Since the inception of democracy in 507 B.C, the axiom that the people of a nation play a pivotal role in upholding it has stood firm through the test of time. While the question of which members of society would play this role has historically been a contentious issue in many countries, it was never a major problem in India. The Constituent Assembly ensured that universal adult franchise was provided for in the Constitution from the very beginning. While there was some opposition to universal adult franchise, based on concerns that the right to vote was being given too early, the possibility of inadequate education, knowledge, patriotism towards the country amongst the voters, a majority of members supported it. This meant that, once a citizen of India reached a certain age, they would be entitled to vote irrespective of their gender, religion, caste, education, income, or any other factor.
The provision of adult franchise has become more inclusive over time. When it was first written, article 326 of the Constitution allowed citizens who were 21 years of age or above, to vote in their local, state Legislative Assembly and national Lok Sabha elections. The age limit was reduced to 18 years of age or above after the Sixty-first Amendment Act, 1988. However, this seemingly innocuous provision contains a major problem. Article 326 gives the appropriate legislature the ability to set a date before which a citizen must turn 18 years of age, in order to be eligible to vote.
According to the Election Commission of India (ECI), attaining the age of 18 years on or before the qualifying date of the year of revision of the electoral roll is a requirement to register in the electoral roll. According to Article 14 (b) of the Representation of the People Act, 1950, the qualifying date is “The 1st day of January”. This is a significant impediment to the participation of youth in the electoral process as it means that a citizen turning 18 years of age on or after the 2nd of January in the year of an election, is ineligible to vote in that election, even if they turn 18 years of age before any of the elections are actually held. This means that there are a very large number of 18 year olds who will get to vote in a major election only after 5 years, which is a very long time after they have technically reached the correct age to vote.
In May 2016, D. V. Sadananda Gowda, the Minister of Law and Justice at the time stated that the government had plans to add more than one qualifying date in a year before which a citizen may be eligible to vote. Furthermore, the ECI has suggested the elimination of the qualifying date and allowing citizens to be eligible to vote as soon as they turn 18. While having only one qualifying date made sense in the past as electoral rolls were updated manually, it makes absolutely no sense now as online voter registration is an established process. Despite this, no action has been taken to remove this blatant hindrance to the participation of youth voters in a critical democratic process.
Let’s take a look at the participation of “young voters” in recent elections. An Indian citizen aged 18-19 years and voting for the first time is considered a young voter. According to data from the ECI, approximately 15 million young voters participated in the 2019 national elections. However, this ostensibly large number is sadly only about 30% of the estimated population of young voters (48.5 million). It is also a lower number than the 23 million young voters that participated in the 2014 national elections, which contradicts the fact that the total electorate increased from about 815 million in 2014 to about 900 million in 2019. The percentage of young voters that actually voted is abysmal, especially when India has the largest youth population in the world, according to the UN (356 million).
There could be a variety of reasons for this ignominious participation of youth in the electoral process. Without a doubt, the youth do consider voting in general as well as their vote to be important. However, many do not apply for a voter ID, either because they don’t know how to, or because they don’t prioritize it over other things important to them, such as college applications and driver licences. This problem is being addressed by the various grassroot level and large scale campaigns to increase awareness on the importance of participating in the electoral process organised by various NGOs as well as the ECI. Nowadays, political parties use special tactics to enlarge their youth voter base. Although a quixotic change in the near future, the introduction of online voting systems would significantly increase the participation of youth in the electoral process.
Another impediment to youth participation in the electoral process is the obnoxious amount of influence that money and corruption have in an election. The youth are more interested in policies that would improve their quality of life, their education and their job opportunities rather than flashy and expensive election campaigns carried out by an inaccessible pantheon. Besides this, the lack of candidates that reflect the aspirations of the youth makes them avoid the electoral process. While article 84 (b) of the Constitution states that a citizen above the age of 25 can contest in the Lok Sabha election, the youngest MP is 27 years old and there are only 4 MPs between the ages of 27 and 30. This is equivalent to about 0.75% of the 536 sitting members of the Lok Sabha, which is incongruously unrepresentative of the age demographics of India. In response to a Public Interest Litigation that called for the reduction of the age limit for contesting an election to 21 years of age, the Supreme Court of India chose to stress on experience rather than representation, by stating that citizens must have a certain amount of experience before they can contest an election. Furthermore, in 2018 the Supreme Court responded to a PIL that called for the reduction of the age limit for contesting an election to 18 years of age by stating that parliament must deliberate and make a decision.
There seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. For instance, in the recent Tamil Nadu legislative assembly elections, 21.86% of the total electorate were between the ages of 18 and 29, accentuating the growing importance of youth in politics. While making their voices heard by casting their vote is not the only step, it is nevertheless a crucial one in moving towards a country in which the youth are adequately represented in state and national leadership. With citizens aged below 25 comprising more than half of our total population, it is time that the youth is at the helm of decision making that has an impact on their future. It is also time for ancient laws, such as the qualifying date, to be modified, so that we can begin to change this behemoth of an electoral system that neglects the youth.