Each general election is important. It determines who will govern the state, exercise executive power, shape the legislative agenda and, through all of it, have an impact on the lives of all citizens. But some elections are perhaps more critical than others. With the Election Commission announcing dates for the 17th Lok Sabha elections, this is perhaps one of them. And that is not because of the nature of the contestants in the fray, but because of the position India finds itself in. The country is at the cusp of multiple transitions and the next regime will have the challenging task of navigating us through it. And that is why it is time for both parties and voters to step back and recognize what is at stake.
Democracy cannot survive without both citizens’ participation and politicians’ accountability. Since the politicians would do nothing to inform the youth about the socio-economic problems facing the nation today and only exploit them, it is the responsibility of civil society organisations and the media to educate young people about the issues involved and their high stakes in the fruits of development.
With less than a month to go for the 2019 general elections, all political parties are gearing up for the next round of hectic election campaigning, hoping to bag the maximum number of seats in the Lok Sabha. One segment of the electorate all parties have set their sights on are the first-time voters, whose numbers are going to go up to a whopping 13.3 crore – twice the size of France’s population – by the time the next general polls arrive.
Given this demographic tilt, it is not surprising that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his 2017 Independence Day speech, had especially invoked this electoral constituency. “January 1, 2018 will not be an ordinary day – those born in this century will start turning 18. They are bhagya vidhatas of our nation,” said Modi.
A little over 15% of the total population of voters in the country, first-time voters seem to be holding the keys to the making and unmaking of political parties’ electoral destinies. However, to take advantage of this privileged position, the youth need to show up and vote. So far, like in most other places in the world, voter turnout among the young in India has remained disappointing. While the overall voter turnout also may not be worth celebrating, young voters’ turnout has been five to six percentage points lower than the average turnout since 1996. As a recent Indian Express report showed, by April, less than 30% in the age group of 18-19 years were enrolled as voters in a majority of states. It remains to be seen how many in this age bracket (about 4.85 crore in population) would make it to the polling booths next year (or this year in case of early elections).
It is important to remember that instead of always pontificating to the youth about their role and responsibilities, political leaders should remind themselves of their own role to fulfill the needs and aspirations of the youth, particularly with respect to jobs. If their expectations are not met, a backlash is unavoidable. Once the youth become restive, chaos cannot be far behind. India is in the middle of an economic transition. While the contribution of agriculture to the GDP has steadily declined, the number of people engaged in agriculture remains disproportionately high.
The contribution of services to GDP is steadily increasing, but the number of people it absorbs is not enough, given the scale of the Indian work force. And manufacturing has remained a weak point. So the first big task for the next government will be managing this transition better: improving agricultural incomes; smoothening the transition out of it; creating jobs in manufacturing; continuing to sustain the services momentum; and all through improving the social safety net through welfare for the poorest citizens.
India is in the middle of a geographical transition. People are rapidly moving out of rural to urban areas, with a range of smaller towns proliferating. Our cities and towns lack the infrastructure to cope with this shift. India is confronting a geopolitical transition. The old international order is crumbling, with the retreat of the US; a new order is coming to life, with the rise of China, but its contours are not clear. This presents both an opportunity and a threat. India is also in the middle of a democratic transition. Older institutions confront a crisis of credibility and legitimacy but the solution lies in strengthening, not replacing them. The balance between efficiency and accountability is a work in progress. There are similarly other transitions — in the realm of energy, social values, technology and media — that will have a wide-ranging impact on the way State is governed.
Arithmetic, alliances, campaign blitz of leaders, issues of identity and political polemics will capture the headlines in the next 60 days. It is time to ask India’s political parties what they have in mind to steer the country through the big transitions. This should be the barometer for judging who governs the country for the next five years. And that is why it is important that parties pledge to keep the nature of the conversation informed and civil.
All contestants must pledge to avoid hate speech, inflame passions, and instead tell citizens their road map for a better India. Elections are an opportunity to find the answers to big questions, educate the public as well as seek their legitimacy for policy. We call on all stakeholders to raise the bar and strive to make the 2019 election one which does this.