Ex-Chief Election Commissioner of india
AN Irish proverb goes, “praise youth and it shall prosper”. Every year, Swami Vivekananda’s birth anniversary (January 12) is celebrated as National Youth Day. According to the 2011 Census, 70 per cent of India’s population is under the age of 35. We are already set to become the world’s youngest country by 2020, with an average age of only 29 years!
Even though no one can dispute the remarkable strides that have been made in education and healthcare since Independence, the country continues to deal with a multitude of issues, including rampant inequality in income and living standards, unemployment, the evils of casteism and communalism, misogyny in public and private domains, and the cancer of corruption. All-round development of individuals still eludes our society. As Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has succinctly put it: “Poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realise one’s full potential as a human being.”
But what concerns me most of all is apathy — of the youth towards the political process and of the politicians towards the youth. Having spent 12 man-years in the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and its allied organisations, I am sorry to observe that the youth are accorded very little priority in the government’s scheme of things. A pittance of a budget hardly seeks to do justice to this biggest segment of population — over 90 crore. In my view, only Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh and now Narendra Modi have expressed concern towards them. Of course, much remains to be done to make them more engaged in the political process.
Their issues do not dominate the everyday discourse on democracy. While mobilisation, protests and deliberation are part and parcel of a healthy democracy, those looking forward to making a change must start at the ballot. Democracy, after all, is revolution by consent.
We are at a distinct advantage as a young democracy. In ageing societies such as the UK, the under-60s lament that the over-60s are deciding on policies that they have to, in turn, live with. Are we any better?
Political parties are only concerned with those who empower or dethrone them. It is only the pressure exerted at the ballot by the young majority that will compel the politicians to stop being complacent. Only electoral outcomes have the potential to pressure the parties into fielding good candidates who are sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the young population.
With more democratised access to information than at any other stage in history, the youth are now making informed choices in their personal and professional lives. It is also crucial that they do the same while exercising their franchise, and not fall victim to paid and fake news. The young people must vote for candidates based on their agenda rather than aura. Informing oneself is hardly an onerous task in the information age, considering the proliferation of media, especially social media.
The Election Commission of India (EC) has time and again reiterated its commitment to improving voter turnout among the youth population. When I started my tenure as the Chief Election Commissioner in 2010, I was concerned that polling among the youth was as low as 12 per cent. We decided to make the turnout our top priority, especially focusing on youth and women.
The Systematic Voters’ Education for Electoral Participation (SVEEP) proved to be a path-breaking initiative which has helped to educate, innovate and motivate the population to become aware of their rights and duties with regard to the electoral process. The YUVA (Youth Unite for Voter Awareness) programme has helped convert demographic dividend into democratic dividend.
The National Voters’ Day (NVD), first held on January 25, 2011, on the EC’s foundation day, celebrates the potential of the youth and the power of franchise . The NVDs have not only enrolled millions of people year after year since then, but also led to the creation of a ripple effect among voters as they now perceive their vote as transformative.
National- and state-level icons such as Virat Kohli, Mary Kom and Saina Nehwal have been promoting the EC’s initiatives. In its early years, it enlisted the support of the inimitable Jaspal Bhatti to motivate the youth to shun apathy. The Commission has tied up with Facebook and Twitter to remind newly eligible youngsters to get themselves registered as voters.
The targeted efforts have borne fruit. With the help of the media and civil society, the voter enrolment has now topped 80 per cent. The historic turnout in the 2014 General Election and the subsequent Assembly elections is a testament to the success of the EC’s educational efforts.
These initiatives must not only be continued, but also strengthened further. All institutions in the world’s largest democracy should work in harmony to ensure an enabling environment for the all-round development of its young population. If we take care of our youth today, they will take care of the country and make it a superpower.