Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Change electoral system to fight graft...

This is the second part of what Atal Bihari Vajpayee told me when I interviewed him in December 1997. It was published in The Times of India under the headline: The Man India Awaits.

The monster of corruption is threatening our polity. How, in your view, could we battle this monster?

As I see it, good governance is possible only when a Government has an ethical base. Tragically, morality and ethics are at a discount in politics today, not only in India but countries across the world. Today we find country after country grappling with the monster of graft; competitive politics is increasingly relying upon the strength of money, more so with the waning of ideology. But corruption cannot be just wished away; it needs to be fought at every level, beginning with the cleansing politics of the influence of money power. The second requirement is extensive electoral reforms...

You have often talked about the need for systemic changes, that we need to have a second look at our Constitution...

After 50 years, yes, the time has come for a second look at our Constitution and to explore the possibility of institutionalising some systemic changes. Some people have pointed out the merits of the presidential system. But here, too, the question arises as to what sort of a presidential system would suit India.

You know, there is this Supreme Court judgement prohibiting any change in the basic structure of the Constitution. We have to bear that in mind. But even within the present structure, certain changes can be brought about, especially to ensure stability. For instance, we could consider a five-year mandate for the Lok Sabha, thus preventing mid-term polls. We could also consider the German system that doesn't allow a no-confidence motion against the incumbent Government but only a motion of confidence in an alternative Government. Whatever it is, but we must look for a cure to this instability. I would suggest that we appoint a high level Commission on the Constitution to take a fresh look at it and recommend systemic changes.

What sort of electoral reforms would you recommend?

Our electoral system is flawed on several counts. For instance, the first-past-the-post system which India borrowed from Great Britain does not appear to have served the country well. Perhaps the time has come for a review of this system and to take a close look at other systems prevalent elsewhere in the democratic world.

A fundamental flaw in our system is that often a party's support base is not reflected in the number of seats it is able to win. With a huge share of the vote, you could end up with seats much below the number required to obtain a majority in the House. Conversely, with a smaller share of the vote, a party could find itself on the Treasury Benches. A direct fallout of this, especially in the wake of the collapse of the Congress which has vacated political space at a rate faster than in which any single political party can occupy this vacuum, is the current political instability. So, why don't we have a look at the list system or a mixed system of representation?

In recent years we have witnessed the emergence of regional parties and the decline of national parties like the Congress. What reasons would you attribute to this... 

In the wake of India's independence, there was a tendency to centralise power in
Delhi. Primarily, there were two reasons for this: Our experience of partition and the need to consolidate more than 500 states and the provinces into a Union. Essentially, the idea was to avoid further fragmentation. There was this additional factor that the Congress was the dominant party both at the Centre and in the states. With the national parties fully engrossed by national problems, region specific problems and aspirations were ignored. Over-centralisation also resulted in Chief Ministers running to the Centre for the smallest of clearances and permissions, not to mention funds. All this resulted in the emergence of regional parties. So long as these parties have a national outlook, I see nothing wrong with them.

This brings us to the issue of decentralisation and giving more powers to the States...

Yes, there has to be decentralisation of political as well as economic powers. Decision-making cannot be restricted to the Centre alone. We have been arguing for greater fiscal autonomy for the States as well as shifting the balance of resources in favour of the States. As far as political powers are concerned, on issues like the appointment of Governors, the consent of the Chief Minister should be secured. Needless to add, I am totally against the misuse of article 356 and given a chance, would amend this Constitutional provision so as to prevent its abuse. The Sarkaria Commission's recommendations were allowed to gather dust. Many of those recommendations need to be updated and, more importantly, implemented.

What, in your opinion, should be the character of a stable coalition Government? And, why do you think coalitions have failed till now?

Let me answer the second question first. As a people we are yet to learn the art of working together. If individuals in a party cannot function smoothly, leading to fragmentation of parties, how can parties come together and function smoothly? In any case, this 14-party Government was a joke of a coalition. As for the first question, well, ideally a stable coalition should have a large party as its nucleus. This has been proved in States where coalitions have worked, for example, West Bengal.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

'I dream of a strong, prosperous India'

"At a time when every party was singing paens to the Nehruvian model of command economy, the Jana Sangh was demanding that the economy be freed from the clutches of Government control..." 

This is what Atal Bihari Vajpayee told me when I interviewed him in December 1997. It was published in The Times of India under the headline: The Man India Awaits.

I accidentally stumbled upon the text of the interview. Re-reading it, I realised he was a true visionary, a towering stalwart among pygmies who then crowded the Government at the Centre as they do now; a leader who inspired hope and kindled aspiration, much like Narendra Modi does today.

