Possibly for the first time, young people across divides are engaging with the political process, from voting to campaigning to governing.
Deepa Kumar, who founded GrassRoute India nine months ago, is 23. Dhruv Sarin, founder of KnowYourVote.org, is also 23. Ankur Garg and Tarun Jain, 31 and 28, founded iForIndia.org seven months ago. Operation Black Dot was founded last year by a group of under-25s, Youth ki Awaaz in 2008 by Anshul Tewari, 24, and VoteRite last year by Vikram Nalagampally, 34. And these are only a few of the organisations, websites and social media groups that have sprung up recently to engage India’s young more intimately with the process of politics.
Possibly for the first time in six decades, we are seeing a concentrated effort to engage India’s political consciousness. This is not a movement that highlights one caste’s grievances or fights for one tribe’s rights. It is something bigger — it is an attempt to kick average Indians out of their characteristic indifference towards how they are governed. And the highlight of this movement is that the young are leading from the front.
Yes, 2014 will see the largest number of first-time voters. Yes, social media is playing a huge role. But this is not what the change is about; not the significant change at any rate. That is happening quietly on another plane, where politics is no longer a bad word and where the educated young are willing to commit their time and passion.
Let’s back-track a bit, and look at definition. It has traditionally been difficult to gather India’s youth under one umbrella. Demographically, they fall in the 13-35 age bracket, which is in itself a vast and amorphous grouping; add to this the complex divisions of caste, class, rural, urban, gender, region, and you see how difficult it is to classify them as one homogenous segment with similar problems or aspirations. They have traditionally swum in the wake of mainstream politics, with no individual voice. Culturally, too, India venerates the old, with the young not expected to have a say. All this makes it easy to be ignored by the political system.
What has changed then? Why are we suddenly talking of youth? Could it be a fashion statement, to prove that India too can have an Arab Spring? But, no, something is stirring indeed. You can ignore research reports and media pundits but when our politicians sit up and take notice, you can be darned sure something’s afoot. Here are just three quirky indicators. First, political parties are hiring vast number of students as interns to track the country’s pulse and as volunteers to run social media campaigns. Second, when Youth Ki Awaaz started a movement urging political parties to crowd-source their manifestos, all parties immediately agreed. Unmanifesto’s first draft was released on March 28 to a multi-party panel. Finally, in a symbolic episode, a young segment in Goa forced the Congress to withdraw its first choice of candidate for south Goa, the 60-plus Francisco Sardinha, in favour of 43-year-old Reginaldo Laurenco.
These are not isolated incidents, but part of a larger trend that is finally seeing the young take a stand. And that’s what is new this time. Young people across divides are engaging with the political process from voting to campaigning to governing. They are asking questions, demanding change, wanting accountability. They chat with candidates on Twitter and Google Hangout via GrassRoute. They get voter cards from kiosks in Hard Rock Café, set up by Operation Black Dot. They rate MPs and MLAs on performance parameters on iForIndia. They research candidates, promote them, and talk to them on VoteRite.
In the Delhi elections, 1,600-odd participants logged on to VoteRite and reached out to over 78,000 voters in 15 days. “We hope to have five to six times that impact in this election,” says Nalagampally, “in at least 170 constituencies.” Says GrassRoute’s Deepa Kumar: “Social media barrages you with political news, you can’t escape it. This has forced the young to first get interested; then get involved. This election could be a turning point.”
However, with Net penetration in India at roughly 13 per cent, there is scepticism about how online action translates on ground. Nalagampally talks of the 1:3 impact — one online user influences three others, considerably increasing impact. “For the first time we are seeing a three-way contest. Results are going to be decided by very narrow margins. This means that if even five per cent of an electorate is swung by online campaigns, it could make a significant difference.”
“Even if half this 13 per cent participates actively, that’s roughly 76 million people. That will definitely play a role,” says Anshul Tewari of Youth ki Awaaz, whose site gets 1.3 million readers a month. “We make content go viral,” he says, “Traditional media comes with its inherent biases, but it is no longer the primary source of information. I get 80 per cent of my news from FB and Twitter.” But is this confined to the English-speaking, urban youth? No, says Tewari, “statistics show that the online Hindi version of Dainik Jagran has among the highest hits of all media sites”.
On the flip side, Sanjay Kumar, director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says: “Over the last five elections, young voter turnout has been 4-5 per cent lower than other ages; this was true even in the recent New Delhi polls.” Thus, most of these groups are pushing the young to get out and vote, encouraging them with know-your-candidate campaigns, issue-based discussions, and forums to ask questions.
Political parties are sitting up. “This year, parties are spending crores on building social media brands,” says Tewari. Observers comment that the Aam Aadmi Party has been the most innovative and proactive online. For instance, it’s the first party with an open manifesto. The BJP is a close second but the Congress still trails. The RSS’s online recruitment drive last year saw membership applications rising from around 686 per month in 2012 to over 4,000 in 2013. But, says youth activist Siddharthya Roy, real change is missing. “Politicians below 40 are just sons or nephews of MPs.” This could be giving way, says independent Goan MLA Vijai Sardesai: “The Congress has always fielded the same five families in Goa. More decisions like the one to field the untried Laurenco could change its reputation.”
India’s urban young being involved in politics is not in itself very new. The 1977 Janata wave and the 1989 VP Singh wave saw disproportionately high numbers of urban youth participating. Except for such spikes, the criticism has been that young India’s political involvement has always been behavioural (moved by power, money or status) rather than ideological. There is some anticipation that this year might see anti-corruption emerge as a game-changer, an expectation stoked by the massive protests we saw recently, but whether it will translate into a wave is unclear. What is clear is that as far as the young are concerned, they are making sure this election is about good governance and accountability. It is not a bad credo to start with.