January 12 was the National Youth Day, celebrated on the occasion of the great youth icon Swami Vivekananda’s birthday. Around this day, the nation must take stock of the status of the youth of the country, on whom depends the future of our democracy. January 1, 2018, marked a very important day for Indian democracy. On this day, people born in the 21st century became eligible to vote. The prime minister had this very thought in mind when, in the last session of ‘Mann ki Baat’ for 2017, he focused on and encouraged the youth to participate in huge numbers in the voting process.
He urged all youths turning 18 by January 1 to enrol as voters so that they can be active participants in the Indian democracy in the following year and the years to come, telling them that their votes would be the bedrock of a New India. He also suggested holding a mock parliament, comprising youths selected from every district, to come together to deliberate on the various issues the country faces today. Specifically addressing youths aged 18-25, the prime minister, calling them the “New India Youth”, urged them to participate in the Indian democracy and make it corruption and casteism free.
Over the years, the PM has time and again reiterated the role that the youth have to play in shaping a new and better India. That makes PM Modi one of the few politicians who has understood the importance of youth power. The role of the youth in shaping the course of any democracy is undeniable. More than 50 per cent of India’s population is below the age of 25, and more than 65 per cent below 35. Given that democracy is the will of the majority, and the majority of India’s population — nearly 400 million voters — is the youth, it is essential to look at the way this majority can be harnessed to participate in democracy and contribute towards the development of the country. One of the most important ways is by exercising their right to vote.
The right to vote is not just a right enjoyed by every individual over the age of 18, it is also a responsibility to make an informed and responsible choice and to bring to power the most well-suited candidate. For a long time, there has been a trend to vote for people who give the maximum amount of freebies in return. Instead of following this path, the youth must make a conscious decision to vote on the basis of the agenda of the candidates and their past work.
It is only when the youth become aware of the problems that the country is facing and choose the candidate who is most likely to bring about a change, that the right representatives will come to power and India’s future will be in safe hands. The task is not a long and tedious one. All it requires is a bit of effort to look at all the contesting candidates, their histories and their agendas and vote for the one that they deem the most fit to govern the country. Several websites are making this task easier by simplifying the analysis of the comparative performance of the competing candidates.
In my book, An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election (2014), I had pointed out that the youth, who should be the most important participants in the Indian democracy, are mostly absent from the daily discourse on democracy. While they are visible at protest marches, in cricket grounds, at music concerts, cultural events, and can be seen blocking roads, stopping trains, throwing stones, burning tyres and raving and ranting against corruption and bad governance, when the time comes to actually participate in the decision-making process and change the system and its culture by electing the right leaders, most of them disappear.
When I started my tenure as the chief election commissioner, I was distressed to find out that the voter enrolment ratio amongst the 18-20-year-olds was as low as 12 per cent. We in the Election Commission decided to make this issue our top priority. Through a programme called Youth Unite for Voter Awareness (YUVA), we argued that the best way to convert a country’s demographic dividend into democratic dividend is through the mass participation of youth in elections. National Voters Day (NVD), celebrated on January 25, 2011, was launched as an annual event dedicated to youth.
This seeks to create an enlightened movement of voters who see voting as an opportunity to bring about change, who are aware of their role and are neutral with respect to caste, religion, community or other identity differences, those who have their own views about a party and its performance and change their preference from election to election if needed. The NVD not only encourages the youth to enrol in huge numbers and vote without fail but also seeks to involve them in increasing awareness amongst other voters.
Democracy cannot survive without both citizens’ participation and politicians’ accountability. Since the politicians would do nothing to inform the youth about the socio-economic problems facing the nation today and only exploit them, it is the responsibility of civil society organisations and the media to educate young people about the issues involved and their high stakes in the fruits of development.
It is important to remember that instead of always pontificating to the youth about their role and responsibilities, political leaders should remind themselves of their own role to fulfil the needs and aspirations of the youth, particularly with respect to jobs. If their expectations are not met, a backlash is unavoidable. Once the youth become restive, chaos cannot be far behind.