Rajeev Chandrasekhar is an independent MP representing Karnataka and Bangalore Urban in the Rajya Sabha. In April 2012, he was elected unopposed for a second term with the support of the JD(S) and BJP MLAs in the Karnataka Assembly. He is the founder of RC foundation which focuses on primary education for poor children and has been at the forefront of raising finances and resources for supporting Tsunami-affected people, Kargil war-affected and defence personnel and rehabilitation of children impacted by the tragic burning of school in Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu.
Chandrasekhar has been looking forward to the Karnataka elections. He has been advocating everywhere recently that citizens turn out in large numbers to vote on 5 May, 2013. He says in this quickfire interview that he dreads "low turnout and the lack of real debate". The elections also come at a time when there is a strong sense of anti-incumbency against the BJP, and there is brewing anger in Bangalore on the complete breakdown of civic affairs.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar. Pic: Divya Gowda via Wikimedia
Chandrasekhar's move to public life also came not long after he started Jupiter Capital in 2005, a venture fund that has investments in technology and media. His firm owns or controls three well known media outlets in the south. Two of these are TV channels - Suvarna News (Kannada) and Asianet (Malayalam) - and one is a print newspaper, Kannada Prabha.
Chandrasekhar maintains a strong spirited persona and has championed several causes over the past several years. In Bangalore itself, he headed former CM B S Yeddyurappa's task force for the city - Agenda for Bengaluru's Infrastructure and Development, also called ABIDe. This task force prepared several reports and key reform recommendations for the government. In 2011, he offered to support citizen-led anti-corruption and governance reform litigation at the courts by offering to take on their legal fees. He did so in at least one major case that citizens won. After Yeddyurappa's falling foul of the Lokayukta and his subsequent ouster as CM, ABIDe proceedings went into the background.
At the national level, Chandrasekhar has weighed in on several regulatory issues in telecom and banking. More recently, he championed the cause of amending the brutal 66A clause of the IT Act which allows police to arrest you and me for critical comments we may make on social media and the Internet. He was nominated for the UK-based Index Freedom of Expression award, for pressing this case in the Rajya Sabha. He also received an honorary Doctor of Science award from the Visveswaraya Technological University two weeks ago for his contributions to technology and public service.
Subramaniam Vincent caught up with Rajeev Chandrasekhar on what the elections ahead could herald.
You got your honorary Doctor of Science award from VTU two weeks ago. Congratulations! Should we address you as Dr Rajeev Chandrasekhar now?
The Honorary Doctor of Science from Visveswaraya Technological University is a great honour, because I had started working towards my PhD at Stanford when I decided to come back to India in the 90s and also because it's from an institute named after Sir Visveswaraya.
But as far as addressing me goes, Rajeev as before is fine.
On Facebook, you recently asked Bangaloreans to vote for whoever best understands and agrees to work for a 'Better, Safer, Cleaner Namma Bangalore'. Karnataka politics is in crisis, and Bangalore has been paying a price. What do you look forward to in this upcoming Karnataka elections?
I would like voters to be more aware while casting their vote - aware of the real direction required for our city, about the positions of the MLA candidate and political parties, about the real reforms required in city governance. I would like them not to get carried away by rhetoric and slogans.
What do you secretly dread, or hope will not happen in this election?
I dread 'low turnout,' the lack of a real debate and voting based on caste and community, rather than the future of our city.
So, is there anything you would do to ensure that this does not happen?
It is not my business to tell voters who to vote for but I can certainly help them understand the challenges that we face as a city and state and pose the questions to the person who will represent them in our Legislature.
Over the last decade and a half, Bengaluru has become the symbol of a new India, and an important gateway for investments into the country. The growth of this city has outpaced its infrastructure. A picture of utter urban chaos is the result and it is our biggest challenge to bring infrastructure up to speed in Bengaluru.
Not only is the situation today alarming, it could get worse! By 2020, the population in the Bengaluru Metropolitan Region (BMR) could exceed 16 million (1.6 Crores). (Src:Click here) If the same unplanned approach to growth continues, the historical advantages of the city will be lost.
So I would tell voters, like many of you, I am a proud Bengalurean - and have also been a helpless witness to the decline of our city - as it has gone from a vibrant metropolis to a city that is creaking under the weight of its own growth. Your vote in this election could help arrest this decline. I believe that it's important that we move from complaining about what our City has become, to actively participating in rebuilding Bengaluru into a city that we all can be once again proud of.
A Bangalorean is at the booth on May 5th. She sees a list of names. She already knows the major names campaigning in her constituency. She distrusts all of them. None of them helped address any of the deeper problems in her locality, yet they came to her residential layout only during elections. Should she be using 49-O to nullify her vote?
I would personally seek out and engage at least one of the candidates. Having a representative is important and to give him/her an opportunity to serve. If he or she lets down the mandate to serve, we should shame him/her.
Are you saying that by voting, citizens can help ameliorate the present mess that we see all around?
The first step is to ensure that our MLAs are people who understand the challenges. In particular, action is needed around two fundamental issues of statutory planning for the city and ushering in reforms for citizen-centric Governance.
- 1. Planning
Planning is critical for coping with the anticipated growth of our city and the pressures that growth will place on housing, infrastructure and public services. Planning is the glue that holds together the ideas of elected representatives and the executive actions of administrators.
