It’s your vote

Groups across India are helping voters make informed choices

Written by Veena Ramanna | Published: March 14, 2009 10:24:54 pm

The urban educated class in India is beginning to show renewed interest in the political process. While there are some groups that have chosen to take a plunge into the political arena head on by contesting elections,several others are choosing to engage with the electoral process in different ways. In this election season,it is not just the political parties who are preparing to reach out to the masses. A host of other professionals are getting involved in their own ways to be part of the process.

The efforts of the Association for Democratic Reforms to keep elections free from people with criminal charges started off some years ago with professors at the Indian Institute of Management. In the course of these years,they have put together a broad coalition of citizen groups across the country. Building on these efforts,a group of young professionals have come together over the past few weeks to launch a nationwide campaign for “no criminals in politics”. This campaign was a direct result of the frustration and feeling of “we need to do something” in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attack.

Other groups have also come up in the recent past with a desire to do more than just candlelight vigils. A group called is focusing on the three constituencies in urban Bangalore. This group believes in informing voters about candidates’ credentials and their past records. They expect that such an effort would create the right incentives for political parties to give tickets to credible and clean candidates. In Mumbai,another group of professionals have come together under the umbrella of MumbaiVotes to enable voters to make informed choices for the six constituencies in Mumbai city. The JaagoRe campaign began as an effort to enable new voters to register. In its work over the past several weeks,JaagoRe has over four lakh people registered on its website from across the country.

The important development is that the people involved in some of these initiatives belong to a group that has itself been disengaged from the political process all these years,but is now not only engaged but is also trying to mobilise others to participate. Some of the approaches taken by these groups tend to reflect some core values and strengths of these groups.

First,almost all of them are involved in the political/ governance space,but none is explicitly partisan. They have chosen issues that are above party considerations,such as electoral reforms,voter registration,demanding candidates with no criminal charges,providing more information to voters to enable them to make better informed decisions,etc.

Second,these groups have chosen approaches to address systemic problems they have identified. They do not feel that merely aligning with or supporting existing political formations will lead to the desired change,even though they realise that demanding cleaner politics from the outside is a long-drawn process.

Third,these groups have chosen approaches that are “technocratic” in nature. Although many of the issues they have chosen can be addressed in several ways,including public protests,these groups have preferred to gather information on the issues,disseminate it to the larger public,and expect citizens to take action based on such information.

Fourth,these initiatives also focus on leveraging new technologies to reach out to citizens. They have used websites,social networking sites,SMS,audio-visual media,

viral marketing,etc to engage the public. Given that these new technologies are more accessible to the young and educated classes,the natural target audience of some of the initiatives is the new educated urban voter.

Last,several of these initiatives are led by non-traditional actors — people who have not been social or political activists before. Many of these individuals are people with fulltime professional commitments who are taking time out to make a difference in their own ways.

Critics are quick to point out that such armchair engagement is not good enough and is likely to be a passing fad. But it would be a mistake to dismiss such energy altogether. The changing demographic in India offers new possibilities for engagement and mobilisation around issues and people that would not have been possible before. But,the real challenge lies in the ability of these groups to reach out to the larger public in innovative and engaging ways. This is an opportunity for capable political and social entrepreneurs to build a broad-based coalition for change.

The writer is working on IndiaGoverns,an initiative focussed on political accountability

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