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Dr. Kaustubh Deka
Date of Publish: 2016-01-29

Speculations on the constituency of the Youth

As Assam goes to the polls in the coming months, one question has been doing rounds in the realm of political speculation: will the ‘young vote’ and the ‘constituency of the youth’ play a critical and potentially decisive role in the electoral verdict? There is indeed some statistical credence to this conjecture. According to reports first time voters and young voters will form a sizeable section of the votes in the upcoming state polls in Assam.  The figure of first time voters is reported at a critical level of 6.5 lakhs (3.5% of total electorates), the number of voters below the age of 25 at 32 lakhs (16% of the total electorate) and the average distribution of ‘young’ voters per constituency being above 25,000. It has been argued that this change in demographics presents a vital opportunity for the political system as the new electorate is expected to bring an infusion of positive energy in terms of the yearning for change and development that the youth as a group is seen to strive for. Besides this “youth bulge,” potentially reflects the peak of India’s ‘demographic dividend’, as fertility declines and India’s population begins to age. 1 Interesting is to observe that according to the population projection 2001-2026 released by the National Commission on Population the average median projected age of the population of India in 2026 will be 31.39. The same average for the States in Northeast India (excluding Assam) is 33.59 and for Assam it is 30.80. With this backdrop of possibilities and speculations, it is most pertinent to address the crucial question, how do the youth of Assam and Northeast India in general look at the phenomena of elections? Is there a youth vote in Northeast India? Or more crucially in the case of the North East Region (NER) does youth vote constitute the crucial pulse of democracy? One has to keep in mind that regionalism and much of political change has historically emerged in the Northeast through the paths paved by student-youth movements.

Interrogating ‘Youth activism’:

While we are witnessing the centenary celebration of student activism in Assam it is a right time also to reflect on the complex trends emerging in the domain of students and youth activisms in the region. Elections have historically played the role of revitalizing peoples faith in democracy at times and that of alienating some sections further from it at other times. As the assembly election is fast approaching in the system the political tempo is rising with new alliances being forged and older ones being dumped.  A handful of ‘student leaders’ are seen joining the fray of electoral politics formally in this period. It becomes interesting at this point to critically look at the ways young persons in our educational spaces looks at our political system, to understand their dreams, their anxieties. What are the factors that influence their choices, is she a rebel seeking change or a conformist compromising on choices available?

A study to access the nature of aspirations and anxieties in University campuses

With such questions in mind a study was conducted with a research grant from the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy across seven university campuses in northeast India compiling interviews with seven hundred university students as well as prominent students and youth organisations active in these spaces. ( for full details on the nature of the sample and survey please visit the link :http://www.thehinducentre.com/publications/policy-report/article8029081.ece). The extensive survey attempted to understand how the youth in India’s northeast looks at the electoral process specifically and the prevalent political system in general? The findings and indicators are expected to provide valuable insights to further policy prescriptions on the region and to emphasise the importance of adopting a youth-centric approach to public policy formulation.

The study primarily approached the question of attitude of the youth in the NER towards the electoral process based on few key behavioural indicators as well as co-relations between these indicators. Based on the survey conducted containing a set of 35 questions the following broader inquiry themes were interrogated:

  1. How many youth who votes have taken part in different protest actions and thinks that their vote has real effect ?
  2.  What are the co-relations if any, between the voting behavior of the youth vis-a-vis  their socio-political background (membership in political party, student group, membership of family member in political party etc) as well as their socio-economic background (income level, locality, life style choices etc.) ?
  3. What are the co-relations if any of the voting behavior of the youth vis-a-vis their sense of identity and notion of northeast in the political system in order to understand if participation in election or the lack of it is influenced by one’s sense of identity and perception on the political system?

