Archive for December, 2009

Citizens’ Efforts to Improve Elections

I got this mail from Gerson Da Cunha of Agni:

“Since 1999, AGNI has sought to mobilize and guide citizens at the time of elections, whether to the Lok Sabha, Maharashtra Assembly or Mumbai municipal corporation.  Citizens of Mumbai have now come to look to AGNI for help in this sense.  It was no different for the elections to the 15th Lok Sabha, roughly February to April 2009, with demands and phone calls intensifying as Election Day, April 30, approached.

The queries often became angry, with citizens believing that AGNI was virtually a government department, in charge of the electoral rolls / voter registration etc. As for every election, AGNI ran consultations on, and developed, a Citizens’ Charter and Local Area Action Groups to impress on citizens the great importance of voting. Near Election Day, the Charters were presented to all candidates at citizen meetings.

AGNI made a special point of involving and supporting the media both press and electronic.  Not for just this reason, the media supported and promoted the elections in an unprecedented way.

AGNI’s efforts were concentrated on citizens exposed to the media, print and electronic, and those that AGNI naturally relates to: the middle classes.  The overall voting percentage was 41% of a voting population of 8 million plus against 43% of 1 million fewer in 2004.  But it is now established that there was substantially lower turnout in the city’s slums – 60% of the population – and in Muslim dominated areas. The reasons are numerous and complex, among them problems with interests now called “vote brokers.”  Who, then, brought the voting proportion even as high as 41%?  It is not illogical to believe that the middle classes turned out in greater numbers this time round, a development presaged by the unusually large queues at polling booths in middle class areas.

This is an eminently desirable development given that these classes are more aware of political issues, are less affected than others by caste / religion / language compulsions, and by money or muscle power.

Some features of the AGNI Campaign

There was a significant volume of citizen ignorance and complaint voiced to AGNI. To help with registration, a locality drive was flagged off in a quiet locality of Central Mumbai.  The local AGNI Coordinator got an officer from the local ERO to run a street corner registration office. As many as 200 registrations were effected in an afternoon, compared to only 2 applications over a whole week at the ERO.  This is an initiative that deserves to be widely replicated in the city and supported by the CEO / Collectors.

Ms Shyama Kulkarni of AGNI and college students, forming an “I-Vote” group went out to some 30 colleges, supported by local AGNI Coordinators.  The CEO Maharashtra wrote to some 80 college principals asking them to facilitate registration of eligible students. In this way, AGNI Coordinators and volunteers were able to get as many as some 12,000 young people registered.

Supply of CDs and Rolls

Citizens’ concern about their enrolment status is a major issue.  The CEO’s website is of little use because not everyone has access to the internet and, once there, numerous problems assail the enquirer.  The CEO making available to AGNI the rolls on CDs did help.  But this is an area that demands study and new measures of assistance to citizens. The AGNI / ERO relationship in several areas helped to resolve some problems but the solution should not depend on this relationship and cooperative EROs.  AGNI has the satisfaction of having helped countless people to verify their registration status and to orient Citizen Help Groups e.g. SEVA in Dahisar.

 “Meet Your Candidates” events

AGNI conducted or participated in about a dozen events of this kind.  Candidates were invited to interact with citizens, sign off on the Citizen Charters and commit themselves to implementation of those demands.  We are now in a period of dialogue with elected MPs on an implementation process.  Meetings are being fixed. In some constituencies, AGNI was able to motivate voting despite calls for a boycott of voting for local reasons. Five of the city’s six constituencies were covered in this way.

 Spreading awareness of candidate disclosures

Alongwith the Association for Democratic Reform (ADR),  AGNI summarized and summed up in easily identifiable form the disclosures made by 100 odd candidates as to their police record, if any, education and assets / liabilities.  Very useful tables were produced.  They were published in an AGNI organ “Mumbai Meri Jaan” of which 3 lac copies were printed and distributed.

 Janaagraha of Bangalore ran for AGNI and other citizen groups a series of training sessions in which citizens were prepared for running training sessions in their own localities.

