Persistent mixing with the ubiquitously dubbed "youth circuits", both the popular and the niche, often leads to interesting insights about young persons of a certain area and inclination. And at a time so close to one of the biggest forms of democracy, the chatter in these circuits can be enlightening.
As India gears toward yet another general election starting April 11, the youth of the nation have once again started figuring in editorial articles and newsroom debates. With 45 million first time electors, political parties too are leaving no gaps in their strategy to woo the youth vote.
While psephologists and social analysts often try to find out which way the youth will vote, an important factor that is often left unexplored are the reasons why certain eligible electors, especially those in the 18-28 age band, choose not to vote.
It is not unusual to find young people who are eligible and have the ability to vote but choose not to do so. "I don't vote" is almost a catchphrase in certain clubs dominated by artists, thinkers, writers. But not voting is not some kind of trend among a clutch of those generally tagged dilettantes, anarchists and now, 'anti-nationals'.
'Voting against democracy'
For Pratyay Bhattacharya, a 29-years-old data scientist working with Fidelity Investments in Bangalore, the reasons were many.
"First of all, we collectively failed the very idea of democracy. Second, we live in a country which consists millions of people who do not even understand the voting process or what a referendum is and no political party bats an eye about it," Bhattacharya told News18.
According to Bhattacharya, true democracy can only be possible in the absence of parliamentary mode of democracy, which is a contradiction unto itself. "Almost 230 million people are living below poverty line after 70 years of Independence. People are getting lynched, scholars have no respect, women are getting raped, molested in each and every minute. If the system worked, things would have been better the world over by now," Bhattacharya asserted.
In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party won with landslide mandate, a large chunk of which was made up by the youth vote. At 68 per cent, the election saw the largest young voter turnout (in the 18-25 age band) in the last four elections. As per National Election Surveys (NES) conducted by The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) during the last Lok Sabha elections, a lion's share of the youth vote went to BJP (34 per cent) while 19 percent voted for Congress.
As parties scramble to arrest the loyalties of first time voters, Payal Mehta, 24, (name changed), a recent graduate from Delhi University, felt that parties did not to enough to retain their voters. "2014 was my first vote and I don't think what happened in the last five years has made any sense. Many of the promises like women's reservation were not kept. Violence and polarisation have increased," Mehta said. When she was in college, Mehta had voted for the BJP. Now she says she understands the system better and won't be taken in by PR machismo anymore.
"Look at the ruckus these political parties' student wings create in college campuses. Not just BJP, this is common across parties," Mehta said. She clarified that this year, she did not want to cast her vote to any party.
'Out of choices'
Disillusionment with the process and structure of voting aside, a persistent complaint with the youth who responded to News18.com's queries about not voting remained the brazen lack of choices. "Elections are often reduced to a show of strength and money between the two dominant sides. There's no real choice," Animikh Chakraborty, a Film Studies student of Jadavpur University, Kolkata, said.
"The system of voting is a psychological appeasement which has deluded voters into thinking it can bring a radical change in contemporary scenario, but that's not the case," Chakraborty said.
The issue is not just limited to national politics but also pervades to the state level where the choice is usually between two dominant regional parties. Vitthal Karale, an accounts manager working in Mumbai said, "In Maharashtra, I will never vote to BJP and the opposition parties don't have strong candidates who can understand our issues."
The Indian constitution was written in such a way so as to include the voices of all the people in the country, or at least represent them to the best extent possible. And yet many of the parties at a national and regional level today often perpetuate ideological separatism, dynastic succession and selective accountability, Karale said.
Young voters in Bengal face a similar conundrum. Many complained of not having any real choice other than Trinamool Congress as the main Opposition parties in the state had all but eroded.
"I have voted only once in my life. The 2011 Bengal elections. I voted for Mamata Banerjee," Tathagata Mitra, who moved to Delhi from Kolkata in 2015 and now works at an ad firm, told News18. "I actually didn't know what I wanted. I wanted CPIM to be gone. But what TMC did wasn't really the kind of change we thought we'd see". Tathagata also said that he will not vote this year.
Tathagata further pointed out even when the youth voted, the problems of the country remained the same. "I don't really believe in the way elections and campaigning works in most place. It's all just campaigning. And whoever has most fund or can hire the best agencies, they hold the upper hand," he said. And the 2014 election shows how elections can be won through false promises and empty campaigns, he added.
