The elections to the Lok Sabha and the newly bifurcated States of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana throw up a very interesting set of dynamics, with the issue largely on the people’s minds. How do you assess the electoral fallout of the bifurcation?
The Assembly debate on the partition of the State was a very sorry spectacle. Politicians, did not create conditions conducive for harmonious settlement. Both the Congress and the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] went very unequivocally in favour of the partition. Things had come to a point where that [bifurcation] was the only viable solution. So, instead of looking at how to do it in a manner that does the least damage and the most good, sadly, almost all political parties and politicians played to the galleries and tried to polarise society.
As a responsible movement, we did our best to bring about reconciliation in a harmonious manner. Until we raised these issues, nobody bothered even about the fiscal consequences of the partition and other real governance issues, and how to address problems that arise.
There is no government figure [on fiscal and revenue surpluses or deficits as the consequence of the bifurcation]. At least, we have the satisfaction that we gave a viable roadmap for both the States. The Bill, in the final form, is broadly in line with what we advocated. So, I believe that if there are sensible policies, both States can emerge from this episode with an opportunity to fulfill aspirations of the people. But the politics is not shaping up that way right now.
The hangover of the partition is still looming, I guess…
That is one part. The other part is that it was wrong to have divided the State, especially when elections were imminent. Since the Government of India imposed President’s Rule, it would have been wise if they postponed elections to the State [Assemblies]. Constitutionally, it is permissible to postpone elections during President’s Rule by six to seven months so that the atmosphere is not so charged. And then, both States could look at their resources, opportunities, their policies and, therefore, would have had a more sensible approach. But now, there’s no time for that. Extreme populism is now ruling the roost.
The TRS [Telangana Rashtra Samithi], the TDP [Telugu Desam Party] and the YSR Congress offered loan waivers. This is the first time that State–level parties offered loan waivers [as election promises]. First of all, loan waiver as a principle is wrong. It will undermine the banking system. Second, even if you want to do it, the State is not the one to do it, it’s the Union. And third, the State has no resources. It is reckless. The Government of India offers loan waivers. Normally, in the budget with cut-off dates and conditions. Now, well in advance they say ‘don’t pay the loans; we will waive the loans’. This is recklessness at a time when we should focus on investments.
You have said in the past that during reconciliation, when you accede to one party’s demand, you should take care of the interests of the other party. The Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act focuses on that, doesn’t it?
Not the original Bill. But, with the amendments that we proposed, it is taken care of to some extent.
The Act also sent out negative signals toward the pro-Telangana side who say, “We have got Telangana but we haven’t got anything else.”
It is not true. First of all, the problem arises in the other State [Seemandhra] in terms of revenue deficit. Telangana will be a revenue surplus State from day one because, after all, a substantial portion of the revenue comes from the major city. Once the major city becomes yours, you will enjoy all the surpluses. Hyderabad city has a surplus of Rs. 13,000 crore. Earlier, that surplus was shared by the whole State. Now, it is going to 40 per cent of the State. And it is in perpetuity. It is a very substantial sum. The other State on account of this is going to be a deficit State. The second is infrastructural needs. [In addition to power], road infrastructure in Telangana, a landlocked State, is going to be very important. Since everything is concentrated in and around Hyderabad city for the past 30-40 years, we have to now give some tax incentives to promote investment.
People talk about 146 institutions in and around Hyderabad, but some of these institutions have created infrastructure in other parts. So that criticism is not valid. Telangana is getting a substantial revenue surplus because a big city is going to be theirs and theirs alone.
In Ashoka’s or Akbar’s time or in early British India, all revenue was land based. Today, there is no land revenue. All revenue today is from Sales Tax, Excise and so on, which is basically based on urban consumption or wherever there is higher income. This might be applicable not only to Andhra Pradesh but also to Chennai, Tamil Nadu, or to Bangalore, Karnataka. All the government revenues in substantial measure are in the cities and the expenditure is less. The expenditure is Rs. 7,000 crore and revenue is Rs. 20,000 crore in the city (Hyderabad).
Wisdom is something, but being politically correct is quite the other.
Absolutely. Political correctness and wisdom often don’t go together in this country.
This expression holds good for your party, which is often stated to be wise but not political correct, and hence, has lost out in the race to capture the imagination of the people during the formation of Telangana.
