Bangalore could change the course of politics in India, says JP

The Lok Satta party headed by Jayaprakash Narayan is flexing its muscles in Bangalore as the state gets ready for elections in May. The party has named 15 candidates for MLA elections in the state, including a second list that was released on March 27th. Nine are contesting in Bangalore city itself, and the rest from other parts of Karnataka.

Lok Satta has a reformist positioning in the Indian political sphere. It supports clean governance, setting up of a strong Lokpal, liberalising agriculture, closing of populist subsidies, FDI in retail, and so forth.

Jayaprakash Narayan. Pic: Loksattaparty.org

Jayaprakash Narayan, 57, the charismatic leader who is more widely known in Andhra Pradesh than Karnataka, is the sole MLA of the party anywhere in the country. He ran and won his seat in AP assembly elections from Kukatpally in Hyderabad. In AP, Tamilnadu and Maharashtra, there are a handful of local representatives (in municipal councils and panchayats) of the party.

Given the cynicism around the state of politics in India, many consider the chances of winning for  candidates from lesser known parties, even if they have strong credentials, to be very low. However, in the past few years, India, and urban India in particular has seen a surge of demand in the streets from a largely frustrated young citizenry. There has been an outpouring of protests around the country on several counts. The Delhi gang-rape incident was the most recent trigger. Before that there was a surge of protests all over the country for a Lokpal bill to fight rampant corruption.

In Bangalore itself, Lok Satta party volunteers were originally involved in sparking off Saaku, an anti-corruption movement in the city that peaked during the support campaign for Justice Santosh Hegde. During the last year of his tenure as Lokayukta, he had exposed the BJP government’s ministers including former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa. Many volunteers who were part of the India Against Corruption (IAC) group that campaigned for the Lokpal bill in the city during Anna Hazare’s fast in New Delhi were also Lok Satta party cadres. Bangalore quickly emerged during this time as one of the key cities that had substantial support among its elite populations for deeper governance reform in the country.

Parties can articulate an agenda, they have organisational memory which they can bring into the Assembly even if they have only one or a few seats in the legislature. Single independent candidates cannot do that.

It is in this climate that Bengaluru’s Lok Satta party candidates, most of them reasonably well known in their neighbourhoods and the city, are running for MLA seats this year. Jayaprakash Narayan or JP as he is called has been moved by the upsurge in Bangalore and says it has the most cosmopolitan electorate in the country. “Bangaloreans are more likely to transcend old loyalties and parochial power that mainline parties have,” he says in this exclusive interview. 

JP himself is no mean achiever in public life. He is a doctor by training, and a former IAS officer with a long track record of accomplishments. He is well known for his campaign and role in bringing electoral reforms to India in 2002 that made disclosures by candidates running for office mandatory.

Prior to founding Lok Satta as a political party, he founded it as a movement for better governance in Andhra Pradesh. Lok Satta’s work on electricity reforms became visible as it took over and operated four power distribution stations in AP to demonstrate several reform measures they had advocated.

As the campaigns in Bengaluru have begun to peak, Subramaniam Vincent caught up with JP for a 40-minute conversation over the telephone. He spoke from Hyderabad. He was passionate, thoughtful, clear and yet restrained. Excerpts.

Tell voters what the Lok Satta party has done for Bangalore and Karnataka that legitimises its claim that it is ready to fight big electoral races such as MLA elections.The Lok Satta party has already contributed to Bangalore, in three areas.

First, through Ashwin Mahesh, whose work on transportation and traffic control for Bangalore is remarkable, especially for its focus on strengthening public departments. He has also been leading the water management efforts, including lake revival.

Second, it has covered a lot of ground in waste segregation and management: N S Ramakanth and Meenakshi Bharath have been doing stellar work in this area. This is part of our focus on urban planning.

Third is the Saaku movement itself. Lok Satta volunteers were at the core of triggering off that movement in Bangalore earlier, with an initial focus on safeguarding the institution of the Lokayukta. The IAC happened immediately and naturally after that.

More broadly, Lok Satta members are at the core of virtually all the civil society-led changes in the city. That is a very good thing. Politics and development should be strongly connected, and the example of our Bangalore party unit is a very good one in this regard.

Some voters think that too often in elections, people run to make statements, satisfy their egos, etc., even though chances of winning are considered slim. This has happened to parliamentary races before. What will you say to Bangalore voters this month who worry that Lok Satta candidates ‘might not win’? How should citizens think about ‘winnability’?

You have hit the nail on the head. Winnability does seem to dominate during elections. And with our first past the post system (FPTP), winning for new candidates is a challenge. Our political parties – when you talk to individual politicians — are themselves not so terrible. Many of them also want the right candidates to run, but they are concerned about winnability.

But when people worry about new candidates not being winnable – they should look at the following.