The problem of voters becoming disillusioned into not voting could be due to to the earnest interest political parties take in wooing first-time voters and then not taking consistent steps to hold on to this same chunk of voters by living up to their promises.
According to Dr Sanjay Kumar, Director of CSDS, it is much easier to influence first-time voters than to convince seasoned voters. "When parties talk about the 'youth vote', they really just mean those who will be voting for the first time. With subsequent voting, these usually 22-29-years age group voters start to feel disenfranchised," Kumar said. Non-performance of parties is also key to understanding this growing distance.
"Last elections, the BJP enjoyed popular majority among youth. They very well captured the first time voters' pulse. This year could see a decline in the sheer number of young electors who vote for BJP," Kumar said. However, he maintained that the bigger mandate is still expected to go to the ruling party.
'NOTA an eyewash'
Many of those who found a lack of proper options preferred to not vote instead of vote on NOTA. According to them, casting a vote on NOTA was often akin to killing a vote.
Student and theatre artists Ujan Ganguly gave some perspective on the issue. "NOTA doesn't work in most cases in India. Ideally, if there is NOTA majority then the candidates should be reconsidered and re-polled. But here, NOTA is basically a negative opinion that really doesn't affect the outcome of the election," Ganguly said. He pointed out that even when the polls were re-conducted, for example in the case of Maharashtra and Punjab, the same candidates contested, rendering the exercise futile.
But then what is the solution? Those in favour of voting would argue that wasting the right to vote — the once-in-five-years chance that ordinary citizens get to actively participate in the democracy they live in and one that several generations protested for decades to achieve — was not the most practical answer.
But the critics remained unmoved. "Maybe what India needs is a revolution. Many times in history, revolution by the masses has led to destabilisation of power centres and a reorganization of structures. Like the kind taking place in Algeria right now. Maybe that's what we need," Ujan said. However, he plans to vote this year, "sheerly out of fear", as he puts it.
It isn't just lofty ideals and disagreements with the electoral machinery that keeps young electors from voting. For many like Arush Pandey (name changed), a research analyst working in Delhi, the excruciating heat and standing in queues was a big turn-off. "It's going to be 40 degrees Celsius and upward in most places in April-May. There are already forecasts of a massive heatwave," Arush said. "I wish they would put air conditioners in polling booths. Or at least hold the elections in winter months".
As per meteorological projections, 2019 is set to be a phenomenally hot year, with heatwave warnings already issued in several states. 288 cases of heat stroke and sunburn have been registered in the southern state of Kerala in from March 1 including four suspected deaths due to heat stroke.
In Bengaluru, where temperatures rarely touch 35 degrees, crossed the 40 degree mark in several places in March with dehydrated birds reportedly falling out of the sky. Mumbai also recorded 40.3 degrees Celcius on March 25, 2019, seven degrees higher than the average temperature at the time.
North India has also experienced the heat wave. In March, temperatures in Churu, the Rajasthani city that records a phenomenal rise in mercury every year, are already touching 40 and on March 22, Delhi recorded its warmest March day in 9 years at 39 degrees Celsius.
To this problem, Patna-based law-firm intern Kanika Sharma said that the best option would be to go digital. "I have a tendency to fall sick in the sun. I don't think I will go out to vote if the conditions are too extreme. Bihar is among the states that will go to polls in April itself, with the polling spread out in seven phases and ending in May. Sharma suggested that when most things were becoming online, why not take the next step and make voting also a virtual process? "We are always talking about increasing voter turnout. Isn't the best way to do that by increasing ease of voting? Why can't I vote using a voting app? It is 2019, after all," the 26-year-old said.
With a median age of 27.8 in 2018, India is currently home to the youngest population in the world. By 2030, this age group young people will form 34 percent of the country's population. It might thus be important for political parties to focus, now more than ever, on who the future of the country would be and what they want.
Issues of soaring unemployment both urban and rural, gender pay gap and inequality as well as censorship of freedom of speech and expression are often some of the top issues cited by the youth. The reasons given by those in favour of withholding from exercising their right to vote may well hold the key to unlocking the reasons for youth discontent.