Interview with Jaya Prakash Narayan

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Jaya Prakash Narayan, politician IAS and founder of the Lok Satta Party, visited IIT-B for a lecture at Mood Indigo’s LitFest. We spoke to him about the loopholes in implementation of demonetization, his opinion on grassroot movements transforming into political parties and much more. Here’s the transcript of the interview:

We have seen several grassroot movements transforming into political parties, but generally with less success, apart from AAP. Many such parties turn out too individualistic, like AAP has basically become a fight between Arvind Kejriwal on one side and Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan on the other. So what measures can be taken to prevent this?

There are two parts to your question. Firstly, why do such political formations not succeed? – India is a continent and not a country like Denmark, Norway or Sri Lanka, with an enormous population, 22 languages and enormous diversity in a population of over a billion. To create an alternative to create a monolithic party like the Congress took a generation. Now we are talking about creating a new politics altogether – an alternative to making all existing political parties because, whatever they may claim, they are all part of a political culture which is wrong for the country. It will take time, less in some places than in others. It will happen faster in urban places like Delhi which has a higher per capita income compared to the rest of India. It also requires enormous media attention because media is the oxygen to politics and certain movements centered around Delhi, whether it be anti corruption or a women empowerment are leveraged locally and in Delhi a major party like the Congress disappeared, opening up space for a grassroots movement. So you should not be impatient or lose heart.

Secondly, the prevention of individualism in parties, so that these political formations should not become egocentric – To practice what you preach, to have genuine internal democracy, allow space for a large amount of leaders because society has enormous number of potentially capable people who can lead. For instance, several years ago in Lok Satta I insisted in organisational elections using a secret ballot immediately after founding the party even though I was the founder of the party and was almost unchallenged. So it now could become a norm. When the successor needs to be removed, there is a precedent. After one term, I withdrew (despite party members saying otherwise) and after that, a new leader was elected. So it has to be made mandatory for some time. Leadership continues in a moral sense for some time, but the formal authority must be transferred as much as possible to as many people as possible, so that institutionally we are capable enough to create a movement and a party which is not individual centric as is the case with many political parties.

Continuing with Delhi, what do you think of the power struggle happening between the Delhi Government and the Government in the centre? Is it a breakdown of federalism?

Delhi is not a state. It is India’s most empowered municipality. The Delhi CM is a mayor, called CM. But he is truly empowered unlike those of Mumbai, or Chennai or any other cities. It is not a federal issue though, since it is not a state, it is a union territory but we have given the nomenclature of a legislature, a cabinet, a chief minister etc. to give it a certain aura of importance. And therefore to the extent that it is not a state, it cannot claim the powers of a state under several schedules under the constitution. Nevertheless, I am a great advocate of local governments. Even if it is not a state, as far as practicable every city should be self governing, and Delhi should set an example. Therefore, the govt of India should exercise enormous restraint except on matters are truly federal, because Delhi is the national capital and embodies all of India with many cultures, religions and languages, and hence union government cannot give up control over Delhi CG and make it a local issue. Apart from that, the governance over the affairs of basic amenities and services must be handled entirely by the Delhi government, they must be adequately empowered without undue interference, and they must be held accountable for anything happening in Delhi. Unfortunately because we are in a centralised culture where everybody wants power only at their level, not above not below, therefore whoever is in power in Delhi at the national level, they think in terms of them being all important, and CMs think the same way about themselves and don’t want empowered local governments. Unfortunately, even Arvind Kejriwal I’m sure wants power for only the Delhi government. This lust for power is a national disease, a cultural problem in our country. This must be changed and must start with Delhi as an example.

When talking about demonetisation, you referred to it as being a result of incompetence and buffoonery…

On implementation of demonetisation – This is definitely a reflection of the capacity deficit in the government missionary, the bureaucracy, the reserve bank, to some extent the banks; I don’t blame the banks that much because the banks had to handle enormous amount of work in a short period of time. I’m told they handled about 80 times the transactions and work that they would normally handle, in this period. But RBI definitely bungled badly in terms of day to day preparations, the finance ministry officials, they almost gave an impression of a government which is not in control of things and confused. Therefore the execution is very seriously flawed.

So the rationale was to control the black money where according to you, they bungled at the implementation. So what measures could have been taken, apart from demonetisation, to allegedly bring the black money back to the government?

