Elections Beyond Speeches: The Importance Of An Inclusive Manifesto Design

By Shalaka and Adrian D’Cruz:

Sociologist Dipankar Gupta says, “People vote against the government of the day and not for what they are promised in writing. This is why it is so easy to be glib in a manifesto, promise the Milky Way, and throw in the moon too. It does not make a difference on the ground.” 

The question that everyone, from a political candidate, political strategist, journalist to every person sitting at a chai stall talking politics wants to know the answer to is how do people vote. Some people might depend on past experiences and others rely on family history or fellow voters.

Another determinant is the atmosphere that political parties usually create to draw attention at the time of elections. These are questions that far better qualified people than us have taken a stab at and arrived at incomplete conclusions.

Rather than trying to analyse the complicated and uncomplicated reasons behind why people vote the way they do, this piece seeks to answer a more important question, one which is easily answered. How should one vote?

The Urban Agenda 2020 aims at engaging all stakeholders at civil society platforms and level to create a better Delhi. (Photo provided by author)

Believe it or not, there is a correct way for common citizens to engage in politics. In this electoral atmosphere, where past misdeeds and statements that should disqualify most political candidates are disregarded at the drop of a hat (or a WhatsApp forward) it becomes even more important to understand that the fundamental reason why we as a people came together to elect a government.

The reason is simply, for the welfare of the people. In an ideal world, where neither war nor social cleavages exist, politicians are theoretically not supposed to be charismatic or world leaders, they are supposed to promise services to the people and deliver on these when elected.

The only concrete way to rate a political party’s performance is certainly not through their star campaigner’s rally speech 2-3 days before the election, or the personality battles between ideologues of the rival parties. It is and should only be measured by the yardstick of their election manifestos.

The only way to ascertain an incumbent government’s performance is through its manifestos. The only way to see the potential and promise of new candidates are their elections manifestos.

Even though manifestos are a major criterion on which to hold politicians and their supporters accountable, they are hardly ever used as such. The rhetoric built around out-of-context snapshots of the manifestos receive much more attention than actionable information in the documents themselves.

In the last Delhi Assembly Elections, the manifestos of three major political parties BJP, AAP, and INC made some crucial promises to ensure an improvement in the quality of life to citizens. Promises related to women safety (streetlights and CCTV cameras), reduction of pollution (solutions to traffic congestion), transparency in governance (e-governance techniques) etc. but the discourse around the Delhi election still centred around personality battles between the Prime Minister, Kiran Bedi (an old ally of Arvind Kejriwal) and the recently resigned AAP.

Putting aside the well known rhetoric in the run up to an election in India (which mostly turns vile), these manifestos were astoundingly short sighted with not one mention of informal sector workers, basti dwellers, solid waste management, waste disposal measures, the scourge of manual scavengers, rights of construction labourers, domestic workers, viewing the Delhi Master Plan from the lens of the urban poor, development of bastis and many more issues.

Not only were a majority of Delhi’s residents’ voices left unheard, the discussion around the election turned into a degraded blame game filled with untruths.

Community meeting on demands of construction workers at Gokalpuri, Delhi. (Photo provided by author)

Bridging this significant gap in the design of previous manifestos has been one of the main projects of the National Coalition for Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanisation (NCU) which is a collective of concerned citizens, urban researchers, housing rights activists, urban planners, CSO’s that work closely with informal sector groups and basti community members.

Generally, the strategy used to design a manifesto is to engage in community outreach and collect the popular demands of all sections of the public. Themes like poverty, marginalisation, informal economy, basic necessities of life (housing and water), employment and safety take center stage but the sad reality is that this tradition of packing in everything into a small, accessible document, denies detailed arguments or solutions by design.

An election manifesto requires exhaustive and comprehensive research which requires the process to become participatory. It requires the involvement of CityMakers who are supposed to be the central audience of the parties, researchers and CSOs who are working on the ground. The end goal of such a massive exercise is giving the manifesto and the community demands it is supposed to contain, value and priority during election campaigns.

