Pulse of India’s first-time voters

As the country gears up for elections, understanding and addressing the aspirations of first-time voters will be crucial for any political entity aiming for success

By Aditya Sinha

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College students with painted faces spread awareness for first generation voters during an election campaign ahead of India's upcoming national elections in Chennai on March 19, 2024.  — AFP file
College students with painted faces spread awareness for first generation voters during an election campaign ahead of India's upcoming national elections in Chennai on March 19, 2024. — AFP file

Published: Sun 31 Mar 2024, 10:50 PM

India is gearing up for general elections this month, and the demographic landscape is changing significantly. With the electoral rolls now boasting over 968.8 million voters, including more than 20 million new voters aged between 18 and 29, there is an imperative need to grasp the electoral pulse of these first-time voters.

C-Voter India has stepped up to this need by conducting a survey that investigates the voting patterns of these new electors, tracking trends from India's first election in 1952 to the current one. By identifying what first-time voters consider when voting, C-Voter's research contributes to the shaping of campaign strategies and policies that are in tune with the younger electorate's concerns and aspirations.

Over the decades, a discernible shift in the priorities of first-time voters mirrors the evolution of societal values and the changing face of civic concerns. Initially, a considerable majority of new voters were preoccupied with local issues. This emphasis can be seen as a manifestation of the immediacy of personal experience and a reflection of the then-prevalent belief in the primacy of local governance and small-scale politics. As the decades advanced, these local concerns gave way to a growing consciousness about broader issues such as inflation and price rises, which could suggest a transition in voter awareness from micro to macroeconomics. This shift towards economic issues is significant, considering the global inflation trends that often mirror a nation's economic stability and the individual's purchasing power.

The early 21st century marked a significant uptick in the prioritisation of essential infrastructure—electricity, water, and roads—reflecting their pivotal role in advancing quality of life and economic development. This shift is underpinned by compelling data that illustrates substantial progress in these sectors, resonating with voters, especially first-time participants who have observed notable improvements over the last decade in India.

Electrification efforts, spearheaded by the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana (Saubhagya), achieved universal household electrification, with 100 per cent electrification reported by all states as of March 2021. The programme successfully extended electricity to all previously unelectrified households, both in rural and urban areas, with 28.17 million households electrified by the end of March 2021. Additionally, the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGJY) contributed to this success, adding 0.443 million households to the grid. By March 2022, the total number of households electrified under Saubhagya reached 28.6 million, inclusive of tribal households.

Water accessibility saw transformative change under the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), with tap water connections in rural households jumping from 16.8 per cent (32.3 million at the mission's inception in August 2019 to 73.76 per cent (142.1 million) by January 2024. This represents an increase of over 109.8 million households gaining access to tap water in less than five years.

Road infrastructure development also showcases significant advancements. The budget allocation for road transport and highways increased fivefold from 2014, leading to an accelerated pace of highway construction, peaking at 37km per day in 2020-21. The total length of the National Highway network expanded by 60 per cent, from 91,287km in 2014 to 146,145km by 2023, with 4-laned highways more than doubling in this period. The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) has been a cornerstone in enhancing rural road connectivity, with over 374,000km of roads constructed, achieving more than 99 per cent connectivity for rural habitations. Furthermore, the Bharatmala Pariyojana has advanced the development of economic corridors, inter-corridor and feeder routes, and greenfield expressways, with 20 of the planned 25 greenfield corridors already completed or in progress, accounting for 15,549km of the targeted 34,800km in its first phase.

The theory that essential services and infrastructure significantly influence new voters' choices is convincingly validated by their voting behaviour, reflecting the substantial progress they attribute to the incumbent central government's initiatives. C-voter survey also inquired the participants about their voting choice in form of the quest: Which party did you vote for in your first election? The data reveal a pronounced preference for the NDA, with 43.5 per cent casting their ballots for the BJP-led NDA or its allies. This figure substantially surpasses the 27.1 per cent support for various regional parties, while a mere 6.8 per cent opted for the Indian National Congress and its allies. These statistics underscore the pivotal role of grassroots development in shaping the electoral decisions of new voters, highlighting its importance as a decisive factor in their political alignment.

Further, the later decades show an increased concern for national security, reflecting the global political climate and the emphasis on safety and stability in a rapidly changing world. This could be interpreted through political realism, which stresses the importance of security and power in international relations.

The reduction in the percentage of first-time voters concerned with law and order over time may indicate a growing trust in the institutions responsible for maintaining societal order or possibly a shift in the public's perception of threats to their security. The philosophical implications of these shifts are profound, suggesting an evolution from Hobbesian concerns of order and security to a more Lockean emphasis on constructive governance and the protection of rights within a stable society.

The survey also strongly suggests a growing trend among first-time voters to weigh the performance of the Prime Minister when casting their ballots, even in state-level elections. Notably, this trend has intensified in the decades commencing from 2010 and into the 2020s. In the 2010 decade, there was a marked rise to 22.6 per cent of first-time voters considering the prime minister's performance as the most important, which remains relatively high (21.3 per cent) in the 2020s. This shift indicates a heightened awareness of national governance and its impact on local issues, signifying that the role of the Prime Minister has transcended traditional federal boundaries to become a crucial factor in grassroots-level political engagement. It showcases a paradigm shift in voter mentality, spotlighting the importance of national leadership in influencing local electoral outcomes.

Another important insight from the survey is that the mediums through which first-time voters in India have engaged with politics and current affairs have undergone a significant transformation over the decades, reflecting broader social and technological changes. As the data suggests, the reliance on traditional media, such as radio and newspapers, which dominated the landscape in the earlier decades, has progressively given way to television and, more recently, the internet and social media. This shift underlines a trend of first-time voters moving towards more immediate and interactive platforms for their political information. The surge in internet and social media usage, especially from negligible percentages in early decades to 57 per cent in the 2020s, indicates the rising importance of digital campaigns and the need for political parties to prioritise online engagement.

In conclusion, Indian elections have undergone a significant transformation over the decades, driven by the evolving priorities and engagement patterns of first-time voters. No longer confined to local issues, these voters are now deeply concerned with national development, infrastructure, and the long-term future of their country. The technological revolution has democratised information, enabling these voters to make more informed decisions and align their electoral choices with the performance of political leadership and developmental initiatives. The shift from traditional to digital media underscores the need for political parties to adapt to the changing dynamics of voter engagement. As India gears up for its general elections, understanding and addressing the aspirations of first-time voters will be crucial for any political entity aiming for success. Their growing influence on the electoral process signifies a vibrant democracy in action, reflecting a more proactive, informed, and development-oriented electorate shaping the country's political future.

Aditya Sinha (X: @adityasinha004) is Officer on Special Duty, Research, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. Views personal.

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