In the absence of planning, residents of the city face difficulties all around - bad roads, leaky pipes, absent sewerage, intermittent power, and creaky public transport. These issues can only be addressed through a Metropolitan Planning Committee which, in turn, is responsible for a long term statutory Regional Plan that leaves very little room for derailment by political or vested interests.
2. Citizen-centric Governance
Governance reforms are the second urgent need for the city. These should focus on transparency and RWA/citizen involvement in neighbourhood life. Through proper Ward and Neighbourhood Area committees such a goal can be realised. In every successful modern city, citizens have a very powerful voice in the destiny and direction of development around their homes and places of work. For Bengaluru too, we must want the same.
Bengaluru has a long history of very livable residential areas, but the feel of a comfortable and attractive city is now at risk. We can only hope to restore this by promoting community engagement and citizen involvement on key issues. A sense of community leads to a feeling of belonging and the resulting sense of safety and security.
The decline of the various City Government agencies is an area of concern. Planning for big cities, managing public service delivery and contracting functions requires skill, integrity and transparency. For this we need continuous improvement in the capacity of public institutions. A modern - and still growing - city needs administrators who are equipped with the tools and technologies for transparent and effective administration. Developing a cadre of dedicated city managers and nurturing robust institutions that concentrate on transparency and residents' welfare is immediately required.
As I've said before, it's time now that we as residents took an active and informed interest in directing our city's future. The first step of this is getting more involved in these elections and shaping its debate around the real issues that impact our city. By starting a debate around the solutions for our city, we will transform MLAs representing our city into catalysts for reforms. Only this can lead to policy action needed to manage Bengaluru.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar was conferred with Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa) by His Excellency Hansraj Bhardwaj, Governor of Karnataka and Chancellor of the Visveswaraya Technological University (VTU) recently. Pic: Anand V.
The major political parties in Karnataka do not appear to have it in them to really decentralise power in Bangalore and pave the way for local political and administrative empowerment. How do you reconcile your connection to the parties at one level (support to enter Rajya Sabha) and the apparent contradiction at the other level between the values you espouse and theirs?
I was elected with unanimous support of all political parties. I campaigned as an Independent candidate and have remained an Independent. Being an Independent MP gives me the unique opportunity and ability to take non-partisan and objective views of the positions and actions of political parties. My support or opposition is therefore based on these objective assessments of issues.
The reality is that political parties respond to a demand for reforms only if they get a sense that people want reforms. This is true for all political parties. So if there isn't enough clamour among our residents for reforms, I blame myself and media for not doing enough to make people more aware and demanding about the reforms and changes required in city governance.
Take the Lokpal campaign of Anna Hazare before AAP was formed. Thousands of urban Indians came out on the streets. Here is what we got: We have a Lokpal bill in the process, yes, but it is not yet passed. And all the states do not have provision for Lokayukta. Going by your own belief above, are you satisfied with the Lokpal outcome so far?
I am very satisfied that the concept and need for Lokpal has been firmly and irrevocably accepted by the country in general and political parties in particular.
This has been made possible only because people came out in large numbers and demanded the reform measure of Lokpal.
We should not be satisfied till Lokpal bill is passed and implemented - and starts making a visible transformation of standards in governance and public life.
You know the political winds in Karnataka. Do you see the Congress winning? (An opinion poll by one of the newspapers owned by you - Kannada Prabha - stated so.)
It is clear from the independent polls conducted so far that the Congress enjoys a political advantage. Mostly because the BJP vote has been divided by the split of the KJP and a certain amount of anti-incumbency; and certainly a dissatisfaction with them about how they have managed Bangalore in their term vis-a-vis the promises they had made.
You run also in the media business - owning or controlling Suvarna News, Asianet and Kannada Prabha. Prajavani and Udayavani have announced that they do not print paid news. That this has to even be said openly indicates the state of affairs. What's your take on the paid news syndrome?
Paid news is a disease that threatens the media. Given the importance of media in democracy - it threatens democracy. Many months ago, we have already taken initiatives to promote trust among the consumers of media. The initiatives include strong Code of Conduct and Ethics policy - which is an intrinsic part of the employment contract of every team member, disclosing ad sales and revenues during the months leading up to and during elections and disclosure by ANN news brands on all ad sales and revenues accrued from political parties and politicians.
This policy will ensure no scope for paid news in any of the news brands of ANN .
People openly talk about politicians and personal biases influencing editors of TV channels and newspapers, particularly during elections. As a media owner, react.
Admittedly there are a lot of commercial and political interests influencing media. But be sure to understand, it's often more commercial interests that are driving these biases. This is dangerous, but an unfortunate reality of media.
Recently, Jayaprakash Narayan of the Lok Satta party argued in an interview that plain independent candidates (even those with integrity, competency and popularity) still cannot push for change in government, compared to good candidates from within political parties. Do you agree?
I completely agree and have said this several times since I joined politics. To make the fastest impact on our country, the best way is to 'persuade' our political parties to see and understand what people want - to get them to abandon vote bank politics and instead, focus on the political benefits of governance and development and expansion of opportunities.
In this particular election, Ashwin Mahesh, a member of your ABIDE committee, and a person who has demonstrated capacities in policy making and progressive governance, is contesting. But he is running from a relatively smaller, lesser-known party. If he were running in your constituency, would you vote for him vs a routine Congress candidate or a BJP minister?
I would evaluate him alongside the other candidates and compare all their promises and track records, and then decide.