Every party is equally bad; there is nothing to celebrate in the victory or defeat of any of them - For the last 25 years, if not longer, this has been the view of many voters, and the reason so many of them have stayed away from the ballot boxes. Politics, millions of Indians believe, is a contest with no good candidates and parties. As a result, they have simply decided to stay away from the mess in large numbers.
Occasionally, there have been attempts to 'take on the political system' by candidates and groups who are fed up with the state of affairs. Every election brings forth at least a few people who decide that they must take the plunge and contest elections themselves. Their motivations are understandable - invariably they hope to see a better India, and want to see this hope made real swiftly. They are not usually ambitious for themselves, but ambitious for the country.
But that has never been enough. Neither the celebrity candidates - from Naval Tata decades ago to Meera Sanyal and Captain Gopinath today - nor the circles of kinship from the IITs or IIMs have made much difference. This is understable. Politics cannot be a momentary passion, rearing its head only at the time of elections. As a profession, it is highly noble, notwithstanding the depths to which India's netas have sunk it. Being in touch with the people, understanding their aspirations, working to realise these - this is representative politics of the highest kind. And like any other career that is fulfilling, politics too must be a life's work.
We must not dissuade or dismiss the Gopinaths and the Sanyals of this world. Many of us share their hopes for India, and we wish them well. But there is one thing we must all now recognise - without an organisation to undergird their politics, they have no chance. The best of India must stop running independent side-shows, and bring their energy and vision to well-constructed political spaces, strengthen them, and let this be their contribution to India.
A journey of a thousand miles
Enter Lok Satta. If there is one political organisation in India that stands any chance of creating the great social and economic reforms we will need in the future, it is this Andhra Pradesh-based party. Founded by the ex-bureaucrat Dr Jayaprakash Narayan as a citizens' movement more than a decade ago, Lok Satta has now put in the hard hours to prove to people across the state that its commitment to addressing their social and economic problems is real and permanent. During this period, and subsequent to the formation of the poitical party two years ago, Lok Satta has also acquired an enviable and unmatched reputation for integrity, with its consistent commitment to transparent organisational accounts and abjuring the politics of money.
Even as Mumbai and Bangalore recorded low voter turnouts, citizens in Hyderabad showed up in great numbers. True alternatives can mobilise disaffected voters again.
Voters clearly recognise this distinction between mere passing campaigns of angst against criminal politics, and committed engagement of alternatives. Which is one reason why even as Bangalore and Mumbai recorded such low voter turnouts even in constituencies with highly hailed independent celebrity candidates, voters in Hyderabad showed up in great numbers. Their endorsement of Lok Satta was particularly heartening, as the party garnered 8% of the votes in the city, and JP himself swept to victory in Kukatpally assembly. Statewide, the party won over 750,000 votes. Contrast that to the lost deposits of those who appeared all-too-briefly on the political firmament.
Given its long history, it is certain that Lok Satta will build upon this foundation, and continue with renewed strength. In over a decade of working with communities and helping to address their problems, LS volunteers have shown that their commitment is permanent, and their intent and methods are beyond reproach.
The party carried its 10 years of prepration into the electoral battle. It spent only the barest amounts of money needed to genuinely reach the voters, it declared honestly the funds it raised and spent, and it offered only one 'inducement' to the voters - a better future for themselves and their children. No liquor, no fiscally irresponsible give-aways, and no opportunistic alliances (one major national party would have gladly welcomed Lok Satta into its coalition orbit).
As JP himself has noted, the first victory, however small, is significant - for it is "... a victory of the people. A victory over their fears, their inhibitions, and their despair. We have traveled a long road in reaching here, but the journey is longer still. Therefore, this electoral beginning is also a promise, that there will many more such days, when our voice of reason and informed debate will cut through the fog of 'issue-less' politics and put forward the ideas and the ideals that will change India once again."
Breaching the urban forts
Now the party is looking ahead to the political calendar, which it believes will favour its detail-oriented approach to contests. First up, in a few months, will be elections to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC), followed by a host of other elections to smaller towns in the state, as well as to panchayats. The party is confident that it will begin to notch up small victories in many of these contests, and also begin to show what its governance and leadership can do in the places where it earns these first wins.
Given JP's strong victory in the recent elections, and the smaller margins of victory one typically sees in local elections, it would be very surprising if Lok Satta did not win at least 6 seats in the GHMC, and not very surprising if it did thrice as well. Realising this, JP is inviting the brightest citizens in Hyderabad to take an active interest in civic affairs by contesting the elections to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation as Lok Satta candidates. "It is a disgrace to all of us that people should go through the indignity of living amidst overflowing sewers or die of drinking water," he said, recalling that many stalwarts of the freedom struggle cut their teeth in politics by taking part in civic affairs and subsequently emerged as national leaders.
The party has finalized a sharply defined agenda for transforming the city in the next five years, including - to cite only three things here - (a) Supply of safe drinking water in all colonies and bastis which do not have the facility now with the installation of reverse osmosis plants; (b) Implementing a citizens' charter through a call centre, under which failure to attend to a public grievance in a specified period invites a Rs.100 per day penalty on the municipal corporation; and (c) Devolution of Rs.2 crore each year per ward, to be spent by an elected ward committee on tackling pressing local problems. Coupled to the party plans for restructuring city administration and planning, this is an agenda well beyond anything offered by the other parties in the State.
Winning even half a dozen seats in the GHMC elections would catapult Lok Satta into a real force in urban politics, and encourage party volunteers and loyalists in other cities to build upon this in other elections throughout India's cities. It is the best hope before us that we can emerge from the lacklustre politics of recent decades in the near future.