Parties need to evolve a new vocabulary for a young, demanding demographic.
Data from the Election Commission, combined with demographic information, suggests that this general election could be decisively driven by the preferences of first-time voters. There are roughly 1.79 lakh new voters, on average, in each constituency, nearly a fourth of those are 18-19 year olds. What does this surge mean, and what change does it represent? The 18 to 22-year-olds have grown up in a different world, and their driving assumptions are different from those of the candidates. The defining political events of the last three decades are history to them, including the 1984 Delhi violence and the 2002 Gujarat riots, or even the realities of pre-reforms India.
Living standards have risen, cities have grown, citizens chafe at things they once tolerated. They take cellphones for granted and have access to a world of information that their parents were deprived of. Because of stronger flows of media and migration, rural India is not sealed off from or unaware of urban preoccupations.
While it is not easy to predict which party this will benefit, it is safe to say new voters bring new values into political decision-making.
It is evident from the protests that rocked the UPA 2’s term that this young India is restless and buoyant, willing to confront questions like corruption and sexual violence — issues that traditional politics has not shaped itself to address. They also struggle with anxieties about merit, success and circumstance, and they need better schools, skills, jobs, services and material progress. It will not suffice to point to infrastructure built a decade ago, or expect them to be thankful for opportunities that they have always had.
Parties will have to be limber, and prepare to go beyond their old calculations about community and region, and shed talking points that have lost their resonance. While no generational shift can efface existing realities, there is also a new set of preoccupations gathering force that cannot be ignored by forward-thinking political parties.
The content of each political party’s platform must be moulded to this new constituency as well. They are struggling to do this, in their own ways — the BJP under Narendra Modi is steering away from old ideological templates to talk of growth, jobs and aspirations. The AAP has positioned itself as the party of foundational change, appealing to the idealism and impatience of the young. The Congress is trying to talk of skill development and life chances. Whether or not there is a single set of desires that unites all young voters, parties must try to give them a reason to believe in the promise of politics.