Why First Time Voters Are Choosing To Abstain From Voting This Election Season

By Shriya Sharma and Devanshi Batra, TwoCircles.net

New Delhi: As India votes to reconstitute 18th Lok Sabha (Parliament’s lower house), a growing trend has emerged among first-time voters: abstention from casting their ballots. The practice of voting is now being questioned by a significant portion of the electorate — particularly by those who are exercising their right to franchise for the first time.

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From disillusionment with “pre-decided” outcomes to frustration over the “dearth” of viable choices, a myriad of factors is driving this shift in the voting behaviour of the youth — who account for a large share of the country’s population. Many perceive the electoral process as a mere “formality”, with results “predetermined” by entrenched political interests and systemic “biases”.

India’s youngest eligible voters, aged 18 and 19, are displaying alarmingly low levels of interest in ongoing general elections.

According to data released by the Election Commission of India (ECI), a poll watchdog, released following the announcement of the election schedule, a mere 38% of first-time voters have completed the registration process and are now on the electoral rolls. The dismal enrolment rates have been particularly observed in politically crucial Bihar, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

Located in the centre of the north-eastern part of India, Bihar — which boasts the nation’s youngest population — has recorded only 9.3 lakh (17%) enrolments out of a potential 54 lakh voters. It is the lowest enrolment rate in the country.

Why are young voters opting out

In 2014, India’s youth, who exercised their right to franchise for the first time, significantly contributed to the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the national elections.

Exit polls revealed that voter turnout among Indians aged 18 to 25 exceeded that of the overall population, marking a historic milestone of approximately 70%.

After five years, in this election season, the first-time voters are abstaining from the electoral process due to a bunch of factors — a few of which are as follows:

‘Aayenge toh Modi ji hi’ sentiment

A large number of first-time voters are apparently of the view that their participation in shaping the future of the country is mere “formality”, the outcomes are “pre-decided” and the entire process is “compromised”.

Aggressive mind management and media manipulation by political parties ahead of elections have contributed to strengthening the perception.

“Personally, I won’t be voting because I strongly feel the results will be the same. The Opposition in our country is weak, and I feel the people are highly influenced by the Modi media (a pejorative term for the sensationalist and biased Indian print and TV news media, which allegedly support the ruling BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government in the Centre),” says Apoorva Sinha, 21, a third-year law student from the Government Law College in Mumbai.

She has a strong reasoning, supporting her beliefs.

Speaking at a public gathering in Maharashtra’s Wardha district, Hindu supremacist Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath remarked that this may be the first election since independence where the public is already aware of the outcomes.

“The result is declared — only Modi will come,” he said.

Hailing from Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, Kartikeya Srivastava, 19, who is pursuing bachelors’ in political science from prestigious Delhi University, says, “There is an underlying feeling that voting ain’t worth it as the BJP will win. The media is highly compromised. Pressing issues such as LadakhManipurelectoral bonds issue, jailing Opposition leaders and freezing their bank accounts ahead of elections are willingly being ignored by the press.”

There is a notion among young voters that their vote is “irrelevant” and “won’t make a difference”.

“I belong to Manipur, which has two seats in the Lok Sabha. Even if the BJP loses the two seats, it is next to impossible to alter the party’s prospects. So, for me, there is no point to travel a long distance only to realize that my vote is actually making no difference,” says Abhishek Chahal, 23, a third year MBBS student.

Losing faith in electoral process

In an age when trust in electoral processes is seemingly waning, young voters question the sanctity of democracy. Doubts linger as they disbelieve the electronic voting machines (EVMs). Alleged malpractices at several stages of the voting process stain the path to free and fair elections and cast shadows upon the very essence of democratic principles.

“I feel voting is just a waste of time when you know that EVMs are compromised and booths are captured. It does not look like a free and fair or democratic election anymore. Honestly, I feel the only thing everyone should try is lowering the turnout — which will show elections are losing their credibility,” says Srivastava.

Several research conducted by the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Institute for Public Policy Research highlight an increasing erosion of trust in political institutions in the 21st century.

NOTA/lack of choices 

In the absence of an alleged robust Opposition and dearth of youthful contenders, young voters opt for electoral abstention. They do not find NOTA beneficial as in India, the option does not equate to the ‘right to reject’ because the candidate with the highest number of votes still wins the election, regardless of the number of NOTA votes cast.

‘None of the Above’ or NOTA button on EVMs allows voters to formally express their rejection of all running candidates.

“I won’t be casting my vote this time because this is no longer a democracy, and fair elections cannot take place when you have used every last bit of your power to freeze off the competition — from controlling the media to uncountable electoral bonds from companies, which were either raided or on the radar of the ED (Enforcement Directorate — a federal probing agency, which investigates cases of money laundering). Voting in this country is like choosing ‘andhon mein kana raja (in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king)” says Jai Chawla, 22, an MBA aspirant.

