The young electorate in Bihar — a constituency being wooed aggressively by all major parties this election — has shrunk significantly, with the biggest dent in the number of first-time voters between the ages of 18 and 19 years.
Election Commission data analysed by The Sunday Express show that the total under-30 electorate has decreased by 12.4% — from 2.04 crore to 1.79 crore — since the last Assembly election. The drop is even sharper in the 18-19 years voter category, which is less than half of the 2015 tally. There are 11.17 lakh first-time voters registered this time as opposed to 24.13 lakh in 2015.
Election officials on the ground attribute the drop to the Covid-19 outbreak and the subsequent lockdown. “Before every election, the EC launches a campaign to enrol new voters. Campus ambassadors are appointed in universities and colleges to encourage youngsters to register themselves. This outreach could not happen as aggressively as it usually does because of the lockdown and could be a reason that affected the enrollment of young voters,” said a source in the Bihar CEO office.
This is a group that was born at least six years after 1990, when Mandal changed the narrative of politics and elections; was too young when Lalu-Rabri’s RJD government was in power until 2005; and has seen Nitish Kumar as their chief minister for most of the decade that followed.
Interestingly, a lot of the election campaign this time is focused on the youth. The RJD and LJP are wooing the young by raising the issue of unemployment in the state. While RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav has promised 10 lakh government jobs in his first act as chief minister, the LJP manifesto lists a web portal for connecting job seekers and employers and a Youth Commission among its promises. The LJP has also been publicising the fact that 30 of its 95 candidates are under the age of 40 years.
The BJP too is chasing this vote. Jobs are the big focus in its ‘Sankalp Patra’, with four of the 11 commitments promising to generate 19 lakh job opportunities across sectors like health, education, IT and farming.
The ruling JD(U), on the other hand, has focused on women empowerment and upgrading the skill of the youth as part of its ‘Nischay Patra 2020’.
Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), however, cautioned against exaggerating the influence of the youth. According to him, past elections, with the exception of the Lok Sabha polls in 2014 and 2019, have shown that the youth doesn’t behave as a constituency.
“If we go by the past evidence, the vote of the youth has remained divided between different political parties. If a party gets 20% vote, it means it has got that vote even among the youth. The youth has not decisively favoured or gone against any political party in the past several elections. If we go by that trend, then the drop in young voters does not affect the prospects of any political party in any significant manner,” he told The Sunday Express.
RJD leader Manoj Jha feels the change in the number of young voters will not adversely affect his party, although the RJD seems heavily invested in wooing this segment. “Our traction is maximum among young voters, but it is not limited to that. Our traction is across segments. Also, the caste arithmetic in Bihar is breaking. The presumed rigidity of caste arithmetic is getting fluid. That makes our case much stronger than ever before,” he said.
Sanjay Kumar, however, concedes there are two possible scenarios in which the youth vote can be significant this time in Bihar. “There are some indications that the young may vote against the ruling NDA government because they are unhappy with Nitish Kumar for not being able to generate employment. Whether this anger or dissatisfaction will lead to a change in their voting preference is something we can only speculate at this moment,” he said.
Asked if the drop in the number of under-30 electorate could end up benefitting the ruling government in that case, he said: “If their (young voters) numbers have gone down, then the negative impact on JD(U) will be less. In that case, it can make a difference.” He also pointed out that if the pandemic forces the older age group voters to stay indoors on the day of voting then the young could, proportionately, end up having a stronger say in the results on November 10.
Even with the decrease in the total number of the under-30 electorate, there are nearly 74,000 young voters on average in each of the 243 assembly seats, which is several times more than the average winning margin of 18,000 votes in the last Assembly elections.
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