Interview with Meera Sanyal: banker turned social activist-politician
Geetanjali Minhas | July 18, 2013
In 2009, she raised more than the proverbial eyebrows when she threw a punch way above her weight, jumping from the pin-striped corporate boardroom she used to move around in to the heat and tumble of politics. She fielded herself against Milind Deora of the Congress and Mohan Rawale of the Shiv Sena, the field being the South Mumbai parliamentary constituency. The well-known David taking on the Goliath in his own den.
Four years, a poll drubbing and much water down the Arabian Sea later, Meera Sanyal is back on that familiarly unfamiliar turf – again ready to take on the netas on their turf in the heat and grind of Indian politics. And this time she seems to be in it for good, having recently quit her job as the country executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Sanyal, who fought the 2009 polls with '25 lakh of her own money and is one of only 373 people BJP’s prime prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi follows globally on Twitter, speaks with Governance Now on the art, science, commerce and the craft of politics.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Now that you have decided to dive into fulltime politics and joined hands with Arvind Kejriwal, how do you plan to cruise on?
I have not joined hands with (either) Arvind Kejriwal or Aam Aadmi Party. At the Indus Entrepreneurs meeting I had proposed that we should form a citizen’s alliance rather than (fighting recognised politicians as) an individual. Kejriwal and RK Mishra of the Nav Bharat (political party) responded very positively (to the idea). I firmly believe we must have a joint front of all like-minded citizens who are standing for good governance and a good economic policy.
What's the immediate plan? Which election do you plan to contest: Maharashtra assembly or Lok Sabha?
I am still in the process of formulating my plans. The broad agenda would be good governance and sensible economic policies for which we are standing. (But) yes, I will stand in the coming elections.
What attracts you to politics?
Many Indians of our generation have eschewed politics. Our generation was mainly confronted with getting a job and many left the country to live and work abroad. I come from IIM-Calcutta and Insead (France) and it took me six months to get a job since India was a closed economy at the time and our focus was to establish ourselves professionally. People who are now in their forties and fifties felt that politics was not for them – it was considered dirty, corrupt and a criminal business.
Our interaction with governance and politics has mainly been of analysis and criticism.
Yet, though there is much that is wrong in our political system we are privileged to live in a democracy. I believe politics matters because it touches every aspect of governance in our lives. To improve and change things, it is important that we participate constructively through the democratic process – whether by voting, which a lot of us have tended not to do, or just engaging more constructively.
Not everyone has to stand for elections – they can get involved with their elected representative: the elected corporator, MLA or MP…. I am very encouraged to find a growing citizen's movement that shares the same belief. If we can come together, this can be a powerful force for change.
In the process of abdicating the process we are affecting the future of our children and the future of all children in India. Be it education, health, reservation, economic policies or anything else, all this are adding up to something not desirable which founding fathers of this country never intended. This freedom was hard one and needs to be worked at.
How do you plan to take on this new challenge considering you need deep pockets to enter politics?
While I am still working on plans, this is certainly a challenge. Let us see how we tackle it.
Even if concerned citizens like you step in, politics will still continue to be controlled by the big, organised political parties. How do you visualise your future in this scenario?
The tragedy is, big political parties are not legislating at all; they seem to be losing their way. If you look at the amount of time parliament has met and the amount of legislations that have been passed, it is woefully inadequate. They (elected representatives) appear to be weakened from within by factionalism and infighting – for position and power.
For a country of India’s scale, scope, complexity and magnitude, it is important that our legislative process works. It is now critically necessary that you have people in parliament who understand issues and legislate taking into account all points. There is no discussion or debate in parliament (at present). What is more worrying, there is no legislation being passed: look at the number of bills pending in parliament. You may agree or disagree but critically important bills have been pending for long periods of time.
And if you look at the executive, there is judgment after judgment from the supreme court, but which the states violate. A prime example of this is (the need for) police reforms, which many states are in contempt of. It is a matter of concern if neither the legislature nor the executive is working. It would be excellent for this country if political parties were strong and working well. The problem is they are not and therefore people are losing trust.
