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"The Middle Class Needs To Be At The Forefront Of Reform Process"

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In Conversation With Shantanu Bhagwat

An engineer by training, Shantanu Bhagwat is a one-time diplomat turned venture investor and now advisor, to start-ups.
 
In a career spanning two decades, Mr. Bhagwat has worked across geographies and industries, including several years in Japan and in the UK. He is a personal investor in several start-ups in India, including Myntra– a personalised gift company, Innovitia - a cutting-edge start-up in transaction processing and Elements Akademia - an innovative national chain of vocational schools.

A graduate in Computer Engineering, Shantanu holds an MBA from London Business School where he was a Chevening Scholar.

These days he divides his time between UK and India, working with early stage companies and on ideas to improve political systems and governance in India.

Anshuman Rawat interviewed him via E-mail about his life as a political activist and his thoughts for a better governed India.

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When and why did you decide to cut down on your life of a global business professional and immerse yourself into ideas aimed at improving political systems and governance in India? At the same time, talking in management terms, does this earnest endeavour-of-heart include an intrinsic exit plan too?

The change happened in the early months of 2008. There were several triggers:

The first was probably the shameful perversion of democracy on the floor of the house on 22nd July. In response to my post on this subject, Sanjeev Sabhlok challenged everyone to either rise and do something about it or shut up.

That shook me to the core. It hurt, probably even more because it was true.

The second trigger were the blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Ironically, I had been to both these cities just a few days before. But strangely, it did not feel like I had cheated death.

Other events and things happening around me, helped make the decision…I watched with awe and fascination as the Obama campaign changed the paradigm of fund-raising in the US by reaching out at the grassroots…and I began to read about interesting experiments that were happening around “crowd-funding”.

The process was more complex and not quite as straight-forward as what I have outlined above. And of course NONE of this would have been possible without the whole-hearted support and commitment from my wife and family. Without her support, this would have been impossible to do. The whole story is here, for those of your readers who wish to read more about the background to this transformation.

As for an exit plan, there is no exit plan here.

The only exit is a better India – far better than what we have today – a better country with a healthy, prosperous populace that has its basic necessities covered and provides equal opportunities to progress to all its citizens. An India, where in the words of Rabindranath Tagore, “the mind is without fear and the head is held high...”

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How far is the political activist in you from becoming an active politician, one who fights elections i.e.? Or, do you believe that it is not necessary for the former to evolve in to the latter?

I believe the transition from being an “activist” into electoral politics is not a sharp, linear process (after all candidates fighting at elections are activists too).

I believe standing (up) for an election should be a carefully thought-through move and the culmination of a process that necessarily includes developing at least a basic understanding of the issues that plague us, developing an ideological paradigm to frame the issues and having some thoughts on how to confront the major challenges that face our nation.

I wish I could give you a time-frame for the transition but I am unable to.

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A lot of, what seems to be, your angst and earnestness comes out clearly in your blog Satyameva Jayate. Tell us a little about it, especially about its origin and the place it holds in your overall road-map of life from here on?

The story of the blog’s origin is here but very briefly it was a reaction to the feelings and emotions I felt following the attack on Indian Parliament in 2001 and several acts of terrorism since then.

I became convinced that we were fighting an enemy so deadly and so ruthless that our whole value system and the fundamental principles of humanity were at stake.  My early posts led some to the conclusion that I was a “Hindu fascist” – or more charitably, a “neo-conservative”. I am actually neither. I would like to think of myself as a liberal who is prepared to fight to defend his ideals, his beliefs and his principles.

The blog remains my main method of communication. It is my preferred medium for having a dialogue with my readers and expressing my opinion…I have learnt from it enormously…It has been a very rich, intellectually rewarding and deeply satisfying experience. It has also taught me a lot of things – such as patience and being careful with words. You can read more on my lessons from blogging here.

The blog continues to evolve but I believe it will remain an important part of my activities in the years to come.

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Apart from exchanging thoughts via Satyameva Jayate, what are the various ways in which someone can become an active part of your battle against status-quo– both on and offline?

The best way to engage online and become more active is to participate in the Skype conference calls. Live Chats and various events that I host and coordinate periodically.

A lot of events and meetings happen offline too (such as recent meetings in Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai in early December). Almost all of them find a mention on the Facebook page (under the events tab) .

Separately, I am working on an offline initiative that should help us get more active on the ground and increase our sphere of activities. Please stay tuned.

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In your lecture series, you have said that “the root cause of all problems in India is its dysfunctional middle class”. Can you please elaborate on that?

I think Kanchan Gupta put it best. In his article on “Three Myths and an Election”, he wrote  about a middle class that is: “least bothered about corruption in high places, the relentless loot of public money, the sagging physical infrastructure …the repeated terrorist attacks…”

I labelled it as “dysfunctional”. I could not think of a more apt description.

The middle class needs to be at the forefront of this process of change and reform…and I can see some signs of that happening around me. I am optimistic and I remain hopeful.

