Monday, 21 April 2014

Young voters and the green argument

In 1959, the Times of India had a special publication to celebrate Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s 70th birth year. The Indo-China war had not happened and Nehru’s popularity had not taken the nosedive. He had been in power for 12 years, long enough to assess his governance.

The thick volume – A study of Nehru (1)was edited by Rafiq Zakaria, then a columnist with Times of India, and later a Member of Parliament and minister in the Maharastra Government. Zakaria had collected and edited essays on Nehru from leaders across political and civil life in India and across the world. Josip Broz Tito, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Clement Atlee, Louis Mountbatten, S. Radhakrishnan, E.M.S Namboodiripad, S.A. Dange and R.K. Laxman were among those who contributed to the volume. Some essays praised Nehru, a few others ran him down and there were some that kept the balance.

Accumulating urban waste is high on the list of
environment problems for the young voter.

The essays in the volume gave Nehru depth and life. Whether supporting or pillorying him, they argued cogently, with clarity of thought and public purpose rarely seen in the present times.

These leaders were unencumbered by the present-day distractions – popping e-mails, SMS messages, Tweets and Facebook posts. No shouting television anchors, talk shows, opinion polls and exit polls.

We are a country of argumentative people and right now we are going through a period when our arguments have reached their crescendo. More than half the country’s voters have exercised their franchise, but those remaining to vote can make a serious impact. There is an aggression and desperation simultaneously as parties go for the kill.

Elections 2014 has a strong component to the arguments, discussions and debates from young voters. Of the total of 814.5 million about 100 million (2) are casting their votes for the first time. And among these first-timers, 23.6 million have just turned 18 years of age. The voters represent the demographic profile of the population, and according to the 2011 census 28.9% of the population is between 18 and 35 years of age (3), emphasising the strong involvement of young voters this year.

What is the environmental consciousness of these young voters and how is it likely to affect their voting? Even the oldest in the 18 to 35 age group would have just been born around the end of the 1970s when the landmark controversy of modern Indian environmental history – over the construction of a dam for a hydro-electric project flooding the Silent Valley rainforest in Kerala – was raging.

They would have been too young to register the impact of the Bhopal gas leak in 1984, or the sit-in by the anti-Narmada Dam movement at Ferkuva in 1990-91. Essentially the environment consciousness of this group would have become active after the economic liberalisation was launched in the country in 1991.

Environmental understanding for this generation that has had its awakening in the post-liberalised India is different from that of the earlier generations. In the first half of the 1990s there was a transition in the manner in which people thought about the environment and how they acted to protect it.

Two decades ago, when the activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, led by Medha Patkar, marched to Ferkuva in the Madhya Pradesh-Gujarat border, or when they sat along the banks of the Narmada river braving the rising waters of the river repeating “doobenge par hatenge nahin” (we may drown but will not move), they were pitting the moral strength of individuals against the might of the State. 

The same was true when Sundarlal Bahuguna sat in protest on the banks of the Bhagirathi river in Tehri Garhwal in the present-day Uttarakhand.

The equation, as perceived then, was that industrial capital and the State were two different entities, but was coalescing to take away people’s access to their natural resources. The citizen had to protest this with the State.

After the impact of the economic liberalisation started in the mid-1990s, the boundaries between capital and the State blurred and it was difficult to pit the citizen’s moral strength against an amorphous entity. The young lived and drew sustenance from the liberalised economy, thus their lives were same (or they aspired for it to be same) as that of their class enemies. Thus, the broad-brush protests of the anti-Narmada and anti-Tehri dam movements became ineffective in dealing with environmental problems.

It was necessary to have specific, targeted action. Thus by the second half of 1990s, like their counterparts in the West, environment activists in India took to fighting legal cases, campaigning through the media, lobbying with Parliamentarians and carrying out e-mail campaigns. These were project-based environmental confrontations.

However, the romance of the protest remained. The romance was revived when Anna Hazare sat on protest at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi in August 2011. The urban middle class youngster enjoyed the novelty of protesting, but had to get back with his/her life after a few days. And there were messages on Facebook: “Anna-ji maan jayiye!” (please do agree, Anna). Fashionable protest is different from protest to protect livelihoods.

The Hazare movement evolved into the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the novelty of the concept attracted the youth. Here was an opportunity to fight the “corrupt politicians.” But when the dream party resigned from the Delhi Government, some of its sheen was lost. There are “murmurings” though, as social scientist Shiv Visvanathan points out (4), but these are from the livelihood protestors in regions such as the Kolar gold mines in Karnataka.

Some of the sheen that the AAP lost in the perception of the young voter has accrued to the BJP account. Development, nationalism, growth, change, “Vikas Purush”, etc., are the keywords that the BJP is using to tap into it.

In the glossary of environmental-civic problems of these young voters there would be mention of urban garbage, sewage problems, air pollution, pot-holed roads and inadequate public transport. Unsafe municipal water supply may not appear, since water reaches homes in plastic containers. Neither will there be a mention of the risk of climate change for farmers.

These keywords are the ones playing out on Twitter, Facebook and the television talk shows. The messages, however, are disjointed and sporadic.

Unlike in the time of Nehru, there are far too many messages in far too many media types communicated by far too many people. Teasing out a narrative from all this has so far been near impossible in this year’s elections.  

1.         A study of Nehru. 1960 ed: Times of India; 1959.
2.         Sharma R. Electorate 2014. Frontline.  18 April 2014.
3.         Mishra AR, Anuja, Tandon S, Verma G. Census profiles the young Indian voter, spender. Live Mint.  7 September 2013.

4.         Visvanathan S. The future and the AAP. The Hindu.  16 April 2014.

Related blogs:
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  2. Life beyond 7% growth
  3. Will the NAPM-AAP marriage work?

1 comment:

  1. Nice article Gopi. In our days, we didn't get to learn much abou this subject and whatever we knew was gleaned from newspapers and the occasional magazines such as Illustrated Weekly. The youth today have the advantage of the internet with its amazing depth and reach. However, I feel that the fire in them needs to be kindled to campaign for what is wrong and join hands and fight to take our beloved country out of the depths of corruption, malfeasance and despondency into which it has fallen. Its not enough that they sit back and post comments on facebook and twitter, more needs to be done, maybe even start at the grassroots...the classrooms...make it part of the education system....

    ....maybe I'm dreaming!!!