Whether it is urban, semi-urban or rural India, where I have spent time, the sentiment is the same: “Yeh koi kaam toh kar nahin rahe (these politicians don’t do any work).”
Take, for example, the women’s reservation bill that was discussed with a lot of fanfare across party lines two or three years ago. There was a lot of media attention and enthusiasm (but) only one gentleman, Sharad Joshi of the Swatantra Bharat Party, voted against it in either house of parliament.
Outside parliament, one of the few voices that opposed the bill was mine. When people tell me that being a women I should support the bill, I tell them that I absolutely feel we need more women in parliament and assembly but I don’t think reservation is the right way (to go about it). All we have to do is have more women candidates, more talented women in the pipeline, good policies that encourage women to be there – so that you have the same outcome without mandating it.
Logically, big parties should do what they are mandated to do – pass good legislation, be responsible legislators, attend parliament (or assembly), discuss, debate and legislate. Instead, we see infighting, factionalism, corruption and crony capitalism. The three Cs of corruption, cronyism and criminalisation need to be replaced by the three Cs of clean, competent and compassionate politics.
People are losing faith (in politicians) for these reasons. If they (netas) are able to do the right thing, they will regain the trust and respect of electorate. Otherwise there will be a new order.
You won just 1.6 percent of the votes polled when you fought Milind Deora as an independent candidate in 2009 Lok Sabha elections. What did that experience teach you?
That every vote matters. I am deeply grateful to every single person who voted for me. Their belief in what I stood for has given me the confidence to continue my stand for clean politics, sensible economic policies and good governance.
I saw that the election commission is doing a great job and trying very hard to create a level playing field. But the nature of logistics of elections in India is such that established political parties clearly have an advantage, (and) newer citizen’s parties will struggle to deal with. There are odds against new parties – if you don’t get a certain number of votes you are not given a symbol and if it is granted (it comes) merely 20 days before the election.
In India, where people recognise symbols, it (poll symbol) should be given in advance so you can popularise it.
The other big lesson was that the electorate is now beginning to change. During campaigning, when I walked through my constituency, I was amazed at the quality of dialogue I had with the people: I saw an appetite among the electorate to talk about issues and find their solutions. This is an important change taking place in Indian politics.
The EC and some civil society organisations have been pressing for electoral reforms to curtail the influence of money and create a level playing field for independents. What’s your take on that?
The election commission and successive CECs – starting from Mr (TN) Seshan to Dr (SY) Quraishi – have done a great deal to ensure free and fair elections. Though it can never really be a level playing field, given the muscle and money power that established players have, continued reforms, and more importantly the EC’s commitment to a transparent and clean election process, are a source of confidence for people like me.
The EC is also trying to improve measures. People like Dr Quaraishi are trying hard to do things, especially when odds are very high. At a recent event he said that printing of election cards by the commission, rather than the candidate, turned out to be the most successful experiment in Bihar, as voters had confidence in it (voter I-cards) since the EC was issuing it. Besides saving costs for the candidate it also provided a level playing field and people were encouraged to vote.
If this step is extended across the country it would be a great equaliser for independent candidates.
Is there any similarity between a corporate career and a political one?
At the moment there is not much in common, as politics is not very professional (in India yet); it is dynastic and there is lot of criminalisation. Like in a company, where you join with a commitment to do your best otherwise you will not keep your job, the salient criterion when entering politics should be the same – to serve the country, rather than pursuing personal goals.
Second, whether it is a corporate, political or any career, the ability and willingness to understand and engage with multiple stakeholders is very important. Like in the corporate world, where it is becoming increasingly clear that you have to not just engage with your shareholders and employees but also the community at large, the youth, media and a variety of stakeholders, politics, too, is a complex world where different stakeholders have different views on the same issue. There has to be willingness to debate and dialogue, and arrive at a conclusion.
How do you plan to reach out to voters? Social media is supposed to be a big factor, especially in your case, as internet access would be higher in urban centres.
To be quite candid, we have to make a strategy to ensure it (social media) does not become an elite medium; it has to be used in a way that is inclusive. It is easy to have people ‘like’ our campaign (but) we have to think how to make it a true dialogue.
In 2009 you contested from an elite (South Mumbai) constituency. How do you plan to reach out to the common person?
My campaign in 2009 was totally self-funded. Since both my husband and I thought we had a commitment for our country, we broke our savings, took an amount aside and decided to spend X amount and account for every rupee spent. Since it was our money we didn’t want to do rathyatras and waste money. Instead, we decided to do padyatra to engage with every part of the constituency.
South Mumbai is a constituency of 17 lakh people, and I was pitted against two sitting MPs – Milind Deora, son of (then) petroleum minister Murli Deora, and Mohan Rawale of the Shiv Sena in Lalbaug-Parel area – as two constituencies had been merged due to delimitation.
Thirty-five percent of the constituency is slums and another 15-20 percent chawls (where mill workers and lower-middle class families live). So, 50 percent of the electorate comprises common persons. Against the common perception about people who stay in slums, I discovered that their homes were spotlessly clean, everyone was going to work, and they were all very proud of their house.
The spirit of Mumbai lives in our slums and chawls. In the peak of summer, when I was campaigning, I not only experienced their generosity but they (also) shared their aspirations and dreams with me. When I left their homes, I realised what I was standing for. This is the future of India and they are working so much harder. They have very broad shoulders and very big hearts. Our slums have tremendous sense of community (spirit).
Did you draw any lessons from Anna Hazare’s mass movement?
Definitely. I was very inspired and encouraged by the fact that people from across the country, cutting across barriers of gender, community, religion, region, caste or creed, could be united by a larger objective in the interest of the nation. It showed that a large swathe of India is saying that corruption is not right.
I speak to lot of students across the country, and I ask them to raise their hands if they think their grandparents were not corrupt. Everyone raises their hands. Then I ask them to raise their hands if they think their parents are not corrupt, and a majority of hands go up. Finally I ask them to raise hands if they personally think they are not corrupt, and once again most hands go up.
So who are theses corrupt people?
The bulk of Indians are decent, honest, hardworking and god-fearing people who are not involved in corruption on a big scale. Unfortunately, a small number of (corrupt) people are giving bad name to nation and the scale of it is staggering and unacceptable. Anna Hazare brought it out in a crystal clear way that we are not corrupt (but) we blindly accept it. A mirror has been held up to the society that we are not like that only – (but) only some people are like that.
As a society, we have to say, “This will not work.” And that, I think, is the power of what Anna did.
Finally, you have decided to leave a successful banking career to pursue politics. Don’t you think it is a big risk?
I don’t believe politics can, or should, be a full-time career. In many parts of the world people switch between politics and business, which is healthy, as you bring in lessons from both sides. The problem with a fulltime political career is that you depend on it for livelihood. The nature of political process in a democratic system is that you may win or lose an election. (So) fearing a loss in the next election, you spend your entire effort bolstering your position – financial and otherwise – and cater to what happens if you lose.
When you have lost an election, you spend your entire time trying to bring down the person who won, so that you can win the next time and that is accounting for lot of ills in our political system. We are taking for granted that politics is a family tradition in India. You (should) join politics because you want to serve, and not because you want to make it a family business.
The entire incentive structure is wrong.
Though I have had a happy and successful banking career that I really enjoyed, I suppose for all of us there comes a time when you feel you believe in something and you really want to do that. Last year, when I went to villages where our foundation works, this resolve got intensified when I stayed in the homes of villagers trying to understand their lives. I understood the issue of migrant workers and why they come to this city and live in difficult circumstances.
I saw they are tough, they are resilient, and their spirit is fantastic. This was also the most learning experience of my life. Since I had an urban upbringing in banking it also made me think that if I had to win in my lifetime I cannot merely represent my limited constituency but take up a larger area.
At this point this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Call it politics, idealistic, serving your country or whatever, but I cannot think of anything better to do.
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