By Shivam Vij for Firstpost, 3 February 2018
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s book Exam Warriors may perhaps win him more votes than his election budget that shied away from disbursing sops.
To be released on Saturday by Penguin Random House India, the author’s bio on the book is five paragraphs long. The very first paragraph reads, “His victory was propelled by historic support from India’s youth, particularly first-time voters.”
That is factually correct. A data analysis by political scientist Oliver Heath in 2015 found that the BJP’s unprecedented victory in 2014 was propelled less by the votes it snatched away from other parties and more by new, first-time voters.
There were 41.7 crore registered voters in the 2009 general elections. This rose to 55.3 crore in 2014. The 32 percent increase amounts to 13.6 crore voters. That’s more than the total number of votes the Congress won in 2014 (which was 10.6 crores). Heath’s detailed constituency-level analysis found the BJP won constituencies that it earlier did not by mobilising new voters.
The number of voters aged 18 or 19 alone was 2.31 crore. Besides, even those who were 22 in 2014 would not have been able to vote in 2009 since they were only 17.
Why first-time voters matter
First time voters are a very important group for any party for various reasons.
Many older voters tend to develop long-term party loyalties. These are the people who will tell you before an election that they vote for the party symbol, without worrying about whether their party will win or not, whether they like the candidate or not, whether the party performed well in power or not. It is difficult for another party to change such long-term loyalties. This is how the Bahujan Samaj Party holds on to a 15-20 percent vote-share even when it hardly wins any seats.
It is, therefore, a smarter idea to persuade new voters – such as the children of those with hardened loyalties. Young, teenage voters are likely to be open to voting differently from their parents. This has been evident in the youth support Narendra Modi received in 2014.
Secondly, after securing a voter’s first vote, if a party can get her vote again, chances are that such a voter could become a life-long loyal supporter of the party.
Modi has been worrying about exam stress in his Mann Ki Baat radio address for three exam cycles now. If a 14-year-old in 2015 was touched by Modi’s concern for her exam stress, such a student would be 18 years old in 2019.
From the very start of his prime ministership, Modi has consistently tried to become Chacha Modi, a la Nehru, doing photo-ops for children and expressing concern for them. He is seen pulling their ears or appreciating some child’s achievement in Mann Ki Baat.
Here he is, interacting with school children in Muslim-majority Lakshwadeep in December 2017. Here he is, answering their questions on Teacher’s Day. Even on a trip to Japan, he took time off to talk to Indian schoolchildren.
As the 2019 general elections come closer, we are likely to see the Modi government reach out more and more to first time voters through innovative events.
The prime minister has already asked for a mock parliament to be organised in every district of the country on 15 August. Through this, he wants children to contribute ideas for “New India”. This would help impress upon first time voters that Narendra Modi not only wants to deliver change, but is giving them a chance to have their voice in it.
Soon after winning the Gujarat elections with a narrowing margin, Prime Minister Modi set his sights on millennial voters.
Wishing the nation a happy new year, the prime minister counted how those born in the year 2000 would turn 18 this year, making 2018 a special year.
Appealing to their emotions through a book on exam stress and a mock parliament is one thing. But Modi has his eyes set at actually getting them to sign up on the electoral rolls.
“Indian democracy welcomes the voters of the 21st century, the new India voters,” he had said in his Mann Ki Baat address on 31 December 2017. “I congratulate our youth and urge them to register themselves as voters. The entire nation is eager to welcome you as voters of the 21st century…your vote will prove to be the bedrock of new India,” he said.
At a dinner meet for BJP leaders last month, the prime minister said the party’s prime focus for 2019 had to be 18 to 25-year-olds. To mobilise first time voters, it plans to launch a ‘Millenium Vote Campaign’ with an app that would help first time voters register to vote. The advantage of an app like this is that it would help the BJP collect data and have access to those who sign up. This could in turn be used for campaign outreach.
Replacing old voters with new
That is a large number of votes to determine outcomes.
The BJP won a clear majority in 2014 with just over 31 percent vote share (not counting pre-poll allies). In other words, the BJP does not need to keep everybody happy to win. Just winning a third of votes can bring it to power thanks to the first-past-the-post system.
As the BJP faces anti-incumbency on account of farmers’ unrest and its inability to generate enough formal employment, some of those 31 percent could go to other parties, mainly the Congress.
The party could replace those losses with first-time voters. It may not be giving big farm loan waivers, but those angry farmers could be replaced by urban youth who are convinced Modi cares for them since he worries about the most important thing in their lives, exam stress, and wants their suggestions for new India once the exams are over and they are in college.