We don’t agree with it. Look at the bigger picture of politics, forget about Andhra Pradesh. In the historical sense, one of the greatest challenges of politics is reconciling conflicting interests harmoniously. Vote banks come when you don’t reconcile conflicting interests, when you provoke conflict and polarise voters, particularly in our electoral system. I will be ashamed if I polarise society and seek votes.
Political correctness means short-term freebies. The cost endured by society is perpetuation of poverty. The notion that for reasons of political correctness and quest for votes you have to perpetually promote poverty is a very dangerous notion. I don’t want Lok Satta to pay that price.
Has Indian democracy matured enough to appreciate this standpoint?
That’s why it’s called wisdom. Every far-sighted figure or force or movement was ridiculed, assaulted, attacked and sometimes people were killed. They pay the price, but eventually, they are the ones who write the history. So should we be power seekers?
Certainly power is desirable as a means to a larger end provided there is a larger end at all. If the means adopted to get power are detrimental to the larger end, then what is this power about? I know that for a political party or a politician to ask this question is stupid. I am willing to be stupid. I attacked loan waivers. Will any political party seeking votes at any cost attack loan waivers?
Day in and day out I am talking about the substandard school education in the country. Indian school education outcomes are among the worst in the world. No other political party wants to talk about it.
But populism gets votes.
Politics is not all about votes; certainly votes are welcome. It is also the political argument. For example, if Lok Satta did not argue that day with facts, the harmonious division of Andhra Pradesh could not have been possible. There is only one member from Lok Satta. Only 1.8 per cent votes in the last election. The one member did more than all the other members put together to create conditions for harmonious division of the state. So, if you judge only by votes and numbers, what have all those with numbers done? It is also the measure of sobriety, truthfulness, creativity and innovation you bring to solutions, because you have to find well-made solutions. We are particularly good at that and we are not afraid to go against notions of political correctness or against some holy cows. In India, there are far too many of them. If politics means dumbing down, sorry. Politics must be ennobling. It must elevate or peak. The media is also committing the same mistake, not The Hindu . Here, dumbing down is seen as popular. Popular or populism is terribly wrong. I know these are unconventional views for a politician. But I am hardly a politician in the traditional sense. I am not opposed to being popular. I am opposed to being populist at the cost of the future. And wisdom demands that you can combine both popularity and protecting the future. That requires innovation and persuasion. We lost both in this country.
Telangana seems to have polarised the voters on both sides of the newly drawn border.
That is because of the immediate proximity of elections. The timing is horribly wrong. The division should have been one or two years ahead. Or at least, the election should have been postponed due to the complex situation. Even after the partition of the State, they should have let everybody cool down and create conditions for sober reflection to the extent possible. The polarisation happened because of this timing.
A line is drawn, but socially and economically, we need not be divided. Therefore, look into the future. Election is about the future, not about the past. Wherever elections are about the past, those nations paid a heavy price.
Whether it is Hitler who tried to throw the blame [on the communists] for the failure in World War I and the Versailles Treaty and Germany’s decline, or the Israel-Palestine issue in contemporary world politics, it is all about what happened in 1948 or 1967, rather than looking at the future.
Past is past, what it can best offer is lessons for the future. Past cannot dictate political behaviour. It’s bad. It’s primordial. It’s dangerous. We all have economic future; we all have political future in the sense of public order, justice, or rule of law. Let’s build that. Any other approach is not sensible.
People are banking on the fact that now there would be a vision, a roadmap for the future of the new States.
That is what is lacking. That is what I am so disappointed about in this election. Populism cannot take you forward. Electricity, jobs, quality of education, infrastructure, decentralisation of power, healthcare, job creation, manufacturing hubs, and decentralisation of the economy – these have to be in the agenda. Barring Lok Satta, who else is talking about it?
On one side of the border, the bifurcation will definitely dictate voter behaviour because people want to say ‘Thank You’. On the other side, people I have spoken to have said ‘Telangana is past. We need to rebuild. We need somebody who would help us rebuild’. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is portraying himself as the development man for Andhra Pradesh. Where are all these claims and counter claims leading the two States to?
