In 2009, the Election Commission of India (ECI) established the Systematic Voter’s Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) programme, aimed at engaging and educating voters due to gaps and stagnation in voter registration and voter turnout. The total voter turnout increased from 58.2% in 2009 to 66.4% in 2014, due to efforts like SVEEP and other political factors like wanting to change the political regime. As per Lokniti-CSDS studies, the youth vote, which grew from 58% in 2009 to 68% in 2014, was even higher than the average voter turnout. This also significantly impacted the defeat of the incumbent Congress and led to the BJP seizing the first single-party majority since 1984. However, the 2019 elections saw a stagnation in voter turnout of around 67.4%, despite a 9.3% growth in electorate size. The ECI identifies that the youth, especially those from urban areas, are less interested in the elections. This is a possible factor despite the marginal year-on-year increasing voter turnouts, thus becoming a rising concern that requires a collaborative effort.

Figure: Voter Turnout among youth and Others over the years
Figure: Voter Turnout among Youth and Others over the years (Source)

Multiple studies by organisations like the United Nations, IMF, and Institute for Public Policy Research identify a rising lack of trust in political institutions in the 21st century. The same has been alluded to in a report by a scholar from the Indian Statistical Institute, keeping a positive correlation between political trust and an increase in representation at the base of the argument. The corruption scandals, inadequate representation, and the belief that their vote cannot make much difference continue to alienate the youth who share this opinion.  Furthermore, even gerontocracy is seen as a driving factor in the disconnect of young voters with democratic institutions, with the average age of elected representatives in the 17th Lok Sabha being 56.7 years. The ECI has also recorded migration as a rising concern regarding lower voter turnouts. Around 35% of the Indian population are migrants, mostly internal. A significant share of this, the youth, are unable to vote as they reside in cities where they haven’t re-registered to vote, despite having provisions to do so. 

An Alternate View

There is more to the low youth voter turnout than just apathy. In the recently concluded Karnataka elections (2023), 18–19-year-olds had the lowest e-p (elector population) ratio, where only 36.7% registered themselves to vote. In fact, as age increased, the e-p ratio increased too, signifying a lesser coverage of the electorate within the youth population. In the 2019 General Elections, out of the total 90 crore voters, over 4.5 crore were eligible voters in the age group of 18–19 years, of whom less than a third actually voted. 

Figures like these therefore call for action for continuous new voter registrations among the youth, which includes creating awareness around the registration process and qualifying dates for enrollment (January 1, April 1, July 1, October 1). Furthermore, despite initiatives like advanced registration at the age of 17, the self-registration mode of enrollment has not been effective. Suhas Palshikar (co-director of the Lokniti programme) states that lack of motivation in the educational curriculum and lesser integration of the youth at the age of 18–19 in the political processes are possible deterrents to self-registration as voters.

Way forward

The Indian youth have been visible in political movements like the CAA protest, India Against Corruption Movement, Nirbhaya, etc. Many young leaders spearhead the election campaigns and have contributed to the reshaping of Indian politics. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the youth, in overall numbers, are participating more in politics and elections. Translating this power of the youth into the power of the vote requires a multi-pronged, targeted approach.

Figure: National Voters Day Logo 2023

The ELCs are the most direct way of reaching out to youth voters since they are constituted at the school and college levels. However, a recent study on Electoral Literacy Clubs (ELCs) in the Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala found that the ELCs have neither been universalised nor been able to achieve significant strides in accomplishing the vision with which they were formed. The clubs require recognition under the educational departments and more collaborations with other youth organisations such as NYKS (Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan), RGNIYD (Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development), NSS (National Service Scheme), and other youth NGOs, thereby providing an institutionalised structure and recognition to the clubs.  As mentioned, ICT apps like cVigil have not been able to achieve their objectives; prevalent platforms like Whatsapp and Instagram can instead be utilised to achieve deeper penetration within the youth. 

The recent decision of the ECI to introduce remote voting using the Multi-Constituency Remote Electronic Voting Machine (RVM)  has the potential to address the long-standing issue of migration. The youth voters and officials should be educated extensively to provide a voting experience similar to the existing process, and the ELCs can also be roped in with these efforts. Furthermore, boosting voter registration calls for actions to simplify the voting processes and ensure continuous enrollment processes in collaboration with ELCs in schools and colleges, which can also be of considerable value. However, the core of electoral education for youth lies in curriculum integration. Laws and rigorous consultations with the school administration, parents, and other stakeholders can prevent nonpartisan interests from misusing the curriculum for political interests. 

In conclusion, the recent steps taken to boost youth representation should be coupled with increasing youth participation in elections. The problem of youth voter apathy is multi-faceted and requires collaborative and multi-pronged approaches. The National Youth Policy 2014 underscored that there is little coordinated effort along these lines, and the ECI policies should ensure this coordinated effort across departments. As the Lok Sabha 2024 elections are underway, efforts should be made to build the trust of the youth in political institutions. Prioritising youth concerns about education, job opportunities, and socioeconomic well-being in political campaigns can help in this direction. With the 75th anniversary of the first Lok Sabha elections in India approaching, the participation of youth has evolved alongside the broader electorate, necessitating a nuanced approach to comprehend and adapt to these changes.

(This article was first published in Deccan Herald)

The authors are youth leadership fellows at CPPR

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

Gaurishankar S
Harsha Lal

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