CHENNAI: The Internet on this side of the world broke into a frenzy when Makkal Needhi Maiam’s 25-year-old newbie candidate Padma Priya made some questionable statements on caste and caste-based reservations. Her attempts to clear the air about the ‘misinterpretations’ that followed only made things worse. Social media took it upon itself to respond with clarifications of its own, resorting to eloquent speeches by the late M Karunanidhi and others. As much as this vocal population tried to set the course straight on the matter at hand, a friend pointed out that people seemed to have little trouble with caste-correct A Raja of DMK dismissing sexual harassment allegations against Vairamuthu as “unsubstantiated”.
While Twitter and Facebook have never been the best examples of reason and measured reaction, it does offer a decent insight into our current political climes and we certainly seem to have need to worry. Beyond the understanding of double standards and ideologically-skewed politics, our average voter’s political literacy leaves much to be desired. While we have a handful of organisations — Young People for Politics, Yuva India, Global Shapers Community and such — working to combat this lacuna, their proponents agree that there’s plenty of work left to be done.
It has to be ‘trending’ for people to know about it; but, when you get to the nuances of it, there is very little understanding among today’s vocal population, suggests Aishwarya Kalpathi, founder and CEO of Yuva India. “Because of social media, people do know what is happening currently. But, if you go into the nuances of it or into something extremely basic, no one knows anything about it. If you were to ask people what are the pillars of democracy, not many are going to say “legislature, executive and judiciary” right? We have a long, long way to go. Right now, people know the issues but it has to be trending for them to know it. You’ll know what’s happening in Chennai but do you really know what’s happening in Virudhunagar or Sattur — any district in Tamil Nadu itself, let alone the rest of the country?” she questions.
Educate to agitate
While there are many young people being extremely enthusiastic about working in politics and raising awareness on good governance, we need to shift the focus from individual contributions to the collective effort, she suggests. It’s to address this goal that Yuva India entered the space of political education in 2018, offering services in the areas of education, empowerment and leadership. Under the banner of education, the team conducts seminars and certificates, courses on the many aspects of governance for college students. Their work under empowerment is a little more all-encompassing.
“We have an online platform where people can post issues they have in their area, and depending on how many votes it gets, we’ll push it to officials and try to get it solved. We started pushing that platform when the pandemic happened. We also have a space where students can post articles. (Come election time) there’s also a very exhaustive database of candidates — you can check their criminal history, education, assets they have disclosed, how many times they contested and won. These are affidavits that candidates are legally required to file. We take that data, compile it and put it in a form that is easy to understand,” she explains. Trimming down this idea to fit the current election season is the Global Shapers Community and their database of election manifestos.
It began with the community’s Chennai chapter wanting to do more than just ask people to exercise their franchise. “We first put out a survey on National Voters Day titled Why Vote for X? We not only wanted to know who you are voting for but why. One of the things we found from the survey was that people need to know more about why they are voting for someone. Through that process, we identified that there is no one place where you can see all manifestos. Parties put out their manifesto at different times and you see it all over the news, but there is no one place for it. That’s the problem we wanted to solve; once we identified that, we rapidly started building the solution for it,” recounts Vikram Ravi Ramanathan, one of the core team members. It’s been two weeks since TN Election Promises 2021 (electionpromises.in) went online and it’s received quite the response through word-of-mouth and celebrity endorsements.
On ideological grounds
Young People for Politics, an organisation that has been working to educate and engage youth in democratic thought and processes, has a different focus this election season. The team has been trying, through their Tamil Nadu election desk ,to address the narrative that little good can come from choosing between ‘two evils’. “(This time) it’s almost like choosing between a person who will loot you and one who will put a knife to your throat. In that situation, we need to go beyond our immediate circumstances — me, myself and my people — and look at the larger context in which the country is evolving. This election, we’re looking at a split vote...a complex situation, where urban young people who are just about getting an understanding of politics are the target.
Especially to the third front or wherever else they want to call themselves. They (target population) have so much access and privilege that they can make a difference. But, we’re already swaying them towards a place where their votes can only put us in a more precarious position than actually strengthen us. So, we’ve been working towards consistently educating young people on looking at what these various factors are. This is the one election after many decades that we are fighting on an ideological basis. In that situation, if non-partisan entities create enough noise, then there will be a consolidation of votes instead of splitting of votes,” elaborates Radhika Ganesh, one of YPP’s convenors. Towards that end, the forum has been active in the election states — on ground and on social media — putting up a slew of information on the parties at play, their political history, policies they represent, constituencies and governance issues. But, the going hasn’t been easy.
Of bias and false beliefs
For a population that is dealing with an onslaught of information from media organisations (like Facebook) that inhibit mass engagement (unless it’s paid for), confirmation bias seems to be the first stop to knowledge seeking. “We have always claimed to be non-partisan. However, in politics, there’s no neutrality right? You always have a point of view. Today, more and more young people who agree to that point of view are streaming towards us. This was not our intent; our idea was to try and keep content that would attract young people who have different points of view, for them to come and engage in it. But, I think it’s got more to do with technical policies and restrictions than the content itself. We continue to be cautious of content we put out, which has potential for engagement, and scope and space for dialogue. But, we are just not able to reach them. For a small organisation that doesn’t get any institutionalised funding, how do we break through such difficult spaces and get to young people who have a different point of view. So, the digital space is heavily polarised. And, clearly, these algorithms were not created for political purposes but once it falls into political purposes, it has become convenient to further polarise young people,” offers Radhika.
While this is a huge battle in itself, these organisations — in their capacities — have had to contend with fake news and do their part in countering it as well. And that’s no mean task. Where Global Shapers’ work is concerned, they combat fake news by presenting the party manifestos verbatim. “We went to the source — the manifesto — and brought it to a more digestible format. We not only provide what each party has to offer but you can also compare by focus areas; like what each party has to offer for agriculture or education. While we are not doing anything directly to target fake news, we’ve taken the manifestos word for word. Besides, when everyone comes to one place, it will drastically reduce the fake news around this subject,” says Vikram.For Aishwarya, the treatment has to be a lot more principle-based. “We tell students to look at the source of the news. We have focus groups on WhatsApp with these students and we send them the news of the week. On our social media also, we cover news every week. We always cite the resource as well,” she offers.
Counting on the future
However, now, fake news has moved from being just misleading to toxic, says Radhika. “The fake news factory is working overtime. The difficult part is that it is not just information anymore, it is an entire package — it comes out with credible names, news channel logos. Unless you have a dedicated fact-checking group, it becomes hard to decipher if it’s fake. Now, fake news is no more just bad statistics, it’s very toxic content. It’s hard for independent entities to be able to just stop these things. So, one of the things YPP has raised in our manifesto is a detailed Information Technology and Communication demand — the kind of policies that need to be developed in this space; everything from data mining and protection, all the way to fake news. All of this comes with efficient IT and Communication policies. And young people are very interested in all these things,” she surmises.
In a country that boasts of the largest youth population in the world, young people’s interest in politics and its nuances are, naturally, essential. Going by the experience of YPP or Yuva India, it’s safe to say that even though we have a long way to go by means of youth representation in electoral politics, the quality of engagement has increased manifold. While this election is no different in terms of mere numbers, there’s much hope in it anyway, they say. We’ll know soon enough.
Courses on good governance
Under the banner of education, Yuva India, started in 2018, conducts seminars and certificates courses on the many aspects of governance for college students. Their work under empowerment is a little more all-encompassing.