 Collaboration with the CEO and State machinery

The CEO and Collectors (City and Suburbs) were understanding and prompt with their cooperation. This cannot be sufficiently applauded. But their attitude was not always reflected at the ERO level, the vital interface with citizens, where neglect, ignorance and carelessness were often experienced.

 The election mechanism in the land has to depend on staff from a variety of other departments whose careers do not depend on performance at election time.  This explains some of the problems, but not all.  Training of such “visitors” must be taken much more seriously by them as well as the election authorities in the State.  They will be aware of other ways in which the citizen can be better served, an issue that is given an undesirably low priority, well below the convenience of the administration.”

, , ,

No Comments

How I Learnt What Education is All About

It was early evening, the air was cool, and the hall was brimming with town people and high ranking officials – an unusual sight in a small town such as this.

This was the third year of the Annual Awards for the Most Innovative Teacher’s of Cannanore District, a small town on the west coast of India. It’s also my hometown, the place I lived in until I was fifteen.

But it was heartening to see the turnout as what started out as a desire to “do something” was beginning to make a difference!

Three years ago, I read a report from a group of activists that Kerala Engineering colleges were finding it difficult to fill their seats as the high school system was just not producing enough students who could score the minimum needed to qualify in the entrance exam. Some Engineering colleges were taking in students who scored as low as 10 per cent in mathematics.

This was surprising as Cannanore, like the rest of Kerala has a near 100 per cent literacy rate; there’s a school within 1-2 km of every village; there are hardly any high school dropouts compared to the rest of the country. The solution lay in making both the teaching and the learning process exciting.

So one day, my wife, who’s a teacher, said, “Why don’t you start an annual award scheme to encourage innovative teachers?”

My wife and a group of volunteers among whom were the young, enthusiastic office bearers of the local Malabar Chamber of Commerce evangelized the scheme, held meetings to explain the entry requirements, supervised the evaluation and explained to the winners as well as the other entrants what went into choosing the winners. Of course we were looking for passionate teachers.

The past two years, we have awarded teachers who have taught value of numbers, the meaning of angles and other math things to children in the most creative manner, thus doing away with rote learning altogether.  

But this year’s prize for the High School Category was an eye-opener. The Prize Winning Lesson Plan in this category went to K Nirmala, a teacher at a Government High School in a village in the district, who used a short story from our legendary Malayalam short story writer SK Pottakad. The story’s called How I became a Short Story Writer.

The teacher had taken her students to an old people’s home in Cannanore where they spent the day talking to the inmates, understanding why they were there and not with their children. Listening to their stories, the students gathered that a society that doesn’t look after its older people is not a civilized one. I am tempted to read out SK Pottakat’s story. So here’s the abridged version:

“An incident that took place when I was in high school had set me on the path of becoming a short story writer. One day, as I was doing my homework in our bungalow verandah, an old woman groped her way up the verandah steps with one hand, and in the other, holding a dirt(y) envelope.

She kept the envelope on the table, sat on the floor and told me her story. She told me that she had, over the years, sold all her belongings and also worked many years as a domestic servant to give her only son a reasonably comfortable life and to pay for his education. Eventually, she succeeded in her achieving her dreams: he got a job, fell in love with a girl he met at work, married her and set up a house- but without his aged mother.

She wiped her tears and cleared her nose with the old torn towel on her chest and said to me, “Please write a letter to my son and ask him whether he remembers me giving him food while I starved. Tell him about the time I sold the gold-coin in my necklace so that I could buy him a foot-ruler and instrument-box for school.”

Now he does not like the sight of me. He treats me like a dog and has thrown me out of his house. Please write about all this so that my son will change his mind about me.   
I felt l very sad at this poor old woman’s condition and started writing letters to her son on her behalf. In these letters, I started adding a few things of my own besides what she told me. After a few months, her son began sending her a little money without his wife’s knowledge. I am not sure, whether he began feeling guilty on his own or whether the embellishments I had added to her story made him feel remorse.

The son even once visited his mother and asked her who helped her in writing these letters and when she told him that it was me, a schoolboy, I felt a thrill.

Sadly, well before the old woman could take her son’s help, she died. That old and almost blind woman was my first teacher.”

