Op-ed: Youthquake 2014 - In digital age, first time voters can script the India story

Published: March 01, 2014 11:19 IST
Dr. Shashi Tharoor, MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.

The General Elections of 2014 signify a "youthquake", with an average of nearly 90,000 first-time voters in each constituency, as per the latest data released by the Election Commission.

This is a staggering statistic that is transforming forms of political engagement, the expectations from government, and the political landscape itself. Traditional participation in politics was confined to the ballot box, rallies, hartals and demonstrations. We are yet to move to online voting, but in recent years, India's youth has brought forth the force of non-traditional forms of political expression.

The vocal and visible participation of young Indians in recent years on issues of wider public interest is proof that our youth are not indifferent to politics. Campaigning for the Jan Lokpal Bill, offering an outpouring of support for 'Nirbhaya', and demonstrations for striking down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code are examples of young India engaging in public issues and being keen to bring about a social change.

In the 'Nirbhaya' case, it was the acute reaction of this emerging electorate, predominantly young women, that made our society take notice of the need for reforms to protect women.

Described by sociologist Ashis Nandy as a "spontaneous reaction" to the challenges faced by them, this energy should be channelised into constructive political action. Not only has the participation of young people broadened the scope of issues under consideration, they are also an electorate that is at ease with 21st century technologies and governance mechanisms available to citizens. New forms of media, in particular, have been successful in connecting young people with diverse socio-economic backgrounds and bringing them together to play a role in nation building.

By building on this "virtual solidarity", India's youth population has a tremendous opportunity to do away with traditional fault lines of caste, creed and religion. And in doing so realise the idea of India as envisaged by our Founding Fathers. The emergence of a new pan-Indian culture that is aspirational, driven by merit, irreverent and holds primarily liberal attitudes is the defining social change of our times. This new culture, in particular the humour and creativity of young minds that we see in the numerous online spoofs and satires on the political class, offers a light-hearted yet intellectually stimulating avenue for engaging in political criticism.

However, on the flip side, with only 164.81 million Internet subscribers (according to TRAI) and 12.6 per cent of the population online (according to the World Bank), this remains largely an urban phenomenon. At the same time, technology, allied to the intrepidity of youth, is also one of the catalysts for the emergence of a brand of politics that is youthful, rebellious, and iconoclastic.

The definition of self-expression is blurring the lines with manifestations of violence - slaps unleashed, shoes flung and ink scattered becoming favoured forms of articulating disagreement or desire. While the valour of revolution is crucial to keep the wheels of change moving, as we witnessed in movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, mindless violence won't help our cause to create a better India.

Nonetheless, the energy and enthusiasm of our youth remains a great hope. Interacting with young people through the many available avenues is the best way to fulfil their aspirations and remedy their anxieties. But in our effort to transform this dynamic culture of India into the foundations for a 21st century leader, we must also take note of the experience of established liberal democracies.

For instance, in Western countries, the experience of cultural liberalisation in the 1960s and 1970s led to a generation of alienated youth that found themselves disengaged with mainstream discourse. In more recent times, post-industrial societies witnessed the steady decline of public participation in politics. Add the global financial crisis with a weak economic recovery and several developed nations are witnessing a young population that is disillusioned with politics and feels excluded. This disillusionment is something that India -- 600 million young people -- can ill-afford. Because unlike Europe, with an average age in the late 40s, India's average citizen is still in his or her 20s.

While active participation by young people in politics is highly desirable, governance can be a very challenging and demanding task. And it may not be to everyone's interest or liking. Nonetheless, the choice isn't limited to being active or completely inactive. Young people can be an invaluable asset in addressing specific issues that they feel strongly about. India's growth story can be written by these first-time voters in the 2014 Lok Sabha if they warm up to the responsibilities of governance, not just through exercising their franchise, but also by remaining engaged with issues dear to them and by exploiting all the exciting possibilities that are offered by the Digital Age.

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