Role of Grassroots in National Elections: Case Study from Village India

New Delhi (India), October 3: The National 2019 Elections in India, the World’s largest Democracy, filled with festivity acquired a fabulous colour in Rajasthan. On 28th September, 2023, at the prestigious Constitution Club in New Delhi, Dr Navina Jafa was facilitated by Rajneetik Tarkas headed by dynamic, prominent social activist leader Jeetandra Tiwari. Senior Government Officials and Grassroots Social Entrepreneurs attended the glittering event. 

 At the event, Dr. Navina Jafa described her exemplary work for the Election Commission of India in the three districts of Rajasthan State, where her team and ten folk performing artists successfully increased the women voter turnout to approximately 2.1%. The Election Commission faced a challenge registering more women and ensuring they come out to vote and with each performance to educate voters in the Elections.

Cultural technocrat Navina Jafa was commissioned by The “Election Commission of India” under former Election Commissioner Mr Sunil Arora and the State Election Commission of Rajasthan. The project was aimed to improve the flagship Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation program (SVEEP). 

Navina Jafa, daughter of Padamshree Manorama Jafa and former Financial Advisor, Secretary Ministry of Defence, Government of India, Virendra Singh Jafa, took out the Bahurupiya Yatra for elections and voter awareness– A Journey of Street Folk Theatre covering three Rajasthan Districts.

•       Dausa, 

•      Karauli, and 

•      Sawai Madhopur .  

 The different folk performers from Rajasthan included Bahurupiyas – folk impersonators, folk dancers, Acrobats, and Folk musicians. Navina Jafa and the late Shri Virendra Singh Jafa had organised multiple seminars on Electoral Reforms. Along with the group of folk performers, her NGO, Centre for New Perspectives, headed by Virendra Singh Jafa, included the founding members of the board – B.G. Deshmukh (Former Cabinet Secretary, GOI), Harishanker Singhania (industrialist), Dileep Padgaonkar (Editor of The Times of India), Raja Jesudoss Chellia (economist and founding chairman of the Madras School of Economics), M.P Gupta (additional secretary, ministry of labour), H.K Dua( journalist, political commentator, member Rajya Sabha ), Major General Roop k Garg – President Academy of Hospital Administration.

With team members, including Shailaja Kathuria, secretary of the NGO, who conducted randomisation method surveys, Shamshad Khan Bahurupiya from Dausa managing the folk performers, playwright Anil Marwari and local partners Marudhara Seva Sansthan. Navina Jafa travelled and executed 56 performances to educate voters before the elections in Rajasthan.

Navina Jafa said the surveys with the performances were important. Through the surveys and conversations with audiences during the performance, it was essential to understand why women did not want to be registered voters or why they did not go to vote despite being voters and the reasons for low voter registration and voter low turnout among women. These were documented and conveyed to the Election Commission of India.

Performances for Election 

The performances told voters about what documents to carry for the voting. Information was provided for the VVPAT machine, registration processes, the importance of voting and conversations to understand problems related to women voters preventing them from voting. 

The water issue was the main reason women in the three districts of Rajasthan did not participate in the election. The women during the performances conversed with the folk performers and responded to the questions in the surveys. They said that they had to walk many miles daily to fetch water. Governments came and went, but their condition stayed the same. After the election, Navina Jafa and her team created a follow-up programme to educate the villagers in Dausa District, Rajasthan, about water harvesting and encouraged them to form water panchayats with the help of water expert Fawzia Tarannum. 

The performances during the National 2019 Elections were in venues such as the Anganvadi – rural daycare centres, schools, bus stands, and around village water wells where there were many women and other public locations, including village panchayat meeting spaces. The performances had interactive humour and audience participation. The folk street theatre performances became a rage that attracted more than 100-200 audiences comprising women in large numbers, men, local district officials and school teachers. An acrobat on stilts with a loudspeaker and a drum were sent to villages before the performances to collect the crowd. & these folk performers and their performances are the traditional social media of our country. The folk performers spoke the local dialect of Rajasthani and became characters like a moneylender or a famous Bollywood actor with whom the villagers could relate. The folk songs and dances in these performances were full of teasing. 

The dialogue delivery provoked verbal exchanges with the audience, allowing the actors to playfully entertain, educate the voters, and prepare them for elections, said Navina Jafa. Jafa has specialised in providing new ways for Indian Folk performing arts to be used for Development Communication and to increase voter participation in Indian elections. The experience of having street performers for Elections and other Government programmes means that folk performers can become a tool for a bottom-up approach to ensure good governance, which provides job work to the marginalised performers. 

The folk performing traditions like street magicians, jugglers, impersonators, dancers, musicians, storytellers, and puppeteers get new audiences and markets. In this way, the occasion of something like the Indian Elections becomes a way to strengthen cultural Democracy and preserve India’s rich intangible cultural heritage.

Key Takeaways: 

1.     Folk artists spoke the same dialect and language as the audiences who felt comfortable participating and expressing their problems and solutions regarding the electoral process. 

2.     Choosing local performers gave value to local cultural traditions and skilled artists.

3.     For the first time in Indian Voter Education, live performances included a randomisation survey communicating the mind of the Voter.

4.     The village-to-village interactive performances provided information to the administration regarding electoral ground reality. 

5.     The statistics of the survey and interactions revealed that the root cause for low voter turnout could be some other reason. For example, in this case, it was the non-availability of water.

6.     To create sustainability, Navina Jafa’s efforts to lead a follow-up programme on the creation of Village Jal Panchayats presents that Voters’ education with interactive performances and surveys can create post-election development programmes. 

The article has been edited by architect Rishabh Sachan, with the information being discussed at the constitution club of India on 28th September 2023, Deputy Speaker Hall. Rishabh Sachan is co- co-founder of Vanvasi Project India and a research-based architect management advisor specialising in neuroscience marketing and works with creative businesses from the bottom of the pyramid. Had been the mentor of change for Atal Innovation Mission Niti Aayog and chairperson of Rishusdesign Foundation) tweet: @SdesignRishu  

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