Sarthak Garg, 20, who belongs to Kurukshetra and currently is a third-year MBBS student, says, “Educated voters do not believe any of the candidates are capable of bringing about a change. In foreign countries, if more than 51% people vote for NOTA, the government conducts re-election with different candidates. Therefore, even NOTA is not there for our rescue.”

Paperwork and lack of knowledge

A group of first-time voters lament their inability to obtain a voter identity card, thanks to the tiring process. While digitalisation offers ease, access still remains a challenge. Ignoring disparities in technology access risks marginalising voices in the democratic setup.

“I won’t be voting because I don’t have my voter ID card. Local authorities did not assist me with the know-how of the process, and I am not learned enough to do it digitally,” says Roshni, 23, who hails from a village in Bihar and currently works as a househelp in Gurugram.

Many individuals are unaware that they have the option to register to vote in the city where their educational institution is located by presenting their certificates for verification of their enrolment.

Despite the availability of online registration and abundant information on the internet, there is widespread misinformation regarding the electoral process. This includes misconceptions about residency duration requirements, acceptable proofs of residence and the registration process itself.

Stuti hails from Bihar and is a final year history student at the Delhi University. She says, “I won’t be voting this time because I am not from Delhi, and I am not planning to visit my hometown. I cannot vote without getting my address changed. I believe the confidence the ruling party has over results, one vote will not make a difference. Therefore, I do not want all this hassle for nothing.”

Mark Your Presence, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating young voters in India, outlined several reasons for the underwhelming statistics.

According to Chaitanya Prabhu, the organization’s founder, attributing the youth’s disinterest in politics solely to them is unjustified. During schooling and college years, he noted, students are often surrounded by “negative” perceptions of politics.

“The fundamentals of elections and politics are rarely included in school curriculum, except within the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) system,” he told The Times of India.

Unfulfilled promises

From the margins of society, disillusioned by unfulfilled promises of yesteryears, young voters abstain. They cast a skeptical gaze upon the prospect of change, questioning the transformative power of yet another election cycle amidst broken pledges.

“What is the point of voting when the promises made in the last elections stand unfulfilled? My parents voted for the party in power last election, but nothing has changed since then. What change would my participation bring?” asks Laxmi, 20, a slum dweller from Faridabad who is originally hailing from Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh.

Many young voters feel disconnected from mainstream politics because politicians conveniently forget their concerns and priorities. With unfulfilled promises each year, they perceive the electoral process as inherently flawed, with decisions made behind closed doors and political elites wielding disproportionate influence.

Voting for the sake of it

Amidst disillusionment, some youngsters will still practice their political birthright. In the crucible of uncertainty, they nurture a flicker of faith in democracy’s promise. They believe that trust in the process is their sacred duty for shaping the nation’s destiny.

“I will personally be voting. It will be my first time, and I am looking forward to it. However, one thing I have experienced is that I am not exactly satisfied with the selection of the candidates. And this is perhaps one of the reasons behind increasing disinterest in voting. The fact is the Indian youth is divided into two groups — one is highly political and blindly follows a party, without any sort of critical analysis; and the other group consists of those young people who have completely lost faith in the system and prefer not vote,” says Radhika Gokhle, 22, a LLB student from the Government Law College in Mumbai.

Many of the ‘Bhagya-Vidhatas’, as the prime minister calls the young voters, are voting just for the sake of it. A section of youngsters still believe that it is their responsibility to vote; however, they are not too hopeful.

“Irrespective of the political situation of the country, I would still choose to vote as that is the last thing I can do to ensure change in the country’s future. By casting my vote, I would at least be able to participate in the elections of the world’s largest democracy that India is,” says Aashna Gopinath, 22, who hails from Kerala and currently is a 3rd year political science student at the Delhi University.

At the India Today Conclave last year, Chaitanya Prabhu, founder of Mark Your Presence, suggested, “…what we need to do is fundamentally bring policies that are youth-centric and create more opportunities for young people”.

Hilal Ahmad, an associate professor who is associated with the Lokniti program of the Centre for the study of Developing Societies (CSDS), explained why young voters are not interested in the voting process.

“The political discourse of the country has a lot to do with the young voters’ swindling enthusiasm for participating in elections. Even though they are considered to be an important constituency by all political parties, there is a certain degree of apathy and negligence to address their issues,” he told TwoCircles.net.

He listed out a few reasons that are making the youth disillusioned with the polity — inflation, unemployment, lack of opportunities and the privatisation of education.

“To reach a conclusion with regard to youth participation in the voting process, we still have to wait till the last phase of elections so that we have complete data on their turnout,” he concluded.

Shriya Sharma and Devanshi Batra are both free-lance journalists based in Delhi, India