Could have been is immaterial, some damage is done, some good has happened. Now we need to see what needs to be done to really achieve the objective: namely, a corruption free, tax and law-abiding country.
Now what are the drivers of black money? There are three major drivers: One is Real Estate. Everyone in Mumbai knows that if you want to buy a flat or a property, if you’re a buyer, 40-50% has to be in cash, or else you’re not a player in the market. If you’re a seller, if you don’t receive cash, you can’t sell it. This is the reality of most cities in the country. That is why a lot of middle class people who won’t otherwise evade taxes, who are not corrupt, they are all compelled to deal in cash. But this is very easy to take care of. If the Government of India and the state chief ministers they all sit together, and ensure that the basic values reflected in the official records, reflect the market price. Typically if the market price is 1 crore, the record shows 40-50 lakhs. It should be made at least 80-90 lakhs. You can’t make it 1 crore because the prices are volatile and keep going up and down. Around 85% is a reasonable ratio. And correspondingly reduce the stamp duty, so that the tax burden on people does not increase. Maharashtra for instance, you have to pay 6% as stamp duty and 1% as registration fee. Now reduce this 6% to 3% so that you get the same revenue as before. So reduce the taxes so that the people don’t pay more, the government does not get less but the black money becomes white money and these honest genuine people don’t have to deal with cash in the future; a huge sector is cleared up.

The second driver is: Corruption. Everyone knows, even after 8th November, you have to get anything done in a government office, you have to pay bribe. Without this, there is harassment, humiliation, delay, nuisance value. A lot of pain is inflicted on the citizens because they don’t want to pay bribe. So you create a service guarantee mechanism so that the people get services. In no other serious democracy, in no other major economy do people have to beg and go from pillar to post, or pay bribe for simple things like getting a birth certificate or a ration card, or a housing permit. So create this framework. Clear up the back office operations, create a legal framework so that there is a timeline, and within that timeline if they don’t deliver, that fellow pays a compensation for every day. Instead, a law was proposed by UPA and is now being enacted by NDA, is now in the final stages, which says that to speed up something that is due for you, if you pay a bribe, which most Indians are compelled to do, they are now trying to bring a law that will give 7 years, a minimum of 3 years of imprisonment as a punishment for this. But the person who took the bribe cannot even be investigated, which is absurd! Change this. And the big corruption, identify who is corrupt, everyone knows but is silent, find the worst of these in the country, the government has the power to send these people home by enforcing compulsory retirement under the law. You will send a powerful signal to the system. Then you sit with the political parties and address the political system because where is all the black money going? To buy votes! In a cycle of 5 years, elections are costing 1 lakh crores including Lok Sabha, State Assemblies, Local elections. But if these politicians spend 1 lakh crores, they need 10 times as much to sustain their workforce and get profit at the end of the day. And the people one collects this money from, themselves collect based on this rule too. Politics is thus driving this corruption and black money cycle.
How do you create a system where honest people can get elected without using dishonest means? That may take time. But the first step should be the service guarantee, the real estate, and target at least a 1000 mega corrupt people and send them home. At the end of the day, all citizens are hoping something good will emerge from this(demonetisation) which is why so many are supporting it even after all the hardships. That’s why we have to fulfil their aspirations and get something done. These three above stated steps can yield significant results and India will be a different country.

You also spoke about the need to prevent a war mongering hysteria in our Indian society. Who do you think are the culprits, who are propagating this hysteria, and what can be done to stop it?

It is not a question of who is the culprit. This is more to do with a juvenile approach to nation building. In the 21st century, modern nation states don’t go and conquer somebody else. Look at North Korea. It is such a tiny country, every day harassing the United States, the world’s mightiest power. The American President does not say ‘I will go and bomb you out of existence’ when America is fully capable of doing that. Today’s age is, by a variety of economic or diplomatic tools, and by international public opinion, by trade and economic sanctions, you achieve what you have to for your nation. Use forces as the absolutely last resort if it is inevitable. You prepare yourself, in particular if you’re dealing with nuclear powers. In this age of nuclear weapons, to talk to war loosely is to not care about human life, on both sides. We want to protect and preserve the lives of Indian people, and enhance and make them happier. Pakistani people by definition are not our enemies, we want them to prosper too. Therefore there has to be a nuanced approach to dealing with these things. So the thought of war is childish and juvenile and not for today.

We’ll arrive in 2017 where there are plethora of issues affecting contemporary india, what are some of the key issues that you think should be addressed by the government ?

