is the center of whatever they’re trying to do.” And that, he said, is important for his country’s future. “I think young people are opinion leaders. What we do is what people follow. And if you’re going to set the wrong trend, I see demise for our democracy.”
In association with the Annenberg School for Journalism and Communications, University of Southern California