India’s young voters look to Narendra Modi for change

A vendor sells lemons at a market in Allahabad, India. Analysts say India isn’t creating nearly enough salaried jobs to absorb the 10 million young people entering its workforce each year.
A vendor sells lemons at a market in Allahabad, India. Analysts say India isn’t creating nearly enough salaried jobs to absorb the 10 million young people entering its workforce each year.
(Rajesh Kumar Singh / Associated Press)

They have grown up in a modernizing India, with 3G networks and 24-hour ATMs allowing freer access to money and information than their parents ever had. They are more educated and ambitious, too, but their middle-class aspirations have stalled in a sluggish economy.

Now India’s frustrated youths have found an unlikely savior: a gray-bearded, teetotaling Hindu conservative whose vigorous message of change and growth resonates with a generation impatient for both.

Narendra Modi, 63, who will be sworn in as prime minister on Monday, propelled his party to one of the most comprehensive election wins in Indian history thanks largely to the support of young voters. Two-thirds of Indians are younger than 35, and exit polls showed that voters in that age group flocked to Modi, swayed by his polished campaign, sophisticated use of social media and calls for a stronger, more self-confident India.


“For the first time, I thought, this was an able leader for the youth, who can take us out of our doldrums,” said Sanjay Yadav, a 24-year-old journalism graduate student in Mumbai, India’s largest city.

Last fall, Yadav volunteered to register college-age voters for Modi’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, his first involvement in organized politics. On a recent evening, he danced to ear-splitting Bollywood songs with dozens of fellow young BJP supporters at a victory party in a sweaty Mumbai auditorium.

“We told everyone during the campaign, ‘Go and tell your parents to vote BJP, for our sake,’” Yadav said. “Do it for the young generation, because it is us who will build the country.”

India’s youths, dubbed the “Modi generation,” and their swaggering hero have the potential to remake not only their country’s politics but also the way it projects itself to the world.

The secular liberal values that have defined the country since its independence in 1947 appear to mean less to many young Indians than good jobs, efficient governance and the middle-class comforts they see in images from places such as China, with its bullet trains, smooth highways and grand infrastructure.

Many also want a strong, decisive leader, which Modi embodies with his barrel-chested, finger-wagging stage presence and his offstage reputation for authoritarianism and silencing party officials who cross him.


“This is a group that wants results, and many of them would have voted for change and for getting things moving,” said Gautam Adhikari, a former editor of the Times of India, the country’s leading newspaper. “Modi delivered a powerful message of getting things done.”

These voters were still in school when India began throwing off the shackles of its plodding, state-run economy in the 1990s. Whereas their parents grew up with occasional outages — and only one staid government TV channel, which broadcast official news and Hindu religious dramas on a never-ending loop — this generation, particularly the growing share living in cities, has rarely been starved for choice.

In 2001, with India a decade into its reforms, Modi became chief executive of the western coastal state of Gujarat, which he helped turn into a magnet for entrepreneurs. Word spread about Modi’s efforts to court big business, promote infrastructure projects and blast through red tape with what he called “minimum government, maximum governance.”

As India’s expansion lost momentum in the last two years and a series of corruption scandals stoked anger toward the long-governing Indian National Congress party, Modi and Gujarat became subjects of nationwide fascination.

Reshma Mayekar, 21, visited the state recently and was impressed by its new highways, reliable electricity and orderly traffic. But what really drew her to Modi’s candidacy was worry about her employment prospects.

Analysts say India isn’t creating nearly enough salaried jobs to absorb the 10 million young people entering its workforce each year. Underemployment is becoming endemic, with informal jobs accounting for an estimated 94% of the workforce.


“One of my friends has an MBA and he’s sweeping trash at a school,” Mayekar said. “My sister has a master’s. She’s very intelligent, but she’s not finding a job. This is a normal situation. We don’t want this India. We want something else.”

The darker side of Modi’s resume, which prompted the U.S. State Department to deny him a visa for nearly a decade, was his inability or unwillingness to stop a 2002 pogrom in Gujarat in which more than 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims. Modi has been cleared of wrongdoing by court inquiries but is still widely seen as a sectarian leader. Before entering politics, he rose through the ranks of a right-wing Hindu volunteer organization with close ties to the BJP.

That tainted background has taken a back seat to young voters’ more pressing needs.

“I don’t necessarily believe that he was innocent in the riots,” said Vaibhav Ambeskar, 23. “Probably he played some passive role. Still, we are ready to put that behind and move forward.”

Mihir Sharma, a columnist with the Business Standard newspaper, said Modi’s defiance of critics after the riots actually stands as a mark of strength to young voters. So does his passionate opposition to decades of Congress party welfare programs, including food subsidies and affirmative action for minorities and lower castes. The policies are credited with improving living standards for millions of the most vulnerable Indians, but the Modi campaign portrayed them as vehicles for corruption and part of a failing state-run system that must be dismantled to unleash growth.

“They see all forms of welfare spending, all forms of pluralism in policy, secularism, reservations in jobs, in colleges, this entire gamut of policies and ideas and values put in place to minimize social tension and increase equality — they see all these as exactly the things that are holding India back,” Sharma said.

Modi has acknowledged that replicating Gujarat’s success across a country of India’s size and complexity could require longer than one five-year term, but many supporters said they would be patient.


“People really do want change,” said Apurva Kulkarni, a 19-year-old accounting student in Mumbai’s northern suburb of Thane. “Most people have a soft corner for Congress because of its history.... But you cannot keep your history from blocking your future.”