My Essay for the World Youth Movement for Democracy

The World Youth Movement for Democracy, under the aegis of the National Endowment for Democracy, Washington DC, held an essay contest to encourage young people around the world to express their thoughts, hopes, and dreams regarding democracy and human rights in their respective countries. My following essay was judged to be amongst the top globally, and of the 3 finalists from Asia, and was published in ‘Youth in Action: Paving the Way for Democracy’ by NED in June, 2011.

Empowering the Young Indian Voter

The world’s second most populous country, India, is also its largest democracy; a system instituted over 60 years ago by national leaders and freedom fighters after enormous sacrifices and struggles to achieve independence and to secure the citizens of the nation, the right to participate in the process of their own governance. Thus, for India, participation of the people in the electoral process by exercising their right to vote is of utmost importance, with out which it ceases to remain a representative democracy that it set out to be.

However, while overpopulation, illiteracy and poverty remain amongst India’s major economic and social problems that this system aspired to tackle, these same factors also lead to abuse of the democratic structure itself by politicians who have continuously exploited the gullible masses and manipulated them to cast their valuable votes on the lines of religion, caste, creed, region, colour, race or gender. Politics in India has been marked with taking advantage of social malaises prevalent in the country for spreading hatred and garnering votes.

With economic liberalisation and a new economic policy, the 1990s saw the rise of the middle class in India, a class of young citizens that has benefited the most from the nation’s economic boom. The emerging youth of India, well-educated, capable of looking beyond petty issues and adept to make informed decisions, was expected to take the baton forward for the nation and rid the political system of its malaises by electing competent and honest representative to power.

However, the young generation of India had shown signs of not appreciating the hard-earned right to vote. When the country went to polls earlier this decade, it was those among the 880 million people surviving on less than $2 a day — many of them illiterate and easily manipulated by politicians — who turned out in force, while the corresponding turnout amongst the 50 million eligible voters comprising of students and young professionals of the country, especially from urban areas, remained abysmally low. Besides this, voter turnout was quite low in urban areas in general as well, significantly lower than the rural parts of the nation. In Delhi, India’s capital city, it was 47 per cent in 2004. And in some parts of the capital, it was as low as 26 per cent.

This trend is seen in many developing as well as developed democracies, and poses a significant threat to the virtue of democracy. Looking at the sad state of affairs, the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, a not-for-profit organisation that works with citizens and governments to bring about comprehensive solutions to the problems faced by the Democratic system in India, decided to face the challenge with innovative ways to reach the youth in India.

They were joined by Tata Tea, the World’s second largest and India’s largest tea brand. Along with a large market presence in India, Tata Tea is also looked upon as a physical and emotional revitaliser, a unifying force, consumed by the rich and poor, aged and young, across social and economic strata of the citizenship in India alike. Thus, collaborating with Janaagraha, Tata tea also established thought leadership for the brand by becoming a catalyst for ‘Social Awakening,’ with the message ‘Har Subah Sirf Utho Mat, Jaago Re’ (Every Morning, don’t just get up, Wake Up!), as the tagline for the ‘Jaago Re! One Billion Votes’ campaign.

The initiative aimed at awakening the youth of this country to the importance of exercising their right to vote as a means to bring about the change they seek, with an objective to create a platform that will motivate the vast numbers of Indian youth to participate actively in the electoral process of the country. The campaign seeks to empower the youth to influence polity by exercising their right to vote.

As citizens in a democracy such as India, one’s most powerful identity is the political identity of a voter. Yet this identity is neglected by most, either out of cynicism or out of fear of the hurdles involved in exercising the right to vote. Jaago Re! One Billion Votes is thus a clarion call to the youth, to jettison the cynicism and take the first step towards citizenship. What is amazing is the fact that this is a campaign for the youth, wholly conceptualized and executed by the youth as well.

Janaagraha brought its comprehensive knowledge on electoral processes, and structured citizen participation as key elements of the Jaago Re! One Billion Votes campaign, while the necessary financial and outreach support needed for such a mammoth project was provided by Tata Tea, a pioneering example of corporate-public partnership to bring about meaningful change in the society.

At the crux of the initiative is the website, which is a one stop site for all needs of the potential voter. The site, along with mobile service technology and IVR support, provided users with an end to end platform to facilitate voter registration, informing voters of their electoral constituency, location of their respective polling booth, etc., and hosted an online voter registration engine to allow citizens across the country to fill their voter registration forms in 5 minutes and also get directions to submit the form at the relevant office in their city. Hence, the Jaago Re One! Billion Votes campaign is not only a call to action but a platform which provides any potential voter all the information and facilitation he or she needs to become part of the electoral process.