Hearing how the teacher from a remote, small-town, government school, used Pottakad’s story to teach children the real values of human life, is when I learnt what real education is about.


, , , ,

No Comments

The Congress Party Ad Campaign for the 1984 Lok Sabha Elections

  I wrote this for Outlook Magazine’s special issue on the year 1984

 The man shuffled into the room, and cleared his throat. Rajiv Gandhi glanced away from the presentation screen that he had been watching so intensely for the past few hours. The four of us who had been making the presentation to him turned and looked at the man too. It was past midnight.  The man noticed he had Rajiv’s attention and he shuffled along the walls of the long conference room, bent and whispered into his ear. Rajiv stiffened   imperceptibly but his face showed no emotion.

    “Is she safe?” he asked. The man nodded. He waited for a moment for more questions and  seeing that none was coming, shuffled out of the room, We e returned to our presentation.

    It was August 1983, and Ninoy Aquino, that valiant opponent of President Ferdinand Marcos’s long, despotic rule had just been assassinated at Manila airport. Rajiv had enquired about his wife Corazon. In times to come, the assassination would catapult Corazon to the Philippine presidency and end Marcos’ 20-year regime, but right then, it was one more unsettling event of that unsettling year.

    The presentation we returned to was the ad campaign for the Congress Party for the forthcoming Lok Sabha election.

    As you can imagine, all of this was heady stuff for the four of us from Rediffusion. Arun Nanda and I were in our thirties and the other two, in their twenties and we were watching world history from a ringside seat.   Till then, we were  content, in our little world, exploring the creative limits of advertising, experimenting with the newly emerging personal computer to do snazzy media planning and such other turn-ons that befitted a bunch of kids from the IIMs.

    Rajiv Gandhi had been shanghaied into politics as General Secretary of the Congress Party; he had, in turn, shanghaied his friends Arun Singh and Arun Nehru into the Party to help improve the party’s fast dwindling chances in the imminent Lok Sabha Elections. Arun Singh was at Reckitt & Coleman and Arun Nehru at Jenson & Nicholson, two clients for who Rediffusion had just done feted ad campaigns. So, when our clients were called to Delhi, so were we.

    The presentation that we were all peering at was making a significant point. India, in the 1980’s, had an electorate of several hundred millions, but we had discovered through rigorous computer-based statistical analysis that only a very small percentage determined election outcomes; the balance were loyalists consistently voting for the same party in every successive election. When we ran these numbers on our computers more deeply we  discovered that these swing voters were very different from the rest; they were literate (in a country still swimming in illiteracy) and they were avid newspaper readers (in a country where newspaper penetration was still miniscule). This insight settled our media plan- we would run the Congress campaign only in print.

    As for the creative strategy, much of it suggested itself.  Look at what was going on just then. President Reagan had just raised the pitch of the Cold War confrontation by announcing  his Star Wars missile defense scheme (March 1983), 3000 Tamils are massacred in a genocide in Sri Lanka, sparking off  Tamil separatist  movement ( July 1983),  , Punjab had been on fire all year long and the Indian army had just been sent  in to flush out Sikh militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar (June 2004), half-a-million people are out on the streets of Manila protesting Marcos’ rule and Ninoy Aquino’s assassination (August 2004), …confrontation was everywhere!

    We correctly guessed that, in this era of uncertainty and turmoil, what the newspaper-reading swing voter wanted was  the peace and quiet that only a strong and impartial government could provide.

    Will Your Grocery List, in the Future, include Acid Bulbs, Iron Rods, Daggers?, asked the first ad. Ordinary citizens, we argued, need to arm themselves only when governments become weak. Your vote can make the difference between order and chaos. Vote for Congress.

    Will the Country’s Border Finally Move to Your Doorstep, asked the next, casting an eye on the raging separatist movements. Would you soon look uneasily at your neighbor just because he belongs to another community?  Vote for Congress and vote for unity, otherwise it is a vote for separatism.

    Can You Name the Country That Has a Higher Growth Rate than UK or US? , asked a third. We discovered, during our number-crunching, that in the middle of all the chaos that India in the five years up to then had grown industrially 4.9% per year compared to a 1.2% growth for the US and a 0.3 % decline for UK. 

