When controversial student activist and one of the most-watched candidates in India’s ongoing election—Kanhaiya Kumar—put out a front-page advertisement in newspapers as part of his campaign, it was a proud moment for Delhi-based Bilal Zaidi and Anand Mangnale. “Something like this had earlier been the domain of only rich political parties, and a trademark of Prime Minister Modi,” Zaidi tells VICE. But this expensive proposition was made possible, thanks to the duo’s political fundraising online startup, that managed to not just raise Rs 7 million (or Rs 70 lakh) for the first-time candidate but also transform the manner in which Indian politicians get funding for their campaigns.
Our Democracy—India’s first independent political fundraising platform—is an avenue to help aspiring activists and changemakers build a community online that supports them financially. It all started when Bilal Zaidi went to USA after quitting a job in journalism in India, and found himself fascinated by the fundraising campaign of Bernie Sanders—the presidential nominee who raised a staggering $8 million in a day. “I met some volunteers from Sanders’ campaign and saw many ordinary Americans donating $5 to contribute to the movement,” he says. “It made me understand the growing relevance of political crowdfunding globally.” After he came back, Zaidi, along with his friend Anand Mangnale, launched Crowdnewsing, a platform to fund independent journalism in India.
In January 2019—a few months before the ongoing general election in the country—the duo launched Our Democracy. Today, it runs 80 campaigns, mostly for political outsiders, fringe politicians and social activists. Their clients include farmers and tribal leaders, Dalit activists, anti-corruption crusaders, a coal miner in Bengal, disabled candidates, a politician from Punjab championing human rights, and an intersex candidate in Kerala working for the rights of sexual minorities.
Through their venture, Zaidi and Mangnale wish to bring transparency and accountability to public life, while encouraging changemakers, youth and disruptors to participate in the world’s largest exercise of democratic rights. Their platform is open to all candidates, belonging to any political party or ideology, who intend to contest on people’s money. “When you donate to a politician, you become an endorser, someone who’d bring many others to the fold,” says Zaidi. “Before Kumar’s campaign, many people had told me that political crowdfunding is for amateurs. ‘Election to asli paise se lada jata hai (election is fought on real money)', they would say. But fundraising becomes a kind of rallying point for your campaign, bringing not just money but more eyeballs and mass support.”
While the venture is non-partisan and open to any party with a legit pitch, the only exceptions are candidates with serious criminal charges, the ones who use hate speech and provocative statements based on caste and gender distinctions. They follow all the guidelines issued by the election commission and display the name of the donor, unless they wish to remain anonymous. As all transactions take place digitally, there is no option of black money being used to fund campaigns.
The idea of Our Democracy began to take shape after the duo successfully raised Rs 20 lakh on Crowdnewsing for young Dalit activist Jignesh Mewani for his 2014 election campaign in Gujarat’s Una. Mewani won and went on to become a leading voice of Dalit activism in the country. “He wanted to avoid corporate funding. Even his campaign slogan was ‘janta ji ladai, janta ke paise pe’ (people’s fight on people’s money),” says Mangnale, a former campaign communication manager, who also led the campaign of civil rights activist Irom Sharmila. “The candidates who fight on people’s money have no option but to work for the people, and not for a local builder or businessmen who mostly fund politicians.”
Apart from Kumar who is contesting on a Communist Party of India (CPI) ticket, Our Democracy is also raising funds for all Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) contestants in Delhi, including Rs 7 million for Atishi Marlena, the one behind the much-lauded education policies in India’s capital. Tej Bahadur Yadav, the opposition candidate against Prime Minister Modi in Varanasi is another beneficiary, and so are a bunch of young Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters raising money to buy ‘NaMo merchandise’. However, a vast majority of their clients are aspiring politicians with campaign targets as low as Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh—a few even raising funds for local district bodies.
Social causes and human rights campaigns also make it to the website. Vaishali Yede, a candidate from Maharashtra Yavatmal, whose husband was one of the many farmers who committed suicide, is contesting to raise awareness of the plight of India’s farmers, while Sneha Kale is trying to focus on rights of the transgenders in Mumbai. Aswathi Rajappan, a leading queer activist from Kerala and an intersex candidate, intends to lift up the weaker sections, while Dalit activist Vijay Kumar from Andhra Pradesh’s Parchur seeks justice for his friend Rohith Vemula, who committed suicide after being rusticated from his college.
Yash Marwah, Our Democracy’s Mumbai campaign consultant, says that the agenda for many of their clients involves not just winning but also to inspire others to demand their rights. “The contributor is no longer a silent spectator to crony capitalism,” he says. “They can now voice their thoughts and issues.” He sees political crowdfunding as a game changer, that will also generate new employment in the political sphere. “Many of the candidates I deal with can give lazy politicians a run for the money, with their great ideas.”
For Nishtha Sood, the venture’s Delhi-based campaigner, a highlight was when Harish Kodimala, a district council contestant in Telangana, was discovered by a party throught their platform. “After seeing that he had managed to raise Rs 14,000 on his own, the Jana Sena Party of South Indian actor Pawan Kalyan gave him a ticket,” says Sood. However, she feels that most Indians still lack an understanding of the need for transparency in politics, something they are trying to change.
Zaidi adds that though Indians are quite a benevolent lot, many still prefer to donate to charity rather than for democratic interventions. “There is a lack of awareness and culture around things that would really impact democracy,” he says. “People sometimes ask me why they’d donate to a privileged politician like Marlena, and not to someone who needs medical attention.” He counters such questions personally and on his social media, emphasising on how such contributions go a long way in strengthening democracy.
The fruits of the labour are still pouring in for the startup. The 5 percent commission they charge from clients is keeping their venture afloat for now, but in their experience, investors have been apprehensive about investing in the political sphere. “Our venture is still in the bootstrapping phase. I keep telling them (potential investors) there is a lot of money to be made but they are still shy,” says Zaidi. After the general elections, they’re going to focus on the Maharashtra Assembly elections, hoping to get up to a hundred candidates to raise funds on their platform.
With technology having seeped into all aspects of our life, Zaidi feels that every sphere, including politics, needs to adapt to the changing times. “There will soon be a time when we will have no choice but to digitise politics. It can’t remain analog forever.”
Follow Zeyad Masroor Khan on Twitter.