Congress has won in Karnataka, the state is still in a mess. BJP has also won, that is they are winnable too, and they have also not fixed the mess in the state. Likewise with JD(S). So it is not as if the winners of the past have been able to bring about serious reforms or bring down corruption.

Lok Satta candidates, even though they are few in number and running from Bangalore, offer a genuine alternative. Moreover, Bangalore city offers a unique opportunity. It has the most cosmopolitan electorate in the country. Voters in Bangalore are more likely to transcend old loyalties and parochial power that mainline parties have. Secondly, because of the way Karnataka politics has gone, there are now many factions and hence fragmentation of votes. There is an opportunity for Bangaloreans to vote with their heart for candidates with an excellent track record.

There is also a difference between unattached independent candidates who do not belong to parties and party-backed candidates. Parties can articulate an agenda, they have organisational memory which they can bring into the Assembly even if they have only one or a few seats in the legislature. Single independent candidates cannot do that.

Jayaprakash Narayan. Pic: Loksattaparty.org

You have been the single MLA for Lok Satta in AP. What are your hopes for the next AP election (2014)?

Being a single MLA in the assembly is not such a bad thing. We have shown that it is still possible to influence significant public policy outcomes.

We feel 15-20% of the electorate certainly wants change. But there are systemic compulsions in India because of which even if you have good support base, and strong credibility, conversion to votes is not easy.

We are considering issue-based alliances for the AP 2014 elections. If there is an iron clad guarantee on specific issues from a bigger political party in constituencies where we are strong, we may transfer our support to them.

These are issues on which we will seek issue base alliances:

  • Full decentralisation of power to local government at the ward and panchayat level.
  • Services guarantee law, with compensation to citizens when there is delay or denial
  • Radical change in the power sector
  • Agricultural reforms – liberalisation of agriculture, not merely giving short term freebies, but long term benefits
  • Anti-Corruption agenda – A Lokayukta for AP with real independent power
  • Education and Healthcare reform.

We currently have strong presence in 80 constituencies in AP, and there are around 20-25 people who have been working hard in these areas for the people. They may become the MLA candidates for LS in 2014.

What significant outcomes have you been able to influence as MLA, even as a lone representative in the AP assembly?

There are several concrete outcomes. There is a robust Societies Act in use in AP. The Congress party wanted to amend it in a way that would bring in far more controls. The amendment was unconstitutional according to me. I have stood against this and held it up for the past four years in the legislature and have got the rest of the opposition to stand against it as well. The Congress could have passed it by brute force and has not because of the opposition I have led.

Next is the Citizen Services Delivery Guarantee bill. While this is not enacted yet, there has been debate on the bill and the rules the government needs to put in place for it to function effectively. This has already resulted in real action on the ground, even without the bill being passed.

There is a now a Lokayukta bill pending in the AP assembly. This is also my party’s work and we have pushed for it. It is not enacted yet, but we will continue to push for it.

In the 2010 elections in AP, Lok Satta had a well articulated vision with many reform points that the Congress party copied from us. Our party has a lot of credibility in the state in arguing its points and other parties have drawn from us whenever they want. That is also impact.

Your manifesto makes a promise that implies that 12-hour three-phase power supply in rural Karnataka in possible. How?

It is possible. First we must separate rural electricity feeders from agriculture feeders. Secondly every consumer of electricity, even a farmer who gets free power has to be metered. Long back, when Lok Satta was an NGO, we took over four distribution stations and ran it for the AP government. We brought about an 18% reduction in line losses from 27% to 9%. These are all audited figures, publicly available.

There are around 9.75 lakh transformers in the AP power system. 5-7% of these usually fail each year and when taken down for maintenance, it takes several days for them to come back online. Lok Satta showed that we can spend a few hundred rupees to fix these transformers and bring them back online much sooner which helps in running the power system with less outages.

(Women) tend to be more open to voting for change. Women and youth definitely helped us win the MLA seat from Kukatpally. So men are concerned about who, and women are concerned about what.

Separating agricultural power from the rest of rural power itself can ensure that 12 hour supply is possible. This provides a boost to SMEs in rural areas because otherwise they have to come to the cities. Making more rural power available will boost rural investment and employment, and cut back on migration to the cities.

Gujarat is the best example for all this. By taking this approach they have already managed 24-hour single-phase power in all of rural Gujarat. So it is possible to promise and deliver 12-hour single-phase power in rural Karnataka.

Lok Satta Party announced its candidates list for Karnataka assembly elections 2013. Src: LSP. click on the image to see

An opposing candidate from some mainstream party is going to promise very low-cost housing or some freebie to low-income citizens in his constituency. Are you going to compete with that? People are used to a patronage relationship with their MLAs, you know this.

Yes, Promises will be made. After all elections are all about public money. Lok Satta candidates will explain an alternative vision. Our option is to explain to people that short term freebies are not making problems go away.

Our plan also is go to educated voters and youth, and especially women to get their backing.

