The deep black eyes behind the veiled face, at booth no 154 of Old Bhopal, shone with hope that December morning. Shaadma, a second year commerce student had been standing for half hour in the queue to cast her first vote. With every passing minute, her restlessness increased. Shepherding the family of four was her father, dressed in a kurta and Nehru jacket. The pace of the voting was slow as the sun started its gradual ascent. However, as soon as Shaadma’s father reached the counter, an argument started between him and the booth officer.
As had happened with many others, his name was missing from the list. The helpless officer suggested that he check the list in the one of the neighbouring booths. The agitated old man said he was done with the polling process and gestured his wife and two daughters to come out of the line, as he started heading for home. Except Shaadma, the two women meekly followed. She insisted that she would not go until she had registered her vote. “Tomorrow, everyone in my class will have the purple dot on their finger, I need that dot. My English professor had asked each of us to vote without fail, I cannot disappoint her,” she told her father. Some had come to vote for BJP, some for Congress, but all had come to vote for the indelible purple dot. In a year of political chaos and administrative drift, India fought back in Delhi and the heartland states which went to polls in the first week of December. The Angry Young Voter became the Face of the Year, seething with anger, upsetting political fortunes by turning out to cast ballots in record numbers. Who constitutes this new phenomenon that has stunned the establishment? Young, idealist, activist, wired, tech savvy, free-thinker, impatient, energetic, aggressive, alienated and angry— meet the new voters. Aged between 18 and 25, they are students, some employed, many unemployed, women and men, desperately in search of jobs and predominantly from middle class families.
The dominant issues that sent them in droves to booths were inflation, unemployment and women’s safety. Corruption by the ruling elite had been the theme of 2013, leading to massive protests in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities. Inability of the state to protect women was behind the anger that propelled large-scale participation of women voters everywhere.
Has such a link between protest votes and popular movements occurred in the past? Today’s anti-establishment fury is reminiscent of the 1974 Jayaprakash Narayan-led movement and the 1977 post-Emergency anti-Congress wave, when Indira Gandhi was ousted. Will 2014 be a repeat of 1977 is the ruling establishment’s nightmare.
Delhi’s AAP story
Voter apathy in Delhi was so low that barely 10 years ago, the turnout was 47 per cent. Prosperity had bred political apathy among the neo-privileged middle classes. On December 4 this year, 67 per cent of the capital’s citizens enthusiastically thronged the polling booths until nine at night, forcing the Election Commission to extend polling hours.
The ruling Congress was humiliated with eight seats compared to its previous 43. What motivated men and women, poor and prosperous, mainstream citizens, minorities and the marginalised to form a rainbow coalition of voters, connected via the social media, committed to collectively booting out the Sheila Dikshit-led government after 15 long years?
Are we witnessing the birth of affirmative die-hard democrats, who believe that to vote is their birthright, and to protest, their fundamental right? Youthful brigades of independent dissenters rushed into the streets during the Anna movement, transforming Jantar Mantar and Ram Lila Maidan into India’s Tahrir Square. This Indian version of the Arab Spring has culminated in December’s mutinous mandate.
Meanwhile, in Rajasthan, an unprecedented 75 per cent symbolised fierce anti-incumbency opinion against the Ashok Gehlot-led government. The BJP swept the polls, winning 163 seats out of 200. The Congress was reduced to 21 seats from 102 in 2008. Double anti-incumbency—anti-Central and anti-state government sentiments—a result of the powerful Modi wave sweeping across Western and Central India was the dominant reason. In 2003, Gehlot lost in Jaipur but the Congress won the Lok Sabha in 2004. A Sonia-led party was the national challenger, and popular with the voter. Today, the angry voter is alienated from the UPA government—the incumbent for a decade. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the turnouts were massive—72 per cent and 75 per cent respectively. In contrast with Rajasthan, both these BJP-led states witnessed an incumbency advantage, marking 15 years of Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s and Raman Singh’s rule. Youth empowerment ruled. Chouhan was propelled by the enthusiasm of 24 lakh first-time voters, among 1.65 crore young voters aged between18 and 29. It was a repeat story in Chhattisgarh. Since the BJP is perceived as the Congress party’s main challenger in 2014, the seething anger of the new, young voters in the heartland states ipso facto reflected a Narendra Modi wave. Senior BJP leader, Yashwant Sinha asserts: “Local factors are always important in Assembly elections, and the AAP phenomena in Delhi needs to be studied. But the new voter’s anger reflects more the effect of the Modi wave, which is clearly visible in each and every Assembly election that took place in December, including Delhi.”