Rule of law is the first. Normatively, we do have rule of law but the reality is that rule of law doesn’t work, the reason being – lack of capacity. The corrupt or the criminals don’t have the fear of punishment, the honest don’t have the security of safety and being protected. Unless rule of law is in place, the efforts made to curb corruption, settle disputes and punish the culprits of a crime are in vain. Actually, enforcing rule of law doesn’t cost much – about 0.2% of the GDP to put it in place. I won’t go much into the details of this right now.
The Second key issue is the framework of local governments. We should empower local governments in a meaningful way. Transfer resources to them and allow people to find solutions to their own problems at the lowest level; not in the Mumbai city but rather in a mohalla. Just like a resident’s welfare association, in each street, in each area empower local governments, give them resources and delegate to them the responsibility to solve problems. If sometimes they do badly, you appoint an ombudsman to take care of it. By doing this you’re gonna make millions of Indians partners in improving our country instead of just one PM, Chief Ministers, some district managers and municipal commissioners.
The third issue is education and healthcare. Currently, they’re appallingly bad. Our demand set is very strong, our kids are very bright, our parents sacrifice a great deal, our government spends a lot of money on education but the outcomes are disgracefully bad, among the worst in the world. We deserve more. We can easily improve if we adopt some best practices. Many not-so-wealthy countries are able to do much better than us. It is a shame with our brain power, our parental sacrifice, with our kids’ ambition and hard work that we’re really undermining our children, that their birth is determining their future. Similar is the case with healthcare. So, we should focus on education and healthcare, they are the greatest anti-poverty measures.
The fourth is the inadequacy of the civil servants in delivering services. We need to build an institutional mechanism in the country to enforce accountability and to make the civil servants deliver. Owing to the phenomenal competition, we recruit some of the finest into the government, but once they are ‘in’ the government, their delivery is appallingly bad. There is no competition for delivering. Your date of entry determines your promotion.
The fifth and the final one is politics. Imagine elections without vote buying. Can India not create a mechanism to elect the finest, public spirited, competent and intelligent Indians who love the country through honest means? Are we so decrepit as a democracy and a country that corruption, criminalization, casteism and freebies have become the only currency of power? What a shame! We deserve better. We can do much better if we sit together and evolve a system.
If these 5 issues are addressed, you’ll see an altogether different India, because inherently, you’re a remarkably capable society, a society with a rich culture, with technology and resources, with people who are hungry for success, with young people who are bright and innovative.

You announced that Lok Satta won’t be indulging into electoral politics for some time, can you explain your rationale behind this decision ?

Whether it is politics or a charitable organization or a good lawyer practicing law, their purpose is the same – to build a better society. Further there are many ways to go about it, politics is one significant road because in India, ‘Governance Crisis’ is the biggest problem. To improve governance in a democratic society, it is politics that is the springboard of power. One cannot simply ignore politics.
Now, I am political. The moment you start looking at demonetization, you are political. When you’re looking at what the Government of Maharashtra is delivering, you are political. We’re not party-politically though. We’re not seeking votes. The reason why we went political in a party-political sense is that we felt maybe 10% of Indians, specifically the young people, the urbanites, the new professionals, the educated people, are looking for a different India, they are asking the right questions, they are willing to support real change in our political process. So, we felt that if 10% or so support is available electorally that is enough to push the system before these major parties which are of real power, to force them to change their ways and transform the country. But the reality is that in most parts of India we have not reached that stage, we’re getting nearly 1% or 2% which is not enough. Not unlike the principle of levers which is to minimize efforts and optimize the outcome, unless we leverage our strengths and get the best value, if I do the maximum sweating and get the minimum outcome, that is idiocy. Suppose you’re getting 10% support, suppose the conditions are ripe in some parts of the country, certainly this must be taken forward, because that is one quick and very straight way of changing things. But as I said before, India is a continent; therefore, you have to keep on. It is neither the destination nor the direction we are changing, but it is the vehicle that has to be changed according to the circumstances.

There are a lot of us here in IITs who aspire for the civil services, what is the message you would like to give to these aspirants?

Just as politics is an important way, civil services is an important way. Provided we have that nobility of thought and the ability to execute, managing public affairs is a very noble thing indeed. However, if you opt for civil service because it is a powerful and glamorous job, you’re probably entering for the wrong reason. On the contrary, if you enter with humility, recognizing the opportunity it gives you to reshape the lives of many people, to implement policies and innovate, and you acknowledge the fact that being a part of the transformation of the country is an opportunity where we have to learn a great deal and do a great deal along with the people then it certainly qualifies as the right attitude.
Another equally important aspect is that it is not enough to just have the desire. Many people when they join the government are really idealistic, however, this does not mean that you have the capacity to deliver. Acquisition of knowledge is a lifelong process. What you do, what you say as a public official, as a minister, as an MLA, a MP, a CM or a PM, shaped the lives of millions of people and hence if you do something incompetently, corruptly or idiotically, it hurts equally so many people. Therefore, if you do not have the capacity to deliver, you are a liability. This is not engineering or company management, this doesn’t have a simple hierarchical structure, you have many stakeholders – the people of India. You have to negotiate in an honest way and get an optimal solution, therefore you must acquire those skills.
True, currently, the delivery is abysmally poor but not everything is because of bad politicians. No politician ever said that don’t give good education or don’t give health care; even within the means provided and the policies made by the government, the failure of bureaucracy is spectacular.
Therefore if we really have the right kind of vision and understand the goals for the country, good civil servants are needed for execution.
Ultimately, however, the democratic society changes through political processes and our representatives sit there on our behalf and make policies because they and they alone are endowed with that power, not judges, not bureaucrats.