We are hearing this view from several people – that women are supporting new candidates who stand for change, more than men. Why do you think this is so?

This is an important question and it must be studied. I can only hazard a guess.

Ultimately men see these battles as power games. Patriarchy, caste, linguistic and regional affiliations are above all about power won over identity and parochial loyalties. Men who already have power as part of patriarchy become concerned about who will win. Once issues are boxed into identity politics like the Cauvery issue between TN and Karnataka, there is no coming out.

Women on the other hand do not have power; they tend to be concerned about survival, and what will happen to family, prices, schooling of their children, etc. So they tend to be more open to voting for change. Women and youth definitely helped us win the MLA seat from Kukatpally. So men are concerned about who, and women are concerned about what.

The first-past-the-post system voting system in India presents serious challenges to new parties. Comment on the chances in the Karnataka elections for your Bangalore MLA candidates.

Yes, FPTP for India is a huge challenge. But I have some good news to report here.

Look at India’s most influential states for parliamentary seats: UP, Bihar, Bengal, TN, Maharashtra and AP. Except AP (even there, Congress is shaking), in none of these states has the BJP or the Congress been able to win on their own. Together these states contribute 65% of Lok Sabha’s seats. This is because of the FPTP system; it has already caused serious problems for these parties.

In UP for example, Rahul Gandhi invested a substantial amount of time and strategy. See the results though. Samajwadi Party got 3.7% more vote share and got 127 more seats in the last elections. Even though Congress got 3% more vote share, it got only 6 more seats. In Maharashtra, Congress cannot come to power on its own either.

The FPTP system is hurting the national parties in the most influential states.

But leaders of parties should be alive to this problem, it cannot be that they do not understand all this.

Parties have not taken a hard look at this problem till now. The reality is that leaders do not have time. They are mostly caught up in day-to-day running of the party and the problems that keep emerging. But this is changing now.

The Congress Party has set up a high-powered committee under Ambika Soni, with Veerappa Moily, Mani Shankar Aiyyar, and others to look at reviewing FPTP. There is discussion on this issue also within the BJP at a mid-level. Left parties are already on board to change the FPTP system.

What is interesting is that this does not require a constitutional amendment or even a change in the law. It is just a rule being used to run our elections. If the parties agree, the rule can be changed.

Comment on what you would like the FPTP system changed to. You have advocated proportional representation? Does that also mean you will support multiple representatives per constituency?

As a winner-takes-all system, FPTP overweights the views of the winner and ignores all the others. This is true even if the winner himself gets only 15% of the vote, as we saw in one recent case. A proportionate system would correct this, and give voice to a greater diversity of views. This is all the more important when, as in India today, we are seeing increasing fracture of the vote among different parties. Ideally, an elected representative even in a single-member constituency should represent 50% of the voters at least. That’s clearly not the case today; in fact it is the exception.

A number of solutions, including multi-member constituencies, run-offs and other options can be considered. Once we accept that FPTP is hindering broad representation of public opinion in elected houses, a lot of other things will become possible. It has taken many decades for parties to come to this realisation. Now we must act on this, and strengthen democracy by a new system with greater inclusion of voices and views. (Response to this question alone was received in writing, after the interview.)

You mentioned Arvind Kejriwal. What happened between Aam Aadmi Party and Lok Satta that they could not come together?

There are genuine issues we have to iron out.

One is the whole approach AAP has about good and evil. An approach that says one side is always good and the other is always evil is not right in a democracy. I have always held that our political parties are not evil and they cannot be blamed for everything that is wrong in India. Yes, our parties have bungled, no doubt.

We have to recognise the historical process we have gone through as a nation. Federalism, states, peaceful transfer of power, and universal adult franchise have all come to stay in the country, and our political parties have seen through this. So it is not right for AAP to make this contest one about good and evil.

The good and evil approach also caused us to lose an opportunity earlier. Take the Lokpal bill. In 2011, the bill that went to Parliament was 80 per cent of the bill “we” wanted. But Hazare and IAC did plenty of grand-standing that it could either be 100 per cent or zero. Media also made it into a big deal. In such a negative climate for the government’s bill, the path became clear for other parties to use the ruse of ‘states rights’ to kill the Lokayukta provision. So now, while the Lokpal bill has Lokpal provisions, mandatory Lokayuktas for all the states is gone from it. But 80 percent of corruption impacting people is at the state level, not central. We have lost the chance for getting that option through the central bill.

We all want an ethical india. But the fight against corruption alone can only be a minimum qualification for politics, it is not the maximum. There needs to be more. AAP, for instance, does not support our positions on FDI in retail, and also on power sector reforms.

Having said this, our differences need not be blown out of proportion in the media. In a democracy, there is always a need for a spirit of accommodation. We have not written off working together.

Addendum
Updated 2 April 2013

2 Comments

  1. Excellent, particularly his views on power sector reforms – not at all surprising considering he has experienced administration, first hand. The part needs all support.

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