NEW DELHI: Are government subsidies a necessity or just populism? Do you think the government should function like corporates? Is there really a need for the Women’s Reservation Bill? Should people check out the credentials of leaders before casting their vote? As India gets ready to vote in a new government, a group of dynamic web wizards have come together to inspire young people to ask the relevant questions and push for political change by actively taking part in the My unManifesto campaign, which aims to create a one-of-its-kind, crowd-sourced youth manifesto.

Creating just the right buzz on the Internet are motivated communicators from Youth Ki Awaaz, Got Stared.At and Halabol, who have been sparking debates around issues like clean governance, education and women’s safety, on dedicated web pages, Facebook and Twitter accounts and other social media platforms.

Talking about the need for being on virtual media, Mahamaya Navlakha, one of the Coordinators of the unManifesto campaign, says, “Young people are really influenced by what’s happening on social media. For a campaign that is aiming to encourage them to be politically active, a strong online presence doesn’t just ensure visibility but the buzz created gets noticed by political parties that are keeping an eye on what’s happening online.”

One of the key online facilitators of unManifesto is Youth Ki Awaaz, a website for youngsters to speak up on different issues. The creator of this trendy portal is Anshul Tewari, a young journalist, who even as he was studying in college in Delhi realised that there was no real space for those like him to share their opinion on politics. “Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA) was the blog I started in 2008 to voice my concerns. In a few months, as my passion for writing on YKA grew, so did its popularity. A few of my classmates got involved and together we decided to break this silence by encouraging people to write,” says Tewari, who has been blogging since he was 14.

YKA has been operating as a self-sustaining, people-driven site since 2012. It ties up with non-profits that want to reach out to the young and in turn gives them an opportunity to become part of the real change on the ground. Elaborates Tewari, “Partnering with unManifesto was natural. We started off in August 2013, focusing on getting people to submit qualitative promises they wanted their politicians to fulfill after coming to power. Together with other online partners, Halabol and Got Stared.At, a strategy was worked out. First, YKA has a web page where people can register their promises. Second, we rope in influencers on Twitter – regular folk who have over 10,000 followers and are interested in social issues – to talk about what they feel is important to young people. We do tweetathons where they get people to give promises. Debates and polls are also undertaken every month on our portals and Facebook pages.”

While topics for the debates are decided by general consensus, the idea is to get people talking. Sample this:

Question: ‘Should Indian voters have the “Right To Recall” their elected candidates?’

Comment 1: …i think right to recall should very much be given to the voters to keep corruption in check it is imp to create that fear of uncertainties for the for the money and resources, hundreds of crores have been take away by so many corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, that was supposed to be used for our welfare, for the welfare of the underprivileged, of children, of students who are lacking resources to tap their potential...i would prefer that money to be used in recalling...

Comment 2: I will be a deterrent to ill-intentioned and nonfunctional politicians...

Comment 3: I do agree…but how many MLA's? How many timess?? wen v ourselves r party to it ..!

Remarks Tewari, “We got over 150 Facebook comments on this topic with the majority in favour. Another popular debate was on the ‘None Of The Above’ (NOTA) option that has just debuted on the ballot machine.”

Such conversations are common on the YKA and unManifesto Facebook page, clearly indicating that young voters are keen to leave their mark on the 2014 election. Says Ajay Kapoor, consultant with Halabol, a platform for social activism through pledges, blogs and social networking, “The idea of joining the unManifesto campaign was to help take the success stories generated by the on-ground partners to a larger audience through different channels. While YKA collect promises and Got Stared.At is the twitter handle of the campaign, Halabol maintains the Facebook account updating it on a daily basis.”

Among the promises collected, political accountability, involvement of the youth in matters of governance and gender rights figure prominently. Says Mahamaya Navlakha, “Gender rights have become a major part of the discourse be it the women’s reservation bill or gender crimes or the decriminalising of Article 377. On popular demand we have done a tweetathon on the women’s reservation bill and even ran a debate on Facebook. It’s been heartening to see a spike in discussion.”

Got Started.At links the unManifesto campaign more closely to the gender space. Says Dhruv Arora, creator of the online movement against street harassment, “When it comes to women’s rights there are a lot of incidents, ideas and solutions discussed. But many a time it remains at that stage. How do we make the streets safer for women and people of other genders – that’s what we have been working on and now with the election we are looking to influence the political agenda. unManifesto provides an opportunity to hold politicians accountable.”

On the website people share their experiences, in writing or through pictures, about something that strikes them. The posts can be anonymous. Check out ‘Stand Up, Dear “Weaker Sex” An appeal from a young woman to other young women’ ( Facebook is where, after listening to various voices and reactions, Arora and his team create visuals that people can relate to and post on different platforms to spread the word.

So, what do women talk about? According to Arora, “Women want equal access – to public spaces, work opportunities, education. Most of the voices we have heard are talking about improving women’s participation in all these areas, which automatically will then lead to greater safety. Many a time, women’s opinions are considered moot. unManifesto says they matter, that this is a platform they can use to highlight the issues they want addressed by their leaders.”

Engineer-turned-editor, Tanya Singh, 25, of YKA, too, believes that women are as politically active as men, “They have started demanding their rights and are actively seeking information to make up their minds. Also issues that women raise are universal – safety comes first, followed by equal access to education and swifter justice.”

This is digital activism at its best. And yet time and again it is met with criticism. Remarks Tewari, “While on-ground activism is essential it does not allow you to reach millions instantly in the way Internet does. In India, 150 million people are online today, a significant number capable of influencing policy, capable of swinging votes. The real strength is being able to combine online and on-ground advocacy. That’s what unManifesto is doing.”

As a medium, it also allows women to join in effortlessly. “Even now it’s not easy for many girls in smaller town to protest on the streets. Access to the World Wide Web enables them to bring out their inner activist. It’s powerful, affords anonymity and has none of the constraints of physical location.”

Thanks to these web masters, unManifesto campaign has not only awakened political consciousness but given digital activists a stake in General Election 2014.

(Women's Feature Service)