Community Organising: The Art of Grassroots Campaigning (Part 1)

The Need

I have written earlier about United Voters of India (UVI), as the mechanism to mobilise the NANVs (non- aligned and non-voters) to build a bottom-up movement to create a Lok Sabha of Independents in the next elections as the first step to transform India into a free and prosperous nation: The Logic of Collective Action and Constructing the Collective. In this series, I want to discuss how we can mobilise a few lakh people in every Lok Sabha constituency to create the collective that can defeat candidates from the mainstream political parties. The big idea: community organising.

I first came across the term “community organising” when I was studying Obama’s 2008 campaign for new ideas in ground mobilisation in the run-up to the 2014 elections. Obama himself was a community organiser. He built a huge volunteer network across the US that transformed political campaigning. In India, we had seen mass mobilisation in the past few decades – Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the 1990s and India Against Corruption (2011) come to mind. Political parties mobilise huge numbers for their campaigns in every election. The operative word is “mobilise” as opposed to “organise” – and there is a big difference, as we shall see.

For UVI to succeed, it will need to be driven at the grassroots level – neighbourhood by neighbourhood. This will require an organising model very different from the top-down approaches that we normally associate with movements. Without a single tall leader issuing diktats from the top, it will require a self-organising approach with a network of local leaders who focus on persuading people in smaller groups.

I had spent quite some time thinking about community organising during 2015-18 when I was working on Nayi Disha. But we never got it right and the project eventually failed. Maybe the ideas of freedom and prosperity did not resonate, maybe I did not do enough to spread them to a large audience, maybe our outreach was flawed. Post-pandemic India will be different – many speak now in hushed tones (WhatsApp and Signal calls!) about the need for an alternative to the current political dispensation – “anyone but them”. But as I wrote recently, the alternative we seek should not be another political party (or a coalition of the also-corrupt-and-incompetent). What we need is a movement that frees India from the clutches of all politicians and their political parties.

This is where UVI as the organising idea comes in. UVI will need an organising model to harness the power of people at the local level – this is where community organising (or just ‘organising’) comes in. It is an idea which is relatively new in India, but there have been variants in the shakha-based approach used by Shiva Sena and RSS. (I had discussed covered this in my series on Circles earlier.) Done right, it goes beyond membership and money; it can be the lever to transform grassroot politics and activism, and deliver the Nayi Disha Indians need.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.