From the Lok Satta’s perspective, this reconstruction has to be based on four fundamental principles — decentralisation of political power, both horizontally and vertically; decentralisation of economic power, don’t commit the same mistake as Hyderabad, don’t make one city or one place or one region the sole economic hub. Money politics is, in fact, at the heart of all this reckless expenditure, which is unprecedented. That’s what is disturbing.
The focus must be on the social infrastructure, particularly education quality, and physical infrastructure, particularly power, and to promote genuine economic activity-based jobs.
People credit different political parties for the formation of Telangana. But when asked what benefit they will accrue, they say their children will get jobs. That’s one common refrain from people across the newly created State.
In fact, that’s the larger question for India. The Telangana movement will be the harbinger of what we will see in the rest of India. It’s a forerunner. The form it takes is contextual. Essentially it is about a feeling that you have been short-changed. The same is true with coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema as well. It is not just about getting jobs. It’s a much deeper issue. The underlying cause is this insecurity and fear about jobs and aspirations which are unfulfilled. It will take various forms in various parts of India. If we don’t act quickly now, I’m afraid – and I am not an apocalyptic man, I am an optimist – we are going to see many more such problems of a variety of kinds in various parts of India.
You have a visionary approach to politics but one of your allies, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is believed to be pushing its communal agenda of Hindutva. Does communalism not figure in your agenda at all?
Yes, of course it does, most certainly. But what is communalism? Is it only about religion? Is it not about caste? Is it not about region? If you play identity politics of any kind at the cost of the larger unity of the country, it is communalism. Somehow in this country, we are all too ready to vilify one form of communalism. It should be vilified. We are all ready to embrace the other forms of communalism as if they are patriotic and diverse — the regional communalism and caste communalism. And if you look at the bigger picture, nothing can distinguish these major parties. Let’s be frank. In fact, there is also evidence to show that if anything, the other major party that is deemed to be ‘secular’ has actually acted far more cynically on these occasions. So, we have a sad situation.
However, there are two things today. One, if a major party is now changing its colours, maybe because the DNA has changed, may be because of the force of circumstances. That does not matter. But if multiple political parties are saying that our agenda is India first, economic growth, job creation and clean government, and nothing else, they are not willing to segment the population, they are not willing to offer short term freebies, they are not willing to use caste as a card, do all of us as a people rejoice or not? Let us say tomorrow, [Congress vice president] Rahul Gandhi actually acts on some of his protestations. He actually gives up power in the party, uses his influence to make Congress non-dynastic, truly democratic, weeds out corruption and has a vision for job creation and economic growth — I hated Congress because of Emergency, I despise it because of dynastic impulses and corruption — if Congress actually shows that wisdom and maturity by forcing circumstances, I will be the first one to publicly praise that and embrace that.
We must recognise that great political parties do not disappear. That’s why Lok Satta, even as a movement and not even as a political party, never took a strident line saying ‘let them disappear’. They are the ones who coined the expression, “Politics is a noble endeavour.” They are the ones who actually worked with all these people — NDA and UPA — to get many outcomes for the country, most of them very quietly but very substantial outcomes. Certainly, for puritanical groups like ours, it is uncomfortable. If I did not say it’s uncomfortable, I am lying. But the political realities, whether you are in alliance or not, is after all an arithmetic issue. Are we not working with them at all? Why did I join the National Advisory Council? Why did I work with the Congress party all these 10 years? Why did I work with BJP and NDA [National Democratic Alliance] when they were in office at that time? Because, like it or not, that is a political and constitutional reality.
Large parties cannot be dismissed. And they don’t disappear. The notion that something suddenly will come and displace them is a very impractical notion. It does not happen here, particularly in our political and electoral system. The second issue is the electoral system. What is the problem for any reform party in this country? If 100 people actually believe or write that what you argue for or stand for, there is a way forward. No more than five or 10 are willing to vote because 90-95 think that anyway this vote is going to be wasted without realising that their vote is what really makes you win and, therefore, makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Even the 5-10 votes that you get is translated into seats for only one or two. We got three times the votes of AIMIM [All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen] in Andhra Pradesh, and got one-seventh of the seats of AIMIM. This is the reality of India because the system is horrid. Therefore, an electoral alliance partly is programmatic. Hopefully we will influence our alliance partners if we have strength in our arguments and have some credibility and we would act as a moderating influence for populism or extremism or getting some paltry things done. Equally, it is also a way of saying that the vote is not fragmented.