It's a long interview. I thought of breaking it up into smaller parts. Here goes the first of the lot. Read, retrospect, react.   
At a political rally addressed by Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as the veteran leader took the mike, somebody from the audience shouted, “Desh ka pradhan mantri kaisa ho?” and the others responded with “Atal Bihari jaisa ho!|” Mr Vajpayee, in his inimitable style, began his speech by saying, “Sawal yeh nahin hai ki pradhan mantri kaisa ho. Sawal yeh hai ki desh kaisa ho.”

Mr Vajpayee's pride in his Indian heritage is deep, vast and abiding. If, on the one hand, it causes him deep distress at the present state of the nation, it also forms the foundation of his hopes for tomorrow on the other. Indeed, the greater the sorrow he feels, the more determined he grows to make India rise above its failures and resume its place at the apex of civilisation.
A popular poem of his offers abundant proof of this.

He exhorts Indians to find within themselves, the daring, courage and honour that characterised great Indian men of yore. His call sounds for all those who can willingly make sacrifices without expecting either fame or any other reward in return ... “who burn like a flame in the dark even while others shine in the light of fame”. His summons are for people “who have the glorious vision of the future in their eyes and the speed of storms in-every step”. He knows that nothing can stop the rising tide of patriotism and it is with this knowledge that his call rings out: “Come all who dare.”

Mr Vajpayee, in this era of globalisation, economics is fast supplanting politics all over the world. You are widely perceived as India's next Prime Minister. If you were to become India's next Prime Minister, what would be Swadeshi's influence on your economic policies? And since a country is largely shaped by its economic-policies, what should be India's approach?

Let me make it clear that Swadeshi does not mean that India will become an island by itself or become isolationist. Neither does it mean that we will not allow the inflow of new ideas and  new technology or, for that matter, foreign investment. 

Swadeshi essentially means that people should have the confidence to build a modern and prosperous India by working hard and making the maximum use of the resources that are available at the moment. It means making India a global player. It means strengthening our indigenous research and development. Swadeshi ultimately means ensuring a reasonable standard of living for all citizens.
Those who say that India cannot move forward unless others come to our aid, are wrong. We have an abundance of natural resources, trained technical manpower and our achievements in science and technology are remarkable. Therefore, there is no reason why we should not have pride in our national capabilities. I would say, in a nutshell Swadeshi means "India can do it and India will do it".

Would you reconsider liberalisation?

There can be no going back to a completely state-controlled economy in which, instead of rewarding private sector for higher production, limits were imposed through quotas. Since its inception, right from the days of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, my party has all along demanded deregulation of the economy and cutback in Government controls. At a time when every party was singing paens to the Nehruvian model of command economy, the Jana Sangh was demanding that the economy be freed from the clutches of Government control.

Expansion of the public sector without developing a professional managerial class for the public sector enterprises has made many of them unprofitable and unviable. I believe that we should try and revive those undertakings that can be turned around. In any event, I am against substituting the earlier policy of indiscriminate expansion with indiscriminate closure. In all this, the workers' interests need to be safeguarded.

There is this view in your party against consumer items, especially those manufactured by MNCs...

What I and my party are opposed to is allowing the Indian market to be swamped by products that offer an illusion of prosperity but in reality meet the demands of a very narrow band of people. Putting it simply, we are against unlimited consumerism which may appeal to cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile Indians, but ignores the needs of 75 per cent of the country's population that lives in our villages. Other countries in South-East Asia that have prospered, have done so through high rates of saving. We, too, must strive for higher savings rates.

If you were the Prime Minister, would you recommend a change in the manner of approval of foreign investments or regulate its inflow?

I would ensure that every investment offer is decided on merit and whether it meets our country's needs. I would bear in mind our national interests.

There is an increasing demand from Indian industry for a level playing field. Which essentially means a degree of protection for local industry...

I am inclined to agree with them. Indian industry has to be given time and all help to prepare itself to meet the challenges of globalisation. Till recently they operated in a largely protected market. To suddenly push them into competition, that too with those who are at a more advantageous position, especially as far as access to capital is concerned, is unfair. Yes, I do favour a level playing field. If in the USA they can have this slogan, ‘Be American, Buy American’, why can't we say, ‘Be Indian, Buy Indian’? Instead of being swamped by foreign brands, why can't we make Indian brands globally acceptable?

There is also this thing that economic liberalisation has not benefited small scale industry and agriculture... 

Small scale sector deserves full protection and all possible incentives. As for agriculture, we all know that investment in this crucial sector has declined, resulting in a slowdown of
agricultural growth despite a good monsoon. I would consider investment in agriculture one of the top priorities for a Government committed to good governance.

(To be continued. Published in The Times of India on December 25, 1997.)