The campaign was publicised by Tata Tea as a part of their own advertising efforts, with television, print and online ads focussing on creating awareness and inspiring the youth of this country to participate in the voting process, thereby creating rapid and mass awareness for the campaign. This was integral also as demonstrated by the insights from surveys conducted amongst youth in India, which indicated that over half of the younger population who didn’t vote faced lack of awareness. Outreach partnerships were also made with other prominent media channels including Lok Satta Andolan (prominent newspaper in West India), PRIA (North India), Yahoo! India, Radio One FM 94.3 and Midday.

The campaign was a huge success, and at the onset of the 2009 parliamentary elections, reported having registered 589,677 new voters, while driving awareness to many others. The cutting edge technology and meticulous planning behind the campaign is illustrated by the fact that was recognised as an official honouree at the 13th Webby awards, an international award presented annually by The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences for excellence on the Internet with categories in websites, interactive advertising, online film and video, and mobile.

Janaagraha was also the pioneer behind ‘Jaagte Raho!’, a non-partisan campaign with a vision of improvement in the quality of political leadership, by encouraging the youth to participate actively in various causes and play their roles in improving the Indian democracy by providing them with a platform to together and effectively channel all these energies in a manner that creates a tangible impact. The Bengaluru Electoral Systems Transformation (B.E.S.T), result of sustained advocacy efforts of ‘Jaagte Raho!’ with the Election Commission of India (ECI), is spearheading efforts to provide all citizens of Bangalore with electronic photo identity cards, thus facilitating flawless electoral lists and giving everyone their right to vote, with plans to scale out to other cities in India in the future.

Similar efforts have been seen in the past couple of years, aiming at mobilising young India for the first time, using mass media and other channels popular amongst the youth. ‘Exercising Franchise for Good Governance’ (EFG), a non-profit organisation set up in Delhi in November 2008, with the slogan “Bad politicians are elected by citizens who do not vote!” organises weekly jogs around Delhi to get people to cast their ballots, and sending buses to do the same at universities, markets and shopping malls in other cities, to get India’s apathetic middle class, and especially the young, out to vote.

Other corporate entities have also joined the efforts, and have come up with innovative ways to encourage voting. 2009 saw a number of stores and shops in and around Delhi and other major Indian cities offering, what they called, ‘Democracy Discounts.’ Designer clothes, books, mugs and wristbands were available on discount upon following a simple procedure – one just had to flaunt the “blank ink mark”, a mark left by indelible ink used in the electoral process in India, as a proof of having exercised their right to vote. To further popularise the campaign, mugs were carrying autographs of famous Bollywood (Hindi Film Industry) director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, widely seen as an icon for Indian youth. Since these products are aimed primarily at the youth, who also form a major chunk of the non-voting population during every electoral season, these corporate campaigns that made the voting mark a style statement proved to be very successful.

Much of the interest in political process and understanding of the significance of able leadership was embraced by the youth in the wake of terrorist attacks on the city of Mumbai in November 2009. When the 19 year old Kaizad Bhamgara was faced with the pain of his loss and frustration over the ineptitude of the government’s response to the aforementioned terrorist attacks, which took away the lives of three of his friends, he was inspired to set up, initially, a facebook page, which later scaled into a Web site, a YouTube channel and a blog, aiming to encourage his peers to vote in India’s national elections, to be held soon afterwards.

The attacks which had left more than 170 people dead and more than 230 wounded, had spurred India’s disillusioned middle-class youths to sudden political action, with realisations over the dismal standards of leadership and dissatisfaction with their own non-participatory attitude. Indian political analysts thus concluded that young voters played an unprecedented role in determining the composition of India’s next government.

Hence, while India’s middle-class youths blew off voting as a waste of time in the past, the new generation technology and applications such as social media and the likes that helped the youth engage with one another were now being used to expose the misdeeds of political leaders and encourage them to influence the political arena by the power of their vote. Text messaging also emerged as a new and powerful medium of awareness, with almost 400 million people in India owning cellphones.

Such scenarios are not unique to India, and have been seen all over the world in the recent past. The political scene in the United States was also largely influenced by new age modes of engagement and youth participation, which has been seen as a powerful positive intervention in one of the most powerful democracies of the world.

The time has come, for the youth to participate in the democratic process, and thus to determine the future of their respective nations and of a democratic world which they have to live in.

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