Will Post-COVID ‘Challenge’ to Modi Govt Come From India’s Youth?

Young voters, significant to elections, are angry and are openly criticising the Modi govt over COVID mishandling.

6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

The last month and a half have been harrowing to say the least for the Indian public. The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has managed to reach almost everyone’s doors, leaving a dark imprint. The governments — both central and states — were caught unawares and were found incapable of handling this crisis of mammoth proportions.

In their absence, the people of India stepped up to support each other. From finding hospital beds, ventilators, oxygen cylinders, plasma donors, medicines to preparing and delivering food for those in need, to creating helplines to discuss mental health issues, amongst others, civil society and communities have taken over the role of the government.


Rising Anger Among Youth Against Modi Govt

In this battle, the urban youth of the country has visibly been at the forefront. This is primarily due to their large presence on various social media platforms which has enabled them to use the latter as a key medium of resource and communication during these times.

We are seeing rising criticism and anger — vocal, written and visual — among the youth against the Modi-led central government. There is a general belief that the failure of governance amid crisis lies at the doorstep of 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, primarily due to the centralised nature of governance in our country. Given that the PM hogs all the credit for positive developments during his tenure, it is only fair that he should shoulder the blame too during these times.

The ongoing criticism of the BJP government has also led to chatter about the weakening of his ever-powerful image, and thus his electoral prospects in the 2024 general elections.

The caveat set in this chatter is that the general elections are three years away, and that is a long enough time for the Modi armoury to rebuild itself.

But the youth of the country may not forget the injustices they have witnessed. Their anger was witnessed in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, which was primarily shaped by the events of 2010, 2011 and 2012 before the emergence of the Modi phenomenon in September 2013.

Why is the Youth Important for Modi & BJP?

It is a cliché to say that the youth hold the key to the future of a country. Well, the cliché suits the India story. As a country with one of the youngest populations in the world, its youth play a major role not only in the country’s economy but also in its politics.

The youth vote bank has been recognised by political parties across the spectrum. The prime minister himself acknowledged the significance of young voters — especially the new crop of 18+ voters — in his 2017 Independence Day speech, calling them “the creator of the destiny (Bhagya Vidhata) of our nation in the 21st century.”

The youth vote bank has been one of the strongest in the political mathematics of Modi’s electoral victories in 2014 and 2019. According to The Hindu CSDS-Lokniti Post-Poll Survey 2019, the BJP has been the most preferred party of young India. Let’s look at the numbers given in this post-poll survey.

Will Post-COVID ‘Challenge’ to Modi Govt Come From India’s Youth?

The most noteworthy point here is that across age groups in 2019, the preference for the BJP had gone up since 2014. Here, the first three age groups — 18-22 years; 23-27 years; and 28-35 years — are the key.

The reason being two-fold:

  • first, the population between the age of 18 to 35 is frequently denoted as the youth
  • second, this age group has the most presence on the social media platforms — an important factor, as established previously in this piece

Assuming that the government’s lacklustre response has genuinely angered a part of the population from the three key age groups, and that their anger sustains till the 2024 general elections and gets converted into anti-Modi votes, it could be a cause of worry for Modi and his party. Although, a drastic fall in their preference percentage can’t be expected from their healthy 2019 numbers. Thus, the fall in the voting preference of the youth alone might not be a headache for Modi, but their power to drive the narrative might.


Youth’s ‘Influence’ On Voting Patterns of Older Age Groups

The young wield some power over the voting preferences of the middle age groups, consisting of their parents and relatives. Come 2024, a large chunk of this population will reach an age where they are considered key decision-makers or at least the conversation drivers in their drawing-rooms. In addition to all this is the ever-growing social media presence of the youth which is bound to get stronger and more critical of the government, if the pandemic does not abate, as from this point on, the government will most likely be a step behind the incoming pandemic waves.

Apart from the pandemic, there is also the factor of a sluggish economy and lack of jobs which will remain the Achilles’ Heel of the Modi government due to their failure to fulfil their promises.

While not all of us are economic experts, the basics make us understand that the pandemic makes economic revival difficult, thus affecting positive job creation. Since the pandemic is far from over, the prospects of a thriving economy and job creation look less than optimistic.

Will TINA Factor Keep Modi Afloat Despite Anger?

A major caveat to this argument is the rural-urban divide in the Indian populace. The pandemic management of the youth via social media has primarily been witnessed in the urban centres of the country. Rural India is far from being a part of the social media circle, which makes it very difficult to gauge the sense of anger — if any — amongst the rural youth against the government, for its mishandling of the pandemic. According to the Post-Poll Survey 2019, it is noteworthy that BJP’s vote share was higher among young voters in towns (44 percent) and rural areas (40 percent) than in cities (38 percent). Thus, just the probable anger of the urban young voters might not be able to sway the narrative against the Modi government.

There also is the question of who is the alternative to Modi? The TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor played a crucial role in Modi’s 2014 and 2019 victories. On one hand, there is the Indian National Congress (INC), whose passive politics and internal fragmentation has weakened its role as the chief opposition.

Amongst the three key youth age groups, the party witnessed a rise in one: 18-22 years= 20 percent (+3). Given the trends and their current standing, booming growth in the preference percentage for the INC cannot be expected. On the other hand, there is the idea of a third front coalition.

The preference of young voters for a third front is almost unknown and inconsistent, given the lack of the concrete presence of the third front as a concept. The probability of a third front coalition could become a reality in the run-up to 2024 elections if the BJP falters in the crucial Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections of 2022, and if the government’s pandemic response continues to falter.


Will the Youth Again Buy Into Modi’s Narrative in 2024?

Finally, a crucial factor is that of the three-year space between today and the commencement of the 2024 general elections. What can be expected from the government to turn the tide in its favour in this period, if the pandemic and their mismanagement of it continues as is? A better economy and job numbers look like unassailable targets as of now. Then, there are Modi and BJP’s two most-favoured tropes: an ideological divide and politics of nationalism.

Irrespective of the pandemic, the ideological divide has always been the ruling dispensation’s key tool when entering an election. The question is: can the tool of ideological divide successfully battle the voting dent that the government’s lacklustre policies of health, welfare and economy might have created, especially in the eyes of young voters?

The politics of nationalism completely changed the discourse of the 2019 general elections in favour of Modi after the Pulwama attack and the Balakot airstrikes.

The Post-Poll Survey 2019 notes that “young voters who considered joblessness as an issue, voted for the BJP after hearing about the (Balakot) airstrikes.”

Thus, will the Modi government ‘serve’ the nation and its youth with another nationalistic top-spin in the run-up to the elections? If yes, will it be acceptable to the youth this time around?

Nevertheless, it’s too early to predict how the ongoing dissatisfaction against the government will pan out. The dissatisfaction need not get converted into a vote against the government, especially during a pandemic which carries with it a wave of sympathy, not only for the people but also for the government to some extent.

Further, the mistake of underestimating the political campaigner in Modi cannot be made. One can expect many youth-oriented overtures from the Modi government in the next three years.

(Ashutosh Nagda is a Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi. He is an alumnus of SOAS, University of London. He tweets @nagdashutosh. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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