For long, India’s political parties and their leaders searched for the elusive youth vote without success. Young Indians were less likely to turnout at the polling booths, and they were no more likely to favour one political formation over the other. Political analysts thus concluded that age is not a dividing line in Indian politics. More than age, caste, class, region and religion shape how young Indians engage in the electoral arena, the conventional wisdom held. This changed with the arrival of Narendra Modi on the political centre stage.
In 2014, the turnout among the younger voters (18-25 years) was higher than the overall turnout and this segment overwhelmingly voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), post-poll surveys suggest. The data from 2019 elections indicates a similar trend.
As the median age of the Indian voter falls in the coming years, the importance of the youth vote will only increase. Data from the YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial survey suggests the age divide in political views is sharpening, with the post-millennial generation (aged 23 years or below) appearing to chart a different path compared to older age-groups.
The survey showed that post-millennials or the GenZ were most critical of government action on some of the contentious issues – such as the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAA) and the abrogation of Article 370 – that have polarized Indian society and led to protests and judicial challenges over the past year.
This trend holds across different geographies—young respondents from Tier II and Tier III towns and cities are closer in their opinions to young peers from the metros than to older people around them. The analysis shows that age may be acquiring a new salience in politics.
The YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey was conducted online between 12 March and 2 April across 184 towns and cities. The survey covered a sample of 10,005 respondents of which 4,957 were millennials, 2,983 post-millennials and 2,065 pre-millennials. Millennials refer to those who were born between 1981 and 1996. Those born after 1996 (aged 23 years or below) are referred to as the post-millennials or Gen Z. The rest (40 years and above) have been classified as pre-millennials.
Arguably, opinions about topical events could be considered fleeting and ill-suited to signal long term implications. The age-wise differences in responses are however not just limited to current events. On the question of party identification as well, the youngest cohort of voters is least likely to identify with any party. This appears counterintuitive when one recalls the wave of youth support that catapulted the BJP to power in 2014 and 2019 elections. The voting patterns from the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll surveys shows that first-time voters are far more likely to vote for the BJP than any other party.
In our view, the declining enthusiasm about the BJP’s ideological agenda may not result in immediate and dramatic changes in voting patterns. But it opens up a new cleavage in India’s polity, with different age-cohorts holding distinct political beliefs and opinions. This change is pregnant with many possibilities, and could pose a challenge to BJP’s electoral dominance over the medium-run.
What explains the recent divergence in political opinions across age-groups? Two related factors may be driving this change. First is the ever-increasing reach of digital and social media. Estimates from a 2019 report by Kantar, a data consulting firm, suggest that half of the Indian population will have access to the internet in the next few months. Two-thirds of these users are below the age of 30. The country also has the highest data usage per smartphone per month globally, according to a June report by the telecom giant Ericsson.
The Lokniti-CSDS data presented in the accompanying chart suggests that young Indians are the most avid users of various social media platforms. Taken together with 24×7 media, this means a never-ending news cycle for voters. The impact of the digital news explosion is likely to be felt more by a young audience that has not yet committed firmly to any particular political party or ideology, and has little memory of previous governments. The current controversy over Facebook action on hate posts signals a growing recognition of the influence digital mediums wield, in shaping political discourse in the country.
The second catalyst of the age divide is the growing assertiveness of the youth. We find that GenZ is most likely to report discriminatory experiences they might have faced due to various identity markers such as caste, religion, region, language and class. This doesn’t imply an increase in discriminatory practices, but rather a greater self-confidence that recognises such practices and doesn’t condone them.
The same assertiveness is visible in political actions. Gen Z is more active in online campaigns and protests than any other age group. This assertiveness suggests that the youngest age group is searching for a distinct political vision that is different from what older generations subscribed to. The surge in joblessness and anxieties in the post-pandemic world may only accentuate the generational divide.
If the age cleavage in Indian politics sharpens further, younger Indians could increasingly make entirely different choices than their older counterparts: in politics as well as in social and cultural life. The age divide in Indian politics would then end up sharpening the ideological polarization in our society even further.
The big question staring at us is whether India will begin to look like the US in the coming years, where a higher share of the old support the Republicans and many youth support the Democrats, and where friendships and romance rarely cross partisan lines.
The authors are with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi