A group of young people greater than the population of Germany will vote for the first time in India’s 17 Lok Sabha elections. LSE PhD student Tom Wilkinson explains why this segment of the Indian electorate has become such an important demographic during this year’s election campaign.

The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) launched a rap video for first-time voters a few weeks ago to kickstart India’s marathon election. In the video, five hipsters from across India wearing luminous urban wear danced out their passion for Modi’s policies, rapping the chorus: ‘My first vote to the one, one and only one who has got everything done’. The ‘one’ in this case being rapped about is Prime Minster Narendra Modi.

Eighty-five million Indian youths are preparing to vote for the first time. This segment of Indian society has become a key swing constituency in the 2019 election. Political parties across India are using social media platforms to capture the next generation of voters. And in the land of cheap data and mass smartphone ownership, the parties have a phenomenal reach and unprecedented opportunities to win over the youth vote. Rap videos, hashtags and memes aiming to galvanise youths are being circulated on WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages across the country. The party machines are unleashing a minefield of “gotcha moments” on social media platforms.

The clickbait generation

These first-timers are the clickbait generation. Technology has changed the way young citizens participate in democratic India. Newspaper culture has weakened. Information (and misinformation) are instead consumed on the internet. Call them clickbaitizations children. Their parents became liberalisations children after India opened its economy in 1991. Their grandparents, known as midnight’s children, secured India’s transition from democracy after the clock struck twelve on 15 August 1947. This current generation will chart the future of the Republic of India but, the question begs, to what end?

The BJP has boasted widespread popularity amongst the youth in India. The party decisively won over young people in 2014 elections and for many still the prime minister is an Indian youth icon (even more so than India’s Bollywood celebrities and cricketing demigods and cult gurus). Few would argue that the leader of the opposition party, Congress President, Rahul Gandhi, has stirred the youth of India in a similar way. First-time voters are far from impervious to the wider currents of political opinion.

Other young people might be turned off by the excesses of the BJP’s Hindu-nationalism rhetoric or uninspired by the national-level politics in general, “they do not wish to participate when they hear about mob lynchings and when they hear about that young girls being subject to various heinous crimes. They shudder… They don’t want to participate in that type of India,” Yogendra Yadav once explained to me. There has, however, been a flourishing of regional-specific youth mobilisation outside of the cow-belt of northern India and there is a good chance that these Generation Z Voters in the periphery could tip the power balance against the BJP.

In this election, pundits fear a great many first-time voters might in fact not cast their ballots, or cross the NOTA (none of the above) option. Fearing this group’s estrangement from the political process, MTV and McDonalds India have been cajoled into launching political campaigns to urge India’s first timers to vote. If you want a Veg Maharaja Mac then make it happen or you could end up with a McSpicy Chicken, so their argument goes.

Issues for first-time voters

First-time voter issues have been the talk of the campaign trail, especially unemployment and underemployment amongst young people. Polling reveals this is the salient issue for this constituency. However, nationalism has increasingly dominated the agenda since the brutal attack on the army convoy in Pulwama and the subsequent attack on Pakistan. “I want to ask my first-time voters, will your first vote be dedicated to the soldiers who carried out the Balakot air strikes? Will your first vote be in the name of the brave martyrs who lost their lives in Pulwama?” Prime minister Narendra Modi asked last week. This Indian hyper-nationalism is oriented towards youth and appeals to a whole section of first-time voters.

Underlying these political upheavals is the economic turbulence that a great many first-time voters have been on the receiving end. Unable to find work, without access to basic services such as clean water and housing, they find the promise of globalisation empty. There is widespread disaffection amongst the Indian youth. Every hour one student commits suicide in India. A great many spend their time simply “hanging out” at crossroads and tea stands. Often degree-holding youths join the world economy as uberdrivers or cafe workers. Professor Craig Jeffrey has highlighted how lower-middle-class college students once convinced they could secure a decent job, but now disillusioned by unemployment, spend their time “just waiting”. Endorsing populism or nationalism at the ballot box in response to the economic upheaval is, it is fair to say, a trending response across the globe.

Over half of India’s 1.2 billion citizens is under twenty-five. This burgeoning population could thrust India to superpower status, or it could fester into a disaffected class of youths. As the 2014 UN State of World Population report stated: “Never before have there been so many young people. Never again is there likely to be such potential for economic and social progress.” It added, “How we meet the needs and aspirations of young people will define our common future.” Over the next five weeks, the youth vote will play a vital role in determining who governs the largest democracy in the world and what kind of democracy it will be. Whether or not there is a correlation between so called “progressive” or “populist” attitudes and age in the Indian context will only be understood on result days.

Casting a ballot paper for the first time is a rite of passage in any democracy. Voting is perhaps the most important civic opportunity won by the freedom struggle. And this time around, a group of youths greater than the population of Germany will vote for the first time.  They are about to play their part in the biggest festival of democracy the world has ever seen.

Editor’s Note: This blog was first published on South Asia @ LSE