If there’s one constituency that has resolutely promoted the cult of Narendra Modi, it is the young and often first-time voters. The Modi government’s insistence on holding the Joint Entrance Exam Main and National Eligibility and Entrance Test, or JEE and NEET, despite vociferous protests from the students could well be the Opposition’s moment to recapture some of this electorate it has squandered away, and make a dent in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s most loyal voter base today.
What makes this opportunity even more compelling for the Opposition is that these students don’t come from institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) or Jamia Millia Islamia, whom the BJP finds easy to classify as ‘anti-nationals‘ and ‘tukde tukde gang‘ etc. Their anger makes no difference to the party since they are not its voters anyway.
However, the protesting students, who are yet to enter college, do not conform to a particular ideology, and hence, it is difficult to label them. United by a common cause, they represent a wide cross-section of India’s youth—mixed in gender, caste and class. And unlike those from Delhi’s Left-bastion JNU, they do matter to the BJP’s electoral arithmetic.
The students’ anger — some genuine, some orchestrated — was visible on online platforms. With Prime Minister Modi not addressing students and their concerns in the latest episode of Mann ki Baat, the show saw a heavy dose of ‘dislikes’ on various YouTube channels, including the BJP’s, and hashtags like
#StudentsDislikePMModi began trending on social media.
Modi and the young voter
Since his national rise began in 2014, Narendra Modi has been a hit among India’s young voters, managing to speak in a language that appeals to them, and engage in messaging that caters to their aspirations. They have ended up becoming an important pillar of his electoral ambitions.
I have travelled extensively to cover elections in the last few years — from Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, to Assam and Tripura — and found Modi’s popularity among the first-time/young voters quite overwhelming, transcending the urban-rural as well as gender divide.
They look at Modi as a ‘vikas purush‘, like the language he speaks and are happy to ignore his failings, including the divisive brand of politics he stands for. Among the biggest supporters of demonetisation, despite it being such a colossal failure, has been the youth. Modi is aware of how crucial this electorate is, how it has given him an edge election after election, and how it needs to be captured fully.
To be sure, this isn’t the first time the Modi government has antagonised the young voter. The difference, however, is that the youth he irked earlier aren’t his voters in any case. The protests at JNU or Jamia only helped Modi further accentuate the ‘anti-national’ labelling, and with opposition leaders joining the cause with those students, the BJP nicely bracketed them in the same category.
This time, however, it is different. And the Opposition, rightly so, has managed to sniff an opportunity in this student crisis.
The Opposition’s shot
For Opposition parties, especially the Congress, losing the youth vote to Narendra Modi has been a big blow.
India had a median age of 27.9 years in 2018. We are a young country, with the youth increasingly becoming a powerful electoral constituency. In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha Election, the Election Commission of India had said around 8.4 crore first-time voters would cast their votes, making political parties across the spectrum gun for them.
With the JEE-NEET crisis, the opposition can take a shot at trying to recapture some of its lost base, if (a big one at that) it can play its cards well, sustain the momentum of the attacks on the Modi government and also engage with the youth in a way that they can relate to.
Opposition parties do realise this and are surprisingly united for now.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been raising the pitch on the issue and attacked Prime Minister Modi with his ‘pariksha pe charcha’ not ‘khilone pe charcha’ jibe Sunday.
Can the Opposition outsmart Modi this time, or will the crafty Modi-Shah duo manage a turnaround by calming tempers? How much impact this can have electorally and how big or real is the anger will be seen in assembly elections due over the next few years. The Lok Sabha polls are a good four years away, giving these young voters enough time to fall in love with Modi once again, if at all they fall out with him.
The trick for the Opposition is to keep this anger simmering, counter every attempt by the BJP to douse the fire by adding a fresh dash of fuel, and identify a larger bouquet of issues to rally youth support. The NEET-JEE protests have given the Opposition a much needed opening to crack Narendra Modi’s favourite and most loyal vote base. Now, it needs to amplify its efforts to make a serious dent.
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