There are many good reasons not to make the Ram Mandir a key electoral issue in 2019, but for India’s leading political parties, this could be the most compelling – the median Indian wasn’t yet born at the peak of the Ram Janmabhoomi mobilisation in 1991.
Likely to say that they are disinterested in politics, yet decisive in their vote choices, often believed to be liberal in their views but deeply conservative on the inside, concerned about employment but not necessarily voting for it – the millennial vote is a confounding one.
In the United States, the term “millennial” is used to describe the generational cohort that would come closest to those who were young voters in 2014. Pew Research Centre defines a millennial as someone born between the years 1981 and 1996. Millennials in the US hold more progressive views and are more likely to vote Democrat.
In 2015, the share of the voting “youth” (aged 20-34) in India’s population grew to 26%, its highest point since Independence. But while India remains a young country relative to the rest of the world, this was the peak – based on estimates from the United Nations Population Division, the share of 20-to-34-year-olds to the total population started falling since 2015 and will only keep falling for the rest of the 21st century.
Young voters and what they want
Not only did 2014 have a historic share of young people of voting age, they also showed up to vote in historic numbers. Analysing post-poll surveys for the last 15 years, Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, found that youth turnout exceeded the general turnout for the first time in 2014.
Taken together, how young people voted did matter in 2014. The Lokniti programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies conducted a nationally representative sample survey after the 2014 general election. They found that in 2014, first-time voters were the greatest supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party; twice as many 18-to-22-year-olds voted for the BJP as did for the Congress. This was a significant shift in 2014; in previous elections, young people had not expressed any clear preference for the BJP.
In 2014, the older the person, the more the support for the Congress (though relative preference for the BJP was strong at all age groups). Among the youngest voters, preference for “other” parties like the Aam Aadmi Party, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party was higher. The Left (and the Congress) was the other way around – support among younger people was lower than it was among older people.
But what do young people truly want out of politics and political parties?
In a 2017 survey of the aspirations of young people (age 15-34), the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in partnership with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung found that nearly half of the sampled youth had no interest in politics. However, most had fairly conservative views on hot button political issues – six out of 10 respondents supported banning movies that hurt religious sentiments, nearly half believed the consumption of beef should not be allowed, and half wanted to retain capital punishment.
Data from a series of household surveys conducted for the Lok Foundation/ Lok Foundation – Oxford University by the Centre for the Monitoring of the Indian Economy shows little difference in the weights younger and older people accord to the major issues that influence their voting choices. Younger voters are only slightly more disapproving of dynastic politicians, but are less disapproving of criminal politicians than older voters; they are as likely as older voters to want their local candidate to be from their own caste. When asked after the 2014 elections what the first priority of the new government should be, two issues were slightly more important to first-time voters (under the age of 20) than they were to older voters – protecting the interests of the Hindu community and increasing employment.
No issue affects young people as directly as the crisis of employment generation in India. By one estimate, open unemployment in India is at a 20-year high and is at 16% for the youth. However, it is neither clear that voters vote directly for public goods, nor that they punish parties that do not deliver the goods they seek.
What young voters do seem to demonstrate is impatience. In late 2015 and January 2016, when Lok Foundation asked respondents for their views on the country’s economic situation, first-time voters were most likely to complain that there had been no change, most likely to say that the government had been unsuccessful at creating employment, maintaining law and order, maintaining social harmony, protecting the borders and a range of other issues.
First-time voters are often reacting to the only political party they have been truly aware of – the incumbent. So while the youth vote is broadly with the BJP, in Gujarat’s 2017 Assembly election, for instance, the Congress polled far better among first-time voters than among older voters, said Yashwant Deshmukh, psephologist and chief editor of the polling agency CVoter.
What they think of the BJP
Young voters were enthusiastic supporters of the BJP and Narendra Modi in 2014. But now there appears to be greater disenchantment with the BJP among first-time voters than among older voters. Comparing its 2014 post-poll survey findings with a pre-2019 poll it did in May 2018, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies data shows that preference for the BJP grew slightly among voters as a whole, but fell among first-time voters alone. Between 2017 and 2018, support fell fastest among first-time voters.
Yet, all of this this does not translate immediately into the youth “abandoning” the BJP – preference for the BJP among first-time voters remains higher than the overall support for the party, and, conversely, support for the Congress grew far slower among first-time voters than it did among older voters.
The millennial vote could, again, remain the BJP’s for the taking. But it does not mean a ringing endorsement.