First and fiercely free
In the middle class colony of Safdarjung Enclave in Delhi, there was electricity in the morning air. The electricity of decisiveness. There was much jocularity in the long line that snaked its way towards the polling booth in a local municipal school. Jostling was absent, it seemed as if a new generation was observing the discipline of democracy by treating franchise with gravity, and also some fun. Puns flew overhead, ‘Pehle AAP,’ and ‘Haath neeche karo’ (Bring the hand down) evoked laughter. The most determined to cast their franchise were young women, who determinedly searched for their names in the list. “I want to vote, and I am going to vote, so you better find my name fast,” said a young girl, dressed differently to Shaadma in a striped pullover and jeans. Her father peered over her shoulder at the list being examined by two officials. “Where’s my daughter’s name?” he asked. An official gestured helplessly at the crowd that had hemmed the table where the two sat. “I’m looking,” he said. “I’m a teacher. I want to vote too, but I’m stuck here.” The girl gave a little squeal as she pointed at the list. She had found her name and was ready to vote.
The grandchildren of Midnight’s Children are the new cohorts, dominated by first-time voters. Given 79 crore eligible voters in the country, 12 crore are non-partisan, fiercely free rookie voters who thronged polling booths across the country in the state elections.
The Census estimates are that 52 per cent population in India is below 35 years old. Thirty per cent are between 18 and 35. Their political opinion is what will help decide the outcome of 2014 Lok Sabha elections. With 80 Lok Sabha seats, Uttar Pradesh tops the charts with 2.3 crore first-timers, accounting for 18 per cent of the state’s electorate. Maharashtra comes next with one crore, or 13 per cent of the electorate. Bihar has 94 lakh and West Bengal 90 lakh.
Over 3.5 lakh young voters are first time voters in Delhi. In 2012 municipal elections, it was below one lakh. By 2014, the numbers are bound to swell. One lakh AAP campaigners in Delhi were young voters. A pre-poll survey by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) revealed that a quarter of them were active in the Anna Hazare movement. About 24 per cent attended protests against the December 2012 gang rape and 10 per cent participated in the Baba Ramdev-anti-black money agitation at Ram Lila Maidan. The survey estimates that among AAP voters, 37 per cent are aged between 18 and 25—the largest share of young voters. About 35 per cent first time voters voted for it, compared to 26 per cent for BJP and 20 per cent for Congress. Among 23 to 25 years, 38 per cent voted for AAP, 22 per cent for BJP and 23 per cent for Congress. Between 26 to 35 years, AAP scored one percentage point higher at 30 compared to 29 per cent for BJP and Congress. It is among older voters that AAP’s margin is less than that of the two parties.
The new voters care about popular issues but their class background is, ironically, elitist. They have grown up in the age of malls, multiplexes, SUVs and in condominiums when the country was clocking almost double-digit growth. But the abrupt downturn has led to a sense of deprivation. Voters are furious and frustrated at the corruption by the political elite. Almost 60 per cent of AAP voters are from upper and middle classes, 40 per cent from lower classes and poor according to survey reports. For Congress, only 40 per cent came from upper and middle classes and 60 per cent from lower classes and poor. BJP’s voter profile is even more privileged; over 67 per cent are from the upper and middle classes, and 33 per cent from the lower classes and the poor.
Brave New World
The CSDS survey shows that inflation, corruption, unemployment and safety of women are recorded as important by an overwhelming percentage of voters (67% to 96%). The high cost of education with spiralling fees and unavailability of jobs worry them. Women’s’ safety is a serious concern. About 59 per cent women feel unsafe in Delhi. Over two-thirds of women surveyed feel their safety in the state has decreased in last five years. 96 per cent voters feel that inflation has increased, and 93 per cent say corruption has gone up. About two-thirds complain employment is dwindling. They are the ones—as revealed in the AAP effort—who demanded local manifestoes and protest high prices of water and electricity. They conduct surveys of parties and hold democratic organisational elections at all levels. By campaigning creatively, using RTI to prise open the loopholes of the system, young voters have torn asunder the clichés of “youthful cynicism” and “voter apathy.” By mobilising one and all regardless of identities, they have cracked open the certitudes of captive vote banks. By relying on transparent election funding they have demolished the template of traditional politics. The brave new voter (BNV) is often a social media campaigner, a community activist, a panchayat pollster, or simply a SMS savvy college student. The BNV is also an NGO activist, feminist, a start-up entrepreneur, a corporate employee, a creative artist or an ex-government employee. Such voters bring hope to the horizon signalling the birth of a new political culture.
