India has not been familiar with political action committees of the kind that are common across the United States, but an initiative by corporate heavyweights and prominent members of civil society in Bangalore could well change that. On Sunday, the 3rd of February, the city took its first step towards active urban citizen engagement in the the electoral process with the launch of the Bangalore Political Action Committee or BPAC.
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Established with the broader aim of promoting a better quality of life for all citizens of the metropolis, BPAC will seek to identify and support strong candidates – irrespective of their political affiliation – for public offices at all levels of governance in Bangalore city – city council, legislature, and parliament.
At the inaugural meet on Sunday, former additional chief secretary to the Government of Karnataka, K Jairaj, who is also a founder member of the Committee, unveiled its four-pronged agenda:
- Institutional changes with regard to the way the city has to be governed;
- Resources – resolving the mismatch between requirements and provision;
- Inclusiveness and participation.
Most significantly perhaps, the Committee aims to streamline and systematise the process of funding of election campaigns – a prickly, grey area that has precluded the rise of ‘clean’ objectively-driven leaders in the Indian political system so far.
While raising, accounting and reporting of funds collected by political parties is actually governed by various Acts, in reality, there has been very little transparency around it; as explained in an earlier article on Citizen Matters, the current reporting of the source of election funds, and the manner in which they are collected or disbursed, hide more than they reveal. It is, therefore, significant that the Bangalore PAC will be looking at reforms in campaign finance as a critical aspect of strengthening the foundation of urban policies.
Responding to a question at the launch event of the Committee, Mohandas Pai, Vice President BPAC, said that funds have been committed for five years to raise a corpus. However, these funds will be given to the candidate who meets the criteria set by BPAC, and not the party.
Another aspect stressed in the BPAC’s agenda is strengthening urban representation. At the launch, Pai stressed the need ‘to reclaim our republic.’ Citing the rise of sectarian leaders, and the lack of a competitive lobby for the educated urban people or a neutral lobby, he called for this vacuum to be filled.
"Urban India has no proper representation," he said, "we are disenfranchised in a way." Delimitation continues to be based on the 1991 census, affording a disproportionate number of seats to rural India and there should be a strong demand for delimitation to be based on the 2011 census. BPAC has been formed on the basis of this rationale, and with the aim of working together for Bangalore.
Technocrat and entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, who is also Managing Trustee and President of BPAC opines that the problem is one of ‘apathy, not helplessness or hopelessness.’ Speaking at the launch, she pointed out that "We are not engaging enough with those in government, who are capable of achieving good results. We have abdicated our responsibility to exercise our franchise. (Therefore,) the objective of BPAC is to connect citizens with the political processes."
BPAC will act as a rating agency on governance and set standards for governing bodies and all those who hold office. It will be an apolitical entity but will strive to ensure that the broader issue of governance gets addressed.
The power of collective action is what the Committee feels is critical if governance deficits are to be bridged and to that end, it will push for formal inclusion of citizens in public decision-making and in solving problems at the neighbourhood levels. Dr. Ashwin Mahesh, an expert on urban developmental issues and member-BPAC, stressed on the importance of more people getting involved in public problem solving at the launch. He said it is "ridiculous for us to believe that the problems of our society will be solved by someone else."
One of the most powerful arguments for BPAC came from Narayana Murthy, co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of Infosys. Unveiling the Committee’s charter, Murthy said, "this is the right time to wake up and make the dream of inclusive growth a reality…in order to do so, we need a powerful, simple, aspirational vision for all political parties. We need to make our private sector the most competitive and our public governance system the most effective, accountable and efficient." BPAC’s manifesto is a result of such a vision and is translatable into action.
Santosh Hegde, former Karnataka Lokayukta, on BPAC:
It’s a good idea. As BPAC says, a candidate can contest elections with a small budget. In fact, Team Anna (of which Hegde was part of) had suggested earlier that government should fund election campaigns. Campaign amounts should be minimal, and this can be done.
Though BPAC is headed by those from corporate background, they are not contesting elections or fielding their own candidates. They are only selecting people from an existing list of candidates across parties. BPAC is still in the preliminary stages and it will take some time before we can see how effective it is. If, in future, we find that the candidates fielded by BPAC are lobbying for corporate interests, we can stop voting for them.
This is a tough job, and there should be a long term work to show results. Also, BPAC should not field people from every constituency, just because they have to field someone. If they don’t find good candidates from a constituency they need not field anyone.
Also see: Interview with RK Misra:
"We will provide whatever help (clean) candidates may need including campaign finance, data analytics, message and communication as well as outreach and voter mobilisation."
B N Vijayakumar, Jayanagar MLA on BPAC:
This is a good initiative. Political parties field those who have money. The person selected this way may have no sense at all, or may even be anti-social. Candidates spend on giving money or things to voters, printing expensive colourful pamphlets, throwing parties etc. When they come to power they want to get this money back.
There are many good people in major parties who do not get selected because they have no money. I won the last elections by spending very less money; it was among the lowest campaign expenditure in the state. For a good candidate there is no need of much money. If he is already popular because of his social work, people will vote for him anyway.
I don’t think corporate interests will come into this. BPAC should not only field c
andidates, but also get everyone to vote, and interface with citizens continuously to get them to participate in governance issues.
Rajeev Gowda, Chairperson, Centre for Public Policy, IIM-Bangalore, on BPAC:
BPAC should start funding candidates at least a year before the elections, instead of spending small amounts just before it. The legal limit for campaign expenditure is farcical. (Currently the spending limit is Rs 16 lakh for assembly constituency candidates and Rs 40 lakh for parliamentary constituency candidates.) BPAC is promising to fund only 60% of the expenses, which will still lead to black money and under-the-table transactions. Campaigns actually need crores of rupees. If you look at Bangalore South constituency, the number of voters is 20 lakh. Just sending a postcard to all voters will cost Rs 20 lakh. Then you need campaign pamphlets, posters etc.