Staging a mass rally. Spreading fake news. Fueling caste tensions. Playing the religion card.
These are among the more unsavory tactics that have allegedly been used by some Indian political parties as they scramble for votes during election season.
Now, with the country of 1.3 billion people embarking once again on the world’s biggest democratic exercise, a new board game is simulating something of that campaign process – offering players both the standard and the sleazier electoral strategies.
The Poll: The Great Indian Election Game is the brainchild of 27-year-old journalist Abeer Kapoor, who came up with the idea in 2017 after covering national and state elections.
“I started thinking about how parties are like players where they have a set of fixed resources like money, feet on the ground, party workers, ideologies and the media and other institutions. But the terrain, the state constituencies, are different,” said Kapoor.
“So, it’s like a game, and we should be able to simulate that in a way that breaks the barrier between people and politics. We want people to understand the process.”
The game has also provided Kapoor with a unique insight into Indian voters and their political preferences.
The Westminster system
India is a former British colony, and its political system follows the Westminster model. Parties field candidates for seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, and whichever party wins a majority of seats gets to choose the prime minister.
Across 543 constituencies, candidates will vie for votes from an electorate numbering 900 million, nearly triple the population of the United States.
The board game, three to four people, each of whom represents a political party and creates a manifesto by choosing “policy cards” which he or she must defend.
Jargon has been lifted from real party manifestos and definitions taken from high school textbooks, since one of Kapoor’s goals is to educate players in the process – warts and all.
“I realized early on that if I built an ideal situation that did not mimic an Indian election, there would be a huge cognitive dissonance when people encounter (actual) elections,” said Kapoor.
A player who manages to convince opponents their strategy will work places cubes on top of a constituency card. Players use both financial resources and campaign strategies as they battle for influence.
The game, Kapoor said, does not offer lessons about the morality of politics.
“We want people to understand the process of an election, that there are issues and there are promises that are made and we don’t always hold people accountable for that,” he said.
The influences behind political beliefs
The game, which is available in Hindi and English, was launched in January, and Kapoor has been traveling the country to promote it.
Along the way, he’s noticed that the way people play it reflects their background and experiences of politics.
“We found that in an urban metropolis like Delhi, we aren’t talking to each other about politics. So, you see that apprehension, you see more rigidity built in to the way that people want to see the world. The echo chambers become extremely visible in urban settings,” said Kapoor.
“If you move away from that to kids coming from more disadvantaged backgrounds in Mumbai, you see a lot more negotiation. This is their life, negotiating with the state. They’re far more argumentative and comfortable with the idea of discussing the issues that matter.”
In Lucknow, a city in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, some participants established a game on the side.
“In Uttar Pradesh, which is the hub of Indian politics, you see there’s a casualness built in to corruption. One part of the game is where people argue to keep their constituencies, but by the end of it they were just trading money. They saw money on the board, and they didn’t care about the arguments,” said Kapoor.
The real-life game kicked off on April 11. Because polling a country of this size is such a mammoth task, the voting will take place in phases across the country which will end on May 19. The winner will be announced on May 23. The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is being challenged by a coalition led by the secular Congress Party.
Having traveled the country during election season, does Kapoor have any predictions?
“We know what party people support by the manifesto and policy cards they pick. What I see is that this election is wide open. There are enough snarky comments made on the lack of delivery of this government and there are enough people who will stand up for it,” said Kapoor.
“If anyone thinks this election is done and dusted on either side, it’s too soon to call. It’s going to be a very interesting election.”