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Assessing the electoral choices and opinions of young India
Ajachi Chakrabarti  1st Mar 2014

Illustration: Rashmi Gupta | Dev Kabir Malik Design

f we changed the word 'politics' to 'life', would you be interested?"

This question is posed to the audience at almost every workshop of the unManifesto Project. At first glance, the question is fatuous. It is, after all, almost inconceivable that anybody with access to television or newspapers wouldn't be interested in what is fast becoming the most-watched general election in Indian history. But the organisers of the campaign aren't interested in treating politics merely as a spectator sport. Their concern is with what is at stake this April — the sort of polity that will be created by the government we eventually elect; with getting the people who will actually inhabit that new parliamentary democracy, the youth, to articulate what they expect of that government.

That last bit is of supreme importance. Much has been made of the projected 15 crore first-time voters who are expected to swing this election. Every major party and political leader puts the concerns of our youth front and centre in their stump speeches. What these concerns precisely are is the stuff of opinion polls and panel discussions and badly written books. The unManifesto Project, an initiative of Commutiny and 44 partner NGOs in 20 states, is working to remove the middleman and crowd-source a manifesto that lays out exactly what young India expects from the politicians who seek their vote.

The first step, of course, is to get the kids to care. Arjun Shekhar, a co-founder of Commutiny, calls this engaging with the "fifth space", as opposed to friends, family, education and careers, the four spheres young people are typically concerned about. "Politics," says Shekhar, "is seen as a dirty word, but everything we do is politics. If the daughter of a family is not allowed to go out and party but the son is, how you respond to the situation is a political act." A typical workshop begins with that premise, then transitions from everyday to electoral politics. A team from PRS Legislative Research walks the participants through the electoral and legislative processes, the importance, nature and structure of a well-drawn manifesto. After this groundwork, the participants are asked for their specific proposals, which are debated at length. "For instance, if someone proposes allocating 10% of the budget for education," says Shekhar, "we ask them where they would make cuts to accommodate it."

The unManifesto Project, an initiative of Commutiny and 44 partner NGOs in 20 states, is working to remove the middleman and crowd-source a manifesto that lays out exactly what young India expects from the politicians who seek their vote.

Turns out, stoking interest was the easy part. "We started the campaign assuming young people didn't want to engage with politics," says Niha Kamal, who has been associated with Commutiny and Pravah, a sister organisation, since 2011. The figures suggest otherwise; the workshops have already been attended by over one lakh young people, while over 50,000 promises have been collected. That's the hard part, pruning these diverse ideas into a final list. Participants are asked to vote on the measures that are currently the most popular, and the list is constantly updated. A final list will be handed over to representatives of major political parties for consideration. The campaign plans to then rate the manifestos of these parties on whether they have taken up the demands, and act as a focus group to ensure appropriate legislation is drawn up by the next government.

These promises are revealing not only of the mindset of our young voters, but of the soundness of the project itself. Unlike most similar initiatives, unManifesto doesn't pass off the opinion of a handful of elites as representative of national opinion. Their reliance on on-ground activities rather than mere online engagement means the participants come from all sorts of backgrounds — rural and urban, slum-dwellers, school and college dropouts, dalits, adivasis, religious minorities. "We are actually more rural than urban," says Kamal. "Our partners are very active at the district level." By asking parties to improve living conditions of commercial sex workers or to amend AFSPA to exclude cases of rape and murder, the participants reassure us that empathy is not dead among our youth. By asking for the strengthening of the public distribution system or free health services in rural India, they debunk the notion that young India has little patience for the welfare state. "It is important," says Shekhar, "that you don't talk only about what you want, but also what you want as a citizen of this country."

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