A scenario of paradox : Resistance cum participation

The analysis of the data provides us some interesting insights about the place of the youth in the discourse of social change. Some of the broad trends that can be discerned are as follows:

Based on the data analysis few broad trends that can be discerned are as follows:

  • There exists both a sense of dissatisfaction as well as a sense of engagement with the political system amongst the youth of the NER. A big majority of youth, around 64%, has some experience of participating in some social protests/movements. At the same time, 66.6% of the youth recorded their decision to vote in the general elections and a significant majority of 57.3% of the interviewed youth in the NER claims to have been voting regularly.
  • When it comes to the electoral phenomena, the overall image and expectations out of it is low, yet the degree of participation is high. Amongst many the image of the elections as forums of violence, corruption and manipulations tops (39.6 %), but yet the majority seems to believe at the same breath that their vote do impact the state of affairs (51%).
  • The higher the income level background the lesser the regular voting percentage is amongst the youth. At the same time the opinion at favouring youth involvement with electoral politics, in terms of contesting for elections is an overwhelming yes at over 90%.
  • The youth in the NER seems to be influenced by the opinions of family members and elders the most while making electoral choices, while among the media sources traditional media like TV and news paper remains the bigger influence, though new media like social media forums and internet based information media is catching up fast.
  • The awareness level amongst the youth about youth policy implications and policy information relating to youth and electoral education is found rather low indicating poor policy programme outreach. Compared to the policy information, the information of the youth on local political apparatus is better and even the interaction is better. Though the satisfaction level after meeting the political representatives is on the lower side.
  • Out of the priority issue that the youth of the NER wants focused in election 2014, the issue of the development of their region gets the top most priority with additional priority sought on issues of infrastructure and healthcare. However politically contentious issues like the ‘illegal immigration’ problem and anti-corruption thrust also comes within the top five of the youth’s priority.
  • Men and women are voting and participating in the political process almost in the same numbers, but through different influences and expectations. Women are significantly more influenced by ‘family members’ while exercising electoral choices and has far lesser avenues to ‘other factors’ while making their choice.
  • More youth wouldn’t mind settling outside the region for better carrier prospects (74%), and contrary to the dominant image more youth put the national identity over the state/regional one (45%).

A complex picture

As the findings of this research caution us the young voter shares multiple identities of class, region, community besides gender and age, the need is to view youth as a demographic category differentiated on the basis of their socio-economic and ‘political’ location in the society and the polity rather than being a homogenous category. But there are indications of some change. Moreover, in situations like that of Northeast India where a history of Youth activism has been putting the Youths in the political arena as agents of change, the opinion and attitude of the Youth towards the phenomenon of election is extremely crucial. The issue is one of substantive democracy, where rather than assuring a mere participation of the larger number, one needs to also ensure that the ethos of the democratic ideals is met too in terms of all round development. In this connection, it would be crucial not only to mitigate protests and enhance participation of the Youth but to also harness the spirit of that participation. As suggested by the findings of this research the acts of protests by the youth have to be understood by placing it alongside the equally zestful participation.  An ordinary university student in a university campus in the Northeast India is neither a rebel nor a conformist, but perhaps she is both. However in the last two decades or so, the growing sway of a globalised worldview on the region’s youths/students is fairly discernible. Like in the case of most of India, the last two decades have transformed the NER in ways incomprehensible to a previous generation. Consequently alongside the long standing narrative of neglect an emerging narrative of participation is felt too in the region. Politics now has to make space for the emergent aspirations and ambitions of its participants; it has also evolved into a platform for voicing the grievances, frustrations and demands of the lots whose regional-local reality falls far below their ‘globalised’ aspirations. The manifesto of different political parties needs to understand the relationship between the activism in the streets, in campuses and the politics in the realm of legislations. By tracing the full arc of contentious politics from direct action and protest in the streets to political manoeuvres within the halls of government, we will gain a much clearer view of political participation and the political process more broadly. But are the political parties willing and ready for such manifestos?

Dr. Kaustubh Deka

(Dr. Kaustubh Deka teaches Political Science at the Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University and is a former fellow with the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai)

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