Political parties, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Aam Aadmi Party, have been seeking to make a vote bank out of these young people, each claiming to be the best representative of their aspirations. Pollsters have declared that this group will be the main source of energy for the Modi wave.
At the most important level, these new voters are extremely significant: half of all India’s 762 million voters are younger than 35 and about 149 million are exercising their franchise for the first time.
Scroll.in’s interactions with dozens of young voters across the Hindi Belt make one thing clear: these new voters are by no means a political monolith, so it would be dangerous to make generalisations about what Young India wants. But it seems clear that that their aspirations are fragmented on caste lines, just like those of their elders.
In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, for instance, the young people who were the most emphatic supporters of Modi belonged primarily to the upper castes. Among them was 20-year-old Akash Singh, a student of UP College in Varanasi. “I have no faith in politicians because they would never deliver you what they promise,” he said. “But Narendra Modi appears different. He has already delivered in Gujarat what he is promising to the nation now.”
However, the appeal of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate starts diminishing as you move down the caste ladder. “My caste is such that even if I vote for the BJP candidate he will never believe I did,” said 22-year-old Surendra Prasad, a Jatav by caste and a resident of Kheoli village in Varanasi constituency. “Why shouldn’t I support [Bahujan Samaj Party leader] Mayawati? Isn’t she one among us? What is the point in supporting Modi?”
It’s clear that in the Cow Belt, identity politics continues to influence the political behavior of groups that are classified as socially backward. “Modi? Why Modi? I am with SP,” was the terse response of Rakesh Yadav, a resident of Ghosi constituency in Uttar Pradesh who is eager to vote for first time on May 12, when the polling takes place in Ghosi along with several other constituencies in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
What is true, though, is that many of the new voters – especially the educated ones – look upon politics less as a matter of ancestral allegiance and more of a personal choice. In normal circumstances, they would even like to break away from the traditional political framework. But in an election marked by an apparent revival of aggression by the members of upper castes, it is only natural that those belonging to the weaker sections would fall back on traditional politics. It would be naïve to imagine that the new voters do not live in a society divided by caste and creed.
In rural areas and in small towns, where people from lower strata have to deal everyday with the challenges created by caste-based social structures, hardly anyone – not even new voters – seems inclined to depart from traditional voting behavior. In certain areas, where voters belonging to lower castes do not even feel emboldened enough to talk openly about their political preferences, they often try not to say anything that would antagonise the locally dominant sections. If they do speak out, chances are that they are saying the opposite of what they think.
Take the case of 20-year-old Keshav Rishidev, who belongs to the Musahar scheduled caste and lives in Dhurgaon village in Bihar’s Madhepura constituency. For a long while as this reporter tried to talk to him about his political preferences, Rishidev remained silent – apparently because villagers from the dominant sections were present. Only an hour later, when no one else was in hearing distance, did he muster up the courage to reveal a bit of his mind: “God knows who will win, but I will vote for the one who takes care of us.”
Rishidev is not an exception. Such cases are numerous both in UP and Bihar, particularly in villages. Even in small towns, where weaker sections depend largely for their survival on dominant social groups, pressures of various kinds often leads people from the lower strata – including new voters – to keep their mouths shut. The silence, however, does not indicate that traditional political loyalties have vanished. If anything, it only underlines their profound presence.
In big cities, where caste lines are being blurred, a significant section of youth – again mostly from upper castes – appear so impressed by Modi’s campaign and his talking points of development, employment and inflation that they are ready to shun traditional politics. But many of them are also drawn to the AAP. So far as these sections are concerned, Arvind Kejriwal is almost as big an attraction as Modi himself.
None of these traits of the so-called new voters is unique. Nor is the logic that guides them novel. It existed in 2009 and is likely to move voters in 2019 too. Society has to change radically for the logic of traditional political choices to vanish from the Hindi Belt.
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