Is the first-time voter the X-factor in BJP's victories?
If Modi's brand equity is no longer as strong as it was in 2018-19, and economic issues have begun to bite, what is the generic explanation for the BJP's rising vote share?
It's not unusual to do a post-mortem after a massacre, and so the forensics have begun after the electoral carnage of 3 December. The hindsight morticians, of all hues, have begun their analysis of what went wrong with the opposition carcasses littering the battlefield in five states: EVMs, caste, Hindutva, "panauti" barbs, tribals, in-fighting, corruption, electoral bonds — it's an endless list which shall keep the pundits occupied till it's time for the next blood-letting in May next year.
Not one to be discouraged by my lack of expertise in this field, however, I would like to add my two bits to the autopsy.
Not much attention has been paid so far to the impact of the behaviour/ preferences of the first-time voter (FTV) on electoral outcomes since 2019. This is surprising given their increasing numbers. According to available figures, there were 80 million (8 crore) FTVs in 2019, and the estimates for 2024 are 150 million or 15 crore (NEWS18 report dated 31 August, based on ECI estimates). That is an almost twofold increase between two elections. Even if we discount the 2024 estimates by 25 per cent, FTVs will still form a sizeable proportion of total voters.
FTVs comprise between 10 and 15 per cent of the total electorate, perhaps more than most castes or religious denominations. They constitute a separate and distinct cohort, with their own problems, aspirations, preferences and mental make-up.
You would expect all major political parties to be aware of this, and cater to FTVs specifically in their manifestos, as they do for all electorally significant blocs. Especially as available data shows that FTVs have a significant influence and impact on election results.
A 2014 analysis by IndiaSpend concluded that this youthful segment had catapulted the BJP to power in five states with the highest proportion of young voters. Below is a table indicating the five states which added the most number of FTVs between 2014 and 2018, and the number of Lok Sabha seats in each:
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It is significant to note that this accounts for about 43 per cent of the total seats in the Lok Sabha.
Now consider another set of statistics. In the just concluded elections to five states (where the BJP won three by sizeable margins), the vote share of the BJP has actually increased substantially over the 2018 figures: Rajasthan by 3.69 per cent, Madhya Pradesh by 7.66 per cent, and Chattisgarh by 13.37 per cent; even in Telangana (which it lost) its vote share went up by 9 per cent.
This is a psephological puzzle, because the general consensus is that Modi's brand equity is no longer as strong as it was in 2018-19, that the appeal of Hindutva has peaked, and that economic issues such as price rise and unemployment have begun to bite. What then is the generic explanation for the party's phenomenal rise in vote share in 2023?
There is a distinct possibility that the answer could lie in the hitherto ignored First Time Voter. An interesting article titled 'The Seven Sins of New India' by K Jayakumar, published in The New Indian Express on 25 November, postulates that the young generation of today (read FTV), "with no exposure to an earlier ethos of public life, begins to believe that what it sees today is normal".
And what this generation sees today is listed out by Jayakumar as the "seven sins of new India". These are: inequality before the law, vindictive vehemence, intolerance to criticism, corruption, doublespeak, window dressing, and the baggage of secularism. These seven sins comprise the new normal, and have changed the idiom of public life and polity completely.
I find this a fascinating thesis, one which makes eminent sense. Just step back and consider — the FTV of today was only eight years old in 2014, and 13 in 2019. These are impressionable ages, the crucible when values, behaviour, beliefs and prejudices are formed. This generation has grown up in the Modi years, and has seen nothing but the seven deadly sins in operation, carpet bombed by media and party propaganda to believe in this right-wing ideology and that Modi is the 'vishwaguru'.
They are creatures of this new toxic environment, and their value systems can only align with this new reality, having experienced no other one. Therefore I, for one, would be very surprised if they did not vote for the BJP, almost as a bloc. This thesis brings together all the anecdotal data and statistics mentioned above, and may go some way in explaining the BJP's continued appeal and the increase in its vote share.
The FTV may not be the only explanation, but it certainly merits a serious look. And the beauty of this phenomenon is that with each incremental year of this regime, their numbers will keep increasing by a few million, providing the BJP an ever increasing constituency of programmed supporters. There can be no worse news for the Opposition.
I may be wrong (I usually am in such matters), but can the Opposition continue to ignore the First Time Voter? He/she may be their ticket to ride.
Avay Shukla is a retired IAS officer and author of The Deputy Commissioner’s Dog and Other Colleagues. He blogs at avayshukla.blogspot.com