India’s powerful young voters hold key to nation’s future



What do India’s youth want from their politicians? Clean water, universal health care, women’s safety, food for all, better education, less corruption, better roads, more investment and above all, more jobs.

In short, they want it all, and they want it fast.

As India begins its weekslong election process Monday, the enormous population of ambitious, tech-savvy and politically engaged youths has great potential to sway the outcome. More than 378 million of India’s 814 million eligible voters are between the ages of 18 and 35, according to census records.

And while the youth vote is a diverse and unpredictable bloc in a country of 1.2 billion people, India’s young voters have a world view that in many ways is strikingly different to their parents’ and grandparents’. They have grown up in a time of enormous international opportunity, technological innovation and high-speed economic growth.

“Our parents believed you can be happy only with financial security,” said Sushant Bangru, a 21-year-old biology major at the Indian Institute of Sciences in Bangalore. “But we know that passion and knowledge is above money. It’s about doing what you love to do.”

Nowhere is the power of India’s youth more clear than amid the bright cafes and technology companies of Bangalore, seen as the economy’s beating heart and brain trust. With 63 percent of its population under 25, Bangalore is one of India’s youngest cities.

Interviews with young adults in Bangalore suggest that the most pressing priorities are financial: more jobs and better economic opportunities.

India’s once red-hot economic growth has slowed in recent years, after a decade under a coalition led by the Congress party. With many worried about finding work, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has homed in on that weak spot, presenting itself as a purely capitalist, pro-business party. Congress — led mostly by the Nehru-Gandhi family since the country’s socialist beginnings in 1947 — is considered more of a welfare party, mixing capitalist reforms with handouts for the poor.

The main national parties in the running are heavily courting young voters, launching social media campaigns and introducing new candidates from outside traditional political circles. Rank-and-file members of the BJP are up in arms over the party replacing party stalwarts with dozens of untested candidates.

Congress party leaders have reportedly quarreled over letting younger members take more control, even as 43-year-old Gandhi family heir Rahul emerges as the most likely prime ministerial candidate. Despite his youth and dimples, Rahul Gandhi is seen as having failed to connect with many young Indians, instead appearing privileged, aloof and out of touch with everyday Indians.

The upstart Aam Aadmi Party — or Common Man’s Party — has drawn in droves of students and other young voters attracted to party leader Arvind Kejriwal’s outsider status and his anti-corruption platform.

Anxious to pursue their dreams, young people are particularly concerned with India’s ability to add jobs. The country added fewer than 3 million jobs between 2005 and 2010, far below the 1 million needed each month to keep up with student matriculation and Indians’ growing ambitions.

India’s first-time voters came of age in an era of economic reforms that eased socialist-leaning policies and allowed more imports and foreign investment. Annual per capita income nearly tripled between 2002 and 2010, while India moved from a country mostly concerned with securing food and shelter to one in which priorities are jobs, electricity and infrastructure.

But the riches have rolled out unevenly, creating a conspicuous wealth gap that has fueled frustrations by putting lavish lifestyles in close proximity with the 400 million Indians — a quarter of the country’s population — living in poverty at under $1.25 a day.

Those gaps are even more visible and public with the technology explosion. Twenty years ago, people had access to only a single state-run TV channel, and most had no telephone. Today, there are more than 200 TV channels — some 40 devoted to news alone — and 3 in 4 Indians have a cellphone.

“We have no toilets in my home village, but everybody has a smartphone, and we all check every day for what’s happening in the campaign,” said 22-year-old Hanamanthray Biradar in the southern state of Karnataka, where Bangalore is located.

The massive election will be held over nine days in April and May. The vote is geographically staggered to give police and paramilitary forces time to move around. Whether or not the youth vote swings the result, analysts agree their participation has turned the political scene on its head.

The engagement of India’s youth in politics reached a pinnacle three years ago as they joined urban middle-class protesters marching against corruption. Their demands for honest governance and an independent anti-corruption watchdog led to anti-graft legislation and the formation of the AAP, which has become the third-biggest national party.

The AAP delivered a stunning upset in Delhi’s December regional election, catapulting Kejriwal to national renown and a 49-day stint as Delhi’s chief minister. He quit the post, saying the entrenched political system prevented him from enacting real reforms. Instead, he said his scrappy party would focus on national elections and on denouncing deep graft in Congress and BJP.

Some voters say they are disillusioned by politics and unhappy with the candidates but plan to cast their ballots nonetheless, voting for a new choice: “none of the above.”