In 2009, I stood for the Lok Sabha, National Parliamentary election as an Independent Candidate for South Mumbai. Though I lost, I learnt a great deal about my city and the people at its heart. It was the beginning of a journey, and one that I knew, I would devote the rest of my life to.
At the time, my step was considered quixotic by many, who regarded it as tilting at the windmills of the powerful Indian political establishment. Yet, in the four years since then, I have been delighted to see a rising wave of other independent citizen candidates and newly formed political parties, start to contest local and state elections.
It is as if the floodgates have opened, and the common citizen, the Aam Janta have said “Enough”. The initial reluctance of our generation, to participate in a political process widely regarded as venal and corrupt, has given away to the realisation that Politics matters. We can no longer abdicate the space of Governing our nation to the lowest common denominator. We can and must participate constructively, not just in the political debate, but in the process itself.
In the past four years I have been asked repeatedly if I would stand again; from which constituency and what my campaign strategy would be. Friends and well wishers have been generous with advice and offers of support, that I greatly value.
But it was a simple question from a child that has dominated my thoughts over the past four years. “Why are you standing” she asked, “and what do you stand for ?”
To answer this question, I started to undertake a series of exploratory journeys. The first into the issues that our country grapples with. The problems of education and health; of law and order and human rights; of poverty and corruption; of water, energy and food security…and of the best practices and policies that India could adopt, to address these challenges.
But it soon became evident that my ideas were shaped by my own background and perspectives – that of a banker who had grown up in urban India. In my years of banking I had learnt one thing – if you make the wrong assumptions, you make the wrong decisions – and such mistakes can be very expensive. There is no better way to understand the business and prospects of clients than to spend time with them in the field and understand the dynamics and drivers of their business.
Since India lives in her villages, it became clear to me, that this is where I would have to go. So in the summer of 2012, I embarked on a journey to the villages of India. During the course of the year I visited 15 states and spent time in over 120 villages. For the most part I traveled by public transport and lived in the homes, for a day and a night, with the women beneficiaries of my bank’s foundation.
Some of the stories of the journey have been shared with you through this blog and posts on Face book and twitter, and much of it still remains to be told. But the thread that ran through each and every step of this path, was that despite all the cynicism and sense of hopelessness that we experience when we watch TV or read the papers, the heart of India beats strongly.
The dignity and generosity with which I was welcomed into the homes, of women who had very little, will stay with me for ever.
In home after home, my hostesses refused to take any compensation for the hospitality they provided me. The true meaning of “Atithi Devo Bhava” came home to me when in one instance my gift of a saree was gracefully accepted and then in return I was presented her “shaadi ka joda”. Despite the hard physical labour which they put in over long hours (women everywhere in our country rise at dawn and work till late at night), there was always time for the sharing of stories and for the gift of laughter. It became abundantly clear to me that the women of our country have very big hearts and very broad shoulders.
But it also became clear to me, that we are eroding this moral fibre of our people with the policy of hand-outs and give-aways that every political party is adopting for short-term electoral gains.
In Gram Sabhas, I was often asked aggressively by male villagers, as to what I had come to give them. The plethora of Government schemes driven by electoral promises, delivered inefficiently and with innumerable leakages, is creating a climate of entitlement. This is worsened by well-meaning NGO’s who see development through the lens of charity.
In other villages I was asked for help in accessing bank loans. Initially very pleased at this request, I was distressed to learn the reason bank loans were preferred to all other forms of credit was that “they never had to be repaid – as they were invariably written off before the next election.”
Flag ship schemes such as MGNREGS, which if well executed can transform districts (ref my blog on the Bankura experiment) are in general so poorly implemented that they are becoming major vehicles for corruption and theft. Villagers across the country confided how they had received money despite doing no work, but also shared that they did so in the knowledge that everyone up the chain had taken a much larger cut. “Is it not fair that we should get our share ?” was the simple question.
So we have embarked on a path, where policies that ostensibly aim to provide social justice and inclusion are becoming ruinous. From the recent experience of some countries in Europe, it is clear that such policies are not financially sustainable in the long run and result in the impoverishment of the finances of a nation. What is worse, is that through the collateral damage they create, they impoverish the soul of a nation.
We are converting a proud and dignified people into those who are dependant on hand-outs. This will destroy the future of our children.
The second major concern that I gathered on this journey, was the erosion of faith in our Institutions. The common man has begun to doubt the pillars that are the very foundation of this country – the police, the judiciary, the CBI, various constitutional bodies, and even the Armed Forces.
These are institutions that we look up to, to uphold our rights as free citizens – no matter what our social status or incomes, no matter what our gender, community, caste or religion. We can only be equal in the eyes of the law if there are institutions that defend and uphold our rights, not just in letter but in spirit.
But sadly, whether this is justified or not, the people of India have begun to feel that the integrity of these important institutions have been compromised. This will erode the faith of citizens in the state and the very basis of our democracy.
We are at a tipping point.
Ours is a nation of hard-working, innovative, entrepreneurial people who are decent, God-fearing and honest. Our people have no need for charity, nor is it in their nature to cheat or defraud anyone. We are not a corrupt nation but sadly some of our leaders are. It is not the people of India who have let our country down, but regrettably much of our political leadership has.
It is time for all of us to take a position in defending what we believe to be right. And so, this is why I stand.
And this is what I stand for :
I stand for the soul of India.
I stand to uphold the integrity of our institutions.
And I stand for the dream of every mother who believes that the future of her child will be bright – based on his/her own hard work and because she/he had no more, but also no less, than a fair and equal opportunity.