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Is a new political entity an answer? Random conjectures on the future of Team Anna- Aug 2, 2012

Will Team Anna enter politics? Should they? Will such a move end our woes, provide a more rational, appealing option to voters, especially urban voters in India? It’s a question that has daunted me the past few days and something I wondered about even last year when Team Anna’s movement against corruption was its focal issue and at a high point.

Today, the team clearly announced that they would enter politics to provide a “political alternative” to the ‘corrupt’ political class”. They also said they would support candidates committed to “patriotism” and “country’s development”.

If I were to be outright cynical (and I confess I feel that way about a lot of things happening in the Indian political scene right now), I would say Kejriwal’s original plan has always been to start a political party. Even last year, his comments betrayed his leaning in this direction, but Anna himself maintained a neutral stand. The debate on extending this movement into a political one seems to be growing right now.

What does this development mean for us as citizens? For very long, our sense of disillusionment with politicians has been intense. Many urban, educated voters are really caught between a rock and a hard place while trying to take sides between the Congress-UPA bunch and the BJP-NDA lot on the other. Theoretically, a third front has always been an option. But putting together such an alternative is an enormous challenge.

It is one thing to call upon politicians to answer on charges of corruption and demand change as a citizen group. But will Kejriwal and his allies be capable of the political acumen required to play the power games? Will they remain clean when they are in the system? I don’t see in this team the kind of charismatic leadership you need to upset the power balance in a democracy as large as India. I’ve heard Kejriwal speak up close and while he has his facts pat, he came across as hot headed, even a bit rabid. His simplicity and uprightness is very appealing, but I wasn’t bowled over. Not by a long shot. Who else, with Anna clearly taking a non-political stand. (Of course, one could argue that the two main parties are just as bereft of capable leadership!) I’m also wondering if TA has a pan India base. I don’t know enough and would love to learn more. And importantly, an alternate political party needs to have a bigger vision for the nation. I don’t quite see that here, though it can evolve by logically extending the current principles of transparency, democratic process, etc.

Despite my doubts, I do admire the courage and conviction of the movement. I wish it had not waivered, but rather stuck to its original agenda of targeting graft. I also wish it had focused as much on efficiency of governance as on corruption; efficiency and optimization through technology and better processes would go a long way in solving most of the day-to-day problems citizens face, and control low-level corruption.

I also understand that it is logical to fight the system from inside if you cannot make a dent from the outside. If Team Anna can unveil a well-rounded and more palatable vision for India, then they might well get popular support. However, I suspect a lot of their appeal until now has been that they represented the common man and fought against the establishment. Now that they aspire to be the establishment, the expectations will change drastically. To keep their agenda afloat in this new milieu will be quite a challenge. Let’s wait and watch- the run up to 2014 is getting exciting!

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Excited about elections: Anecdotes from middle class voters across India- Feb 29, 2012

Election fever is all around. And this time round, I’m seeing the voters I know getting excited about things, for the first time in my living memory. I’m talking middle class, salaried people, not known for their love of the poll booth and most of who are happy to indulge in armchair discussions without any real political affiliations.

Perhaps we should thank Anna and his team for this gift to the nation- some sort of awakening of the middle class voter towards his responsibilities as opposed to his usual emphasis on rights (voter turnout has been increasing steadily for local and assembly elections throughout India and many voters claim to vote for development and not traditional reasons like caste). Or perhaps its my eyes that have opened, late in life.

A few weeks ago, at a wedding in Lucknow, much of the discussion among the local guests was about the impending voting in the city, which was to be the following Sunday. Rahul Gandhi’s every gesture was analyzed and Akhilesh Yadav seemed to have impressed quite  a few with moves that reminded old timers of the Mulayam of their youth! Strangely, it was unclear what the election issues were from these conversations, the focus was entirely on the personalities!

Last night, a chat conversation with my cousin Pooja who lives in Goa spoke of the absolute excitement about the elections in our constituency of St Cruz, a bit outside Panjim. The villagers are being wooed by promises of better infrastructure and connectivity and of course, the possibility of real estate development is a huge lure for politicians in wards surrounding Goa’s large cities, where several residential projects are mushrooming in a rather haphazard manner.

An infamously corrupt and flamboyant local politician Babush Monsterrat from nearby Talegaon, she told me, was contesting from St Cruz this time round. Of course, his wife was contesting from their home seat, which got us into a discussion about women often being dummy candidates.

Last week, I was having dinner with friends, one of whom is from Pune. The recently concluded elections for the 152 seats of the Pune Municipal Corporations, this friend informed me, resulted in 51% of the seats occupied by women  corporators, who number 78 as opposed to 74 men. This means that beyond the reserved seats, several women have won general seats as well. The number of woman applicants this year was 1,260 as against 2,080 men. The NCP and Congress gave tickets to 76 women, out of which 24 NCP and 14 Congress woman leaders secured a place in the House. Again, many of these could be dummy candidates put up by male politicians (husbands, fathers) who are seeing a decline in their political fortunes, or have criminal charges against them, or are embroiled in some controversy. Even so, locals feel there are many noteworthy, serious women politicians in power, which is a heartening thought.

It is unclear what these changes mean for our cities and citizens. Unfortunately, better voter turnout in a democracy does not result in better politicians, better governance or better accountability. More needs to be done to make politicians accountable to the people, and a lot needs to be done to mobilize communities to debate issues, list priorities and place adequate pressure on governments and bureaucracies to perform; but getting the middle class slightly more excited about elections is a good start, don’t you think?

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