You seem to be banking on hope more than a clear vision or programme when it comes to alliances. Hindutva is widely believed to be the BJP’s core agenda, although they are focussing more on economic growth, job creation and clean governance, which are needs of the hour and could come from any mature political party.
They are not coming that sharply from other parties. Don’t you find it amazing? It is a good point. This is one argument I have been making for the past one year. Narendra Modi has risen by default. The argument he is making should be made by at least 30-40 major politicians in the country, politicians who matter in electoral sense. But because he is the only one, he marched ahead as there is no competition. In that sense, Modi is the creation of the Congress party and other political parties. In India, is there anything more important that economic growth and job creation today? Why are you not focussing on that and that alone as the central issue since the only window available is now?
Aren’t those issues covered in the manifestos of the political parties?
It is like the Planning Commission saying everything is there. Ask anybody in India what is their perception; who is talking about clean government, jobs and economic growth.
Does not Narendra Modi’s alleged links with the 2002 Gujarat riots trouble you at all?
It troubles us, just as the Emergency of the Congress troubles me, the 1984 riots trouble me. But we have to move on. Just as I said about Telangana, you cannot be hostage to the past forever. You have to move on.
Don’t you think there should be a closure to this?
Let’s again get into facts, I don’t want to go into that. Post-Godhra in 72 hours, when there were these terrible riots going on, there were plenty of police firings to control the marauding mobs and 170 people were killed, most of them in the police firings. Post-Indira Gandhi assassination in 72 hours, despite armed forces and paramilitary being in Government of India’s control, there was not a single firing when thousands of Sikhs were being butchered. The only lathi charge was at the place where Mrs. Gandhi’s body was lying in state because there was some commotion there.
Are we trying to justify one by bringing in the other?
No. I am trying to say that we are all reckless in our analyses without analysing facts. How come you don’t say that the Congress is communal? Because they put the secular badge? So what are we talking about? Are we saying that the Congress and the BJP are out in the country? Then what do we do? What Mr. Modi did was cynical and manipulative. Post-riots — he did not do it during the riots — he polarised the community and used the polarisation cynically for votes. Like Telangana is used cynically for votes; like Samaikyandhra is used cynically for votes; like some caste illusion is used cynically for votes. It is wrong, manifestly wrong, no more no less.
Rallying people around in the name of religion, Hindutva, Ram temple at Ayodhya, isn’t that their core agenda?
If they say that…
They have said that more than once.
That’s the past. Today, if they stick to that, we are out.
So, are we willing to compromise on that aspect and …
Not compromise. If they show signs of changing their past behaviour and learning from their mistakes, if they are willing to become a mature, middle-of-the-road party for India’s economic growth and job creation, then there must be incentive for such behaviour. Right now, they are showing that. Let there be incentive. If they don’t show that, let there be punishment. Otherwise, you are never creating an incentive. I cannot forever punish Congress for Emergency. It was a ghastly thing they did. And there were wounds in my heart for a long time. But you and I had to forget. We had to move on.
After the Emergency, Mrs. Gandhi did come back to power but that did not stop people from criticising it. Some even call it a quasi-Fascist move.
Yes, but we don’t forever talk about that, right?
We still do, in certain terms…
But the Congress is still a major factor. Nobody worries too much about it, right? That’s it. That’s what nations need. You don’t judge a nation by a terrible episode in a complex country with a tortuous history. Sometimes, horrid things happen. We have to learn lessons and move on. We can’t forever be hostages to history, like partition. BJP’s problem is they are hostage to partition, that part of history, which is wrong. That’s the point I am making, whether it is some other country or Andhra-Telangana. Any party or any group that is a hostage to history will create sorrow.
In fact, certain quarters also describe the BJP as a kind of a fascist group. Do you agree with them?
My friend is a democrat, my enemy is fascist. We have to go by objectivity. We still have a strong Constitution, robust institutions. I don’t think anybody in India can ever be a fascist. I don’t think that’s a serious cause for worry.