Community meeting at Shahbad Dairy Basti, Rohini. (Photo provided by author)

The Right to City is about power, freedom, citizenship, economic opportunities and the realisation of constitutional rights for the urban poor working class, for the homeless, for immigrants, for all gender identities, youth, children and for all others committed to a truly democratic society. With this aim, our collective NCU, working to ensure just, equal and democratic urban spaces, launched a campaign called Delhi Urban Citizen’s Charter of Demands – Shehr-Nirmatao ki Dilli.

This campaign, which was a part of the NCU’s Urban Agenda, was one which saw participation from a group of concerned citizens, civil society members, academicians, youth groups, social activists, workers in the developmental sector, workers and members of urban poor collectives, who have been working on these very issues in various capacities with the goal of ensuring a just, equitable, fair, sustainable and inclusive city.

The campaign tried to look at the urban poverty themes including the informal sector, housing, homelessness, 4 types of livelihood (construction workers, domestic workers, street vendors, and waste pickers) issues related to gender, the transgender community, youth, children, and transportation.

We believe that the reimagining of the city requires a sizable contribution of its residents who are often overlooked in every decision-making process. At first, we tried to identify some gaps in the manifesto of these three major political parties. Catchy slogans raised in deafening tones state big promises, but these manifestos have consistently failed to address the unorganised and informal sectors which include the real CityMakers of Delhi.

The process had three crucial stages: consultation meetings with CSOs and researchers, community meetings at bastis and shelters, and political engagement with elected representatives, hopeful candidates and government officials. The main objective of the campaign was to further public participation and involvement in the decisions that directly affect their lives.

To grasp the issues and concerns of people from these marginalised sections, the state has to see urban poverty themes through both a macro and micro lens. For example, through gender, caste, religion and economic class theme. We were very clear that we want to present these demands to political parties to show them how significantly these communities contribute to the city and how nuanced their demands can be.

The process that our campaign follows can be the analogous setting for any Act or policy making process. This would not only make social realities directly impact the political but also make it easy for people to make wise political decisions.

A focused group discussion on the demands of informal sector workers at the Indian Social Institute. (Photo provided by author)

Women in Shahbad Dairy, Rohini refused to work at factories and industrial sites because going to work is too expensive and time consuming. They could sideline the household and family responsibility as it comes with the gender and social norms of the given society.

They are capable of working, skilled enough to work, and can provide much needed financial security to their households by working but are being denied any such opportunities because of structural constraints emanating from social norms.

Here, the question arises, what policies and initiatives are being taken by any government to break these constructs and norms and facilitate financial independence for these women. The people in DUSIB homeless shelter in Lodhi Road have complained that just constructing toilets doesn’t help the residents of shelter because 2 toilets for 100 residents is grossly inadequate in any sense and for this, regular surveys have to be done and people have to be given a platform to convey the issues that they are facing in the shelter and possible solutions.

In short, the process of coming up with an election manifesto has to be a two-way transaction as it is supposed to be the people’s manifesto. To make it participatory and inclusive, we have to include as many people as possible, and their vision, issues and demands in it.

Governance certainly does not operate in silos. This crucial process should not be left to political party research heads who sit in their party headquarters over snacks and come up with what they think a city needs (that too based on its political feasibility).

A political party’s manifesto making process displays not only the importance they attach to the governance of the city but also showcases the party’s actual ability to deliver. As citizens, we have the power to transform the quality of our lives every five years and, therefore it is our fundamental duty to read the manifestos of all these hopefuls so we are able to engage in intelligent debate and make sensible decisions.

It is in the interests of all involved if an inclusive and rigorous campaign is conducted to design and come up with an election manifesto. Who knows, when people are made to feel that they are part of the decisions made to govern them, maybe that will facilitate better implementation of the promises as well.

About the authors: Shalaka is a social designer and researcher and Adrian D’Cruz is an urban researcher working in the development sector. Both are contributors to the Urban Agenda 2020 campaign and have been associated with the civil society platform called National Coalition for Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanization.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: provided by author; Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.
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