    Can You Taste the Difference Between Dependency and Self Sufficiency?  Remember the taste of humiliation in the bread made from PL-480 grain gifted by the US and contrast this to the sweet taste of grain from India’s own Green revolution: 150 million tons in 1983 versus 50 million tons in the 1950’s.
    The campaign was ready to go on four-week notice as the monsoon of 1984 was drawing to a close. We  went back to our  day-job of trying to make soaps and detergents and toothpaste exciting to consumers, awaiting the start signal from the Congress Party.

    Then came the bombshell.

     On October 31st, two trusted Sikh guards in Mrs. Gandhi security detail (how many times we must have greeted these two while on our way to meetings there) assassinated her. We and the whole country watch in horror as Delhi goes up in flames.

    Suddenly the words we had crafted many, many months ago started ringing even truer than when we wrote them.

     Would we, ordinary, law-abiding citizens have to now go shopping for acid bulbs, iron rods, daggers to protect our families from the marauding crowds? Would we start looking uneasily at our neighbours because they came from a different community? Would it now become difficult to find an Indian among the millions of Sikhs and Hindus and Punjabis and Tamils and other? Would the country descend into chaos?

    Elections were called soon afterwards. The ad campaign ran as it was first created many months before that; in an amazing turn of events, reality had caught with our ad campaign. And this  reality, grimmer than we ever imagined,  heightened the nuances of the words and pictures we had used in the ad campaign and gave them an urgency that we had not seen when we created them.

    Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress Party won the 1984 election handsomely. But life soon became complicated for him and the Congress. The high industrial growth rate that we had advertised so proudly turned out to have been achieved through large-scale imports financed by extensive foreign commercial borrowings; when worldwide interest rates rose sharply and it came time to repay, India was in dire straits.  Unfortunately many, many other countries in the world had also done the same thing that India did- over-borrow from commercial banks at floating interest rates; when international lenders,  fearing large-scale default  pulled back, what we got was  the Great Recession of 1989.

    The 1989 Lok Sabha Elections, held with this inflation-stoked recession as the backdrop, resulted in the Congress Party being trounced soundly, teaching the Congress Party a lesson that they probably have not forgotten till today: never hold an election in the middle of a recession or inflation. By then, the Tamil separatist movement, that was sparked of by the genocidal attacks on the Sri Lanka Tamils in 1983 would claim Rajiv Gandhi’s own life.


, , ,

No Comments

P Sainath: “Is ‘paid news’ getting institutionalised?”

A sobering report by the journalist P Sainath writing in the Hindu recently

““Young dynamic leadership: Ashokrao Chavan,” read the headline of a prominent news item in the Marathi daily Lokmat (October 10). That was 72 hours before the people of Maharashtra went to vote in the State Assembly polls. The item was attributed to the newspaper’s “Special Correspondent,” making it clear this was a news story. The story showered praise on the Chief Minister of Maharashtra for having achieved so much for so many in so few months. The same story also appeared word for word the same day in the Maharashtra Times, a leading and rival Marathi daily. Two minds with but a single thought? Two hearts that beat as one?

A cute and comforting thought. Except that the very same story (again word for word, only with a different headline) had appeared three days earlier in the Marathi daily Pudhari (October 7). In that case, with a reporter’s name at the bottom of the item.

In the Maharashtra Times, the piece ran without a byline. But again, as a news story. There is no mention of the word advertisement or sponsored feature next to the item in any of the newspapers. And unless the bylined reporter of Pudhari moonlights as” Special Correspondent” for Lokmat, while also being a ghost-writer for the Maharashtra Times, the appearance of the same piece verbatim in the three rival newspapers does seem odd. But maybe not so odd? Mr. Chavan seems to have gained greatly from what is now called ‘package journalism’ or ‘coverage packages.’”

…read the full story here:

, ,

No Comments

Copyright © 2021 India Limited. All rights Reserved.  
Terms of Use  |   Disclaimer  |   Feedback  |   Advertise with us