Let’s set aside all the arguments and look at things here the way it is now. The polarisation over Telangana is very much in place. How do you see the electoral prospects of parties like the Lok Satta panning out from here?
As a political party, movements like this, in the first-past-the-post system, will obviously get few seats but the prestige in which it is held, the credibility and the vote percentage is quite something. For the time being, our influence electorally is largely urban. Wherever there is influence of vote-buying, obviously, Lok Satta is out. When you have chosen not to buy votes, your are out. Wherever we have intense polarisation, people don’t want to see anything about their own future but about caste or religion or some other aspect, Lok Satta is out. We have sealed ourselves because of our own position and society’s condition. Therefore, in urban areas — now I am talking about the combined state of Andhra Pradesh — we have some significant influence to persuade people. But in rural areas, while we are held in respect, I don’t think electoral behaviour will be substantially altered because of us. It will happen eventually. It will not happen anytime soon. It will happen in about two elections time.
We have seen a civil movement against corruption, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), grow and occupy the space as an alternative to existing political parties. Does it trouble you that a civil movement is taking up political space?
To the contrary. It’s a very exciting and positive development, provided you have wisdom and foresight. AAP is showing that at least in Metropolitan India, it is possible to really throw a challenge to major political parties. Of course, Delhi is unique. The per capita income is the highest in Delhi, it is somewhat less influenced by caste, region and religion than the rest of India. It never happened before, almost like freedom struggle, almost like a national movement — transcending their own internal differences, they have given terrific moral support to the exclusion of every other political party. That doesn’t happen [often].
However, the sad part of AAP is if they understood their historic role and if they really leverage their strengths, it could have been an enduring movement and a replicable movement. Instead, they chose short-term antics, Luddite economic policies, extreme populism, a method that is not conciliatory, but which paints everybody else as black and they alone are the shining beacons. This is absolutely not true. The traditional parties are mired in this vicious cycle because politics is much harder in India than almost anywhere else in the world because of the failure of bureaucratic delivery. Even the simplest things in a government office don’t get done without a sefarish (recommendation) or a bribe or tremendous harassment.
Therefore, a vast political machine, a parallel bureaucracy is required, paid for, and sustained by the politicians to be able to at least appear to address the grievances of the people. You can’t. You are not the executive authority to do what the government is doing. But to be the intermediary between the government machinery and the people, to at least give an appearance of taking care of their needs, require a vast machinery. Who will feed them? That is the source of corruption. That is the root of corruption. That’s why corruption is endemic to our polity until we improve service delivery, decentralise power and change the way many things happen in the country. Against that backdrop, to always paint them all as black — there are so many wonderful people in contemporary politics, individually — you look at Manik Sarkar, Chief Minister of Tripura, N. Rangasamy, (Chief Minister of Puducherry), Manohar Parrikar (Chief Minister of Goa), or [the BJP’s] Arun Jaitley or Arun Shourie, or A.K. Antony [Union Defence Minister] – they are men and women of highly impeachable integrity.
To think that we are the only paragons of virtue and have the self-regard in sense of purity at the cost of the rest of India, it may be a good copy for newspapers but it’s not the way a society is changed. You must have an institutional understanding and you must have the ability to negotiate with the established players to change the way things are done. That’s the way democracies change.
Major parties suddenly do not collapse, a black hole is not created, they don’t suddenly disappear. If eventually they don’t respond to these challenges, then certainly alternative forces emerge, slowly but steadily. It’s a generational effort. That’s where the economic policies, extreme short term populism and inability to negotiate the way forward and understanding the system become the drawbacks. But the positive part is extremely good.
Therefore, enduring success of AAP or AAP-like experiments is important to put pressure on these parties. If AAP now dies out, if Lok Satta now dies out, there’s no pressure on the Congress or the BJP to change. I personally believe it is these pressures that are actually making these parties think a little differently and act a little differently. Even if the outcomes are not radically different overnight, eventually they will change. Rahul Gandhi is now talking about democratisation of party, primary elections.
[The TDP leader] Chandrababu Naidu is now saying I have asked him to ask people as to who should be the candidate. Not that if it is implemented overnight things would change because our society is not ready for a primary election. But, it’s a good thing. That pressure is necessary. But [if] we, because of our exhuberance or our follies, destroy ourselves, it’s going to hurt the country.