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Set the board and let’s play politics

What millennials are doing to engage urban youth with politics, politicians and policy

(L to R) Aparajita Bharti and Rohit Kumar run a social enterprise; Abeer Kapoor designed The Poll, and Zain Memon worked on Shasn. 
(L to R) Aparajita Bharti and Rohit Kumar run a social enterprise; Abeer Kapoor designed The Poll, and Zain Memon worked on Shasn. 

The game is on, but the board is not set for family gaming (Monopoly, Risk), Eurogames (Catan) or dexterity gaming (Operation). This election season, two 27-year-olds are aiming to take the conversation about politics beyond fulfilling your duty to vote, through board games. The Poll, developed by Delhi-based Abeer Kapoor, simulates the electoral process, while Mumbai-based Zain Memon and Memesys Lab’s board game Shasn is a political strategy game.

“Most people in cities and elsewhere keep an arm’s distance from politics saying that it’s dirty, corrupt and thuggish. The Poll was built for such people, to find a way to break this idea of politics," says Kapoor. He says young people need to find a way to have direct conversations about politics and policy and for this to happen, they need to break out of their silos. The prototype of The Poll was in the making for about a year and the game, which can be played by four people, was launched in late January (available online) . It targets people in the age group of 16-30.

“For Shasn, we could have used the digital format, but I did not want young people to be distracted. I wanted them to sit with each other and talk about politics in an engaged manner," says Memon, who is a part of the media studio which made the documentary An Insignificant Man on the rise of Aam Aadmi Party and Arvind Kejriwal in 2017. “The film did well, but the conversation hadn’t ended in our minds. We wanted to transmit our insights into how politicians think and behave in a more intuitive way and that’s why we decided that it should be an interactive experience through a board game," explains Memon. Shasn has been in the making for 15 months and will launch via Kickstarter in mid-April.

But board games are not the only way to generate conversation among youngsters when it comes to politics and policy. Rohit Kumar and Aparajita Bharti’s social enterprise Young Leaders for Active Citizenship (YLAC) was born out of the frustration to find ways to get young people to engage actively in policy and advocacy. “Many middle and upper middle-class urban Indians think that they are unaffected by the actions of the government. Therefore, they choose to not engage with it as much as they should. A critical mass needs to engage with the democratic process to improve the discourse in the country and demand better accountability from the government," says Bharti, 29, who co-set up YLAC in 2016. YLAC organizes various policy, leadership and counter-speech related short-term programs for people aged 14-30 across the country.

Making this move

Kapoor, who formerly worked as a journalist, finds that large swathes of society in urban India regard being apolitical as a badge of honour without realizing how important it is to stay engaged with politics and political class. “I live in an ecosystem where everyone has either unsubstantiated opinions that are either specious or inherited. No one engages with elections in the way they should be by reading manifestos and holding their elected representatives accountable. There are a dozen ways in which one can be part of the political discourse without fighting an election. For me, getting people to be more interactive by role-playing in a board game is that meaningful way," he says.

Meanwhile for Shruti Singh and Sujatha Ug, co-founders of the social enterprise Leadership Education for Active Citizen Participation (LeappIndia), organizing civic awareness workshops with teens is the way to increase dialogue around governance issues. “Social Sciences needs to be taught in an engaging way in schools. We believe that children (14-16 years) need to know about Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as it is a great framework for making positive changes in their environments. We have conducted workshops around SDGs in six schools in Dwarka, Delhi and through this will link children to social change initiatives at the local level via summer workshops," says Singh, 31, who holds a masters in public policy.

The trigger to work with young children and youth, explain Kumar and Bharti, both of whom hold masters in public policy too, comes from the fact that this group seeks a purpose larger than their own immediate lives. “If we are able to reach them at the right time, it can shape the choices that they make. We have also learnt that you cannot preach to young people to be active citizens. You need to systematically create opportunities for them to work on issues that are of interest to them," says Kumar, 35.

With politics increasingly dictating everything from the partners we choose, to the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, the friends we keep and the fundamental rights we enjoy, Memon says at this point in time what’s important is to “make people around us better equipped to understand what happens behind the smoke and mirrors of the political theatre of India".

Focus on urban areas

While Kapoor believes his game (which has a Hindi version) will be appreciated and engage people in tier-2 and tier-3 towns, Shasn targets audiences in metros right now. “We’re working on different language formats to make suitable for wider audiences," says Memon.

YLAC and LeappIndia are presently working in metros too. “We started with the big cities, because we thought that the disenchantment with the political process is a lot more in urban cities in India. If you go to smaller towns, politics is running through the veins of the country, but in elite cities urban Indians have started to disengage completely," says Bharti.

According to Kapoor, “the problem is more compounded in tier-1 cities because there is one-way conversation that society has with them (children). Starting with their childhood, to the nature of politics and policies, rarely do parents give their children an option or the freedom to discuss dissenting views," says Kapoor. The Poll, according to him, aims to teach the youth about problem solving. “Even before we look at policies, we need to understand what they have historically been and intend to do. In the game, each player must draft and defend a manifesto to solve the issues of the constituencies up for contest. This gets them talking to each other about things that matter." For a robust democracy, regular dialogue is the way ahead. 

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