BJP leaders admit the Anna-led movement’s influence on the political culture of the country: Sudhanshu Trivedi, National Spokesperson and Political Advisor to the BJP President says: “AAP’s success has changed the urban political culture. In villages, where poverty and hunger are still major concerns and corruption may be a less important issue. But in cities it has acquired prime importance due to Anna-led protests.”
The new generation voters have rejected the Maoist battle of bullets for a new JP-esque battle of ballots. In place of violent class revolution, the new voter has adopted peaceful strategy of satyagraha, by fasting and voting vigorously. Will this revolution of ideas transform into a political uprising via the ballot as the country witnessed in 1977? Today’s campaign slogans reveal the voter’s audacity: “Takht badal do, Taj badal do, beimanon ka Raj badal do.” (Change the throne, change the crown, throw out the rule of the venal). It echoes the voice of student protesters during the Nav Nirman Gujarat and Bihar movements in 1974. Chattra Sangharsh Vahini activists, the vanguard of the JP movement, were the forebears of today’s BNVs.
Former Bihar deputy CM Sushil Modi—once a student activist in the JP movement—acknowledges the strong parallel between 1974 and today. However, he suggests such issue-based movements are limited: “It is difficult to sustain such movements beyond a few years. Even after the Janata Party was formed in 1977, and got power, it did not last beyond two-and-a-half years. I feel the contemporary protest movement will be very difficult to sustain.”
Today’s movements also resonate the V P Singh-led mass democratic uprisings against the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government in 1989. The issues were the same: scandals, scams and the venality of the incumbent government.
The Critical Factor
The anti-graft movements might have been short-lived but their electoral outcomes proved critical in 1977 and 1989, when Congress was unseated by above 60 per cent turnouts. Ditto in 1998. Termed “critical” elections by psephologists, these key elections have two features: high turnouts due to mobilisation of young protest voters and regime change. Critical LS polls, with an exception in 1984, are associated with resolute rejection of the Congress from power.
BNVs are similar to the protest voters of the elections of 1977, 1989 and 1998. Since the first general election in 1952, India has witnessed 15 national polls. Five of those—1967, 1977, 1984, 1989 and 1998—are considered critical for two reasons: each had turnouts above 60 per cent and in 1977, 1989 and 1998, the Congress was trounced. The turnouts in the other 10 elections ranged from 46 per cent to below 60 per cent. The Congress won eight. There seems to be a direct association between critical elections and a Congress wipeout. In recent years, voting percentages have increased dramatically in state polls but have remained stagnant nationally. The 1984 election was an exception, with the highest turnout of 64 per cent largely because of the sympathy wave generated by Indira Gandhi’s killing. Other than that, data says that Congress wins whenever the turnout is below 60 per cent. The big question: Will 2014 be dictated by young voters in a ‘critical’ election, given widespread popular anger?
In 1977 and 1989, when JP and VP Singh united protest voters, cross currents existed. The Left, allied with Janata Party differed with Jan Sangh in 1977. Mandal crossed Mandir in 1989. 1998 was an exception—Vajpayee gave mutinous voters a new direction and NDA held power for six years.
In each state at different points of time, such venting of collective ire has been given a form by different leaders, such as Andhra’s Telugu Desam Party founder N T Rama Rao in 1983; the Communists in Kerala in 1958 and in West Bengal in 1977 and by the Asom Gana Parishad in 1985. In the south, the combination of popular movements and anti-incumbent mandates birthed parties such as DMK and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and TRS in Andhra Pradesh. Today, the protest voters, venting ire against incumbents are standing at political crossroads. Different prime ministerial aspirants are courting them. The frontrunner is Narendra Modi, the first to enter the race who has stayed on track helped by personal magnetism and relentless campaigning power. Challenged directly by young voters, Modi’s popularity and national ambitions of regional leaders, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is attempting course correction promising increased economic reform and cleaner politics.
Some of these PM aspirants may stir up cross currents to churn electoral tides in choppy waters. Success will depend on who can establish a direct connect with new generation of voters and on the ability to shape political negotiations. Political success is the science of dealing with the game of numbers as well as the art of astute leadership. The art of wooing the new voter is the key to the door of 2014.