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Assuming that the rich have got no stake in changing the status quo and agreeing that it is unreasonable to expect empty stomachs to start a revolution, don’t you think that expecting the middle class to shoulder ALL is akin to making a general quota student sit for an examination not just for his own self, but also on behalf of the one who gets his seat on account of reservation and the one who wrests his seat via capitation money?

The analogy is compelling but not accurate. This is not an examination.

What we are attempting could make the difference between a country that survives, prospers & becomes a model for heterogeneous societies around the world and a country that is breaking apart, in the throes of a civil war, with woeful infrastructure and extremely restive population.

I am afraid that we really have no choice. As my friend Surendra Shrivastava of Loksatta mentioned in an email some days back: “We are not born politicians like many, we are in politics not by choice but because of compulsion”.

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How do you see the make-up and the present state of the Indian democratic landscape – both from the perspective of governance and the various political players?

It is depressing, to be honest - both from the perspective of governance as well as the various entities.

The Congress is a party run by a single family, that is increasingly devoid of any ideology and moving from one populist measure to the next.  The “Left” are on their way to becoming a footnote in India’s political system. And the BJP – although strongly differentiated on policies with the Congress – is unfortunately a confused organization that appears to be unwilling to focus and cannot make up its mind on priorities. It does not help that its leadership appears increasingly bereft of any moral superiority. That said, this is the group that appears to be most amenable to change.  The “Left” will find it hard to jettison their ideology – it is their raison d-etre after all and the Congress (I) will find it next to impossible to become a more “normal” party of several leaders, rather than just one unchallenged head.

About governance, the less said the better! Everything you see around you is  either broken, leaking or does not work. It is the result of poor governance – a large part of which is due to ineffectual leadership and bad choices (in terms of polices).

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Which aspects of the present political system, in your opinion, require urgent revision? How can that be brought about by people like you and me?

Let me briefly enumerate the aspects that need urgent revision and are do-able provided there is sufficient political will:

(a) Stricter monitoring of election expenses and make false declaration a cause for debarring from contesting for 6 years
(b) Mandatory disclosure of source(s) of income of candidates standing for elections
(c) Allowing citizens to vote anywhere in the country (not just permanent place of residence) – with appropriate identification
(d) Mandatory disclosure of audited accounts of political parties and expenses
(e) Constitutional amendment to remove clause demanding adherence to socialism

People like you and me can help create pressure for these changes – by talking about this, discussing these points and writing to their local newspapers, demanding these moves. There are a few other things that people like you and me can do:

(a) Demand accountability from our candidates (by evaluating them against the promises made in their election manifestos)
(b) Vote en-bloc for credible and transparent candidates
(c) Create pressure groups for campaign financing reforms and to reveal source(s) of income of candidates
(d) Push for the “Right to Recall

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Do you believe that rabid rise of language-induced regionalism (or sub-nationalism) in various Indian states stands endangers the very idea of India? In any scenario, in your opinion, how should we address the issue?

Yes it does. This worries me deeply although I sometimes feel I am in a minority who worry about the “Idea of India”.

I think this notion of identity – what it means to be an Indian – is a question we have never answered satisfactorily. And this is something that we grapple with even today, 60+ years after independence. This is the reason why the havoc caused by rains in TamilNadu does not find any mention in New Delhi just as the news about blockade of Manipur is hidden somewhere in the last pages of a “national” newspaper in Mumbai.

How does one address this issue?

The main thrust has to be on creating a sense of national identity – and promoting shared history through a national curriculum in history and the social sciences. There are a couple of other things that we should consider: Rigorous implementation of the three language formula and promotion and encouragement (including subsidies) to educational exchanges. This topic is far too complex to be dealt with in a few paragraphs though. I hope to have a online discussion on this soon.  

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Finally, all the four pillars of Indian democracy seem to be facing credibility crisis owing to corruption scandals of varied nature. How can a ‘non-aligned’ (to any ‘pillar’ or security net) Indian citizen ever believe that he can not only survive the - often fatal – ‘chakraavyuh’ laid by the poisonous concoction of state & non-state actors, but also bring about a change?

We need to believe we can win this battle.

The road we are on is not for the faint-hearted. This is going to be a long battle.

In the words of Shri Chandra Prakash Dwivedi (Director of Chanakya, the serial):

पर ध्यान रहे, 
स्वतंत्रता का यह यज्ञ यौवन का बलिदान मांगेगा, स्वार्थ का बलिदान मांगेगा...
और तो और,  जागृत हो रही रण-चंडिका जीवन का बलिदान मांगेगी |

...Bear in mind

The "yagya" of independence will demand sacrifices, it will demand the sacrifice of our selfish desires...And the fierce “Ran-Chandi” that is being aroused will demand we sacrifice our lives.

(loose translation)

But we need to believe we can win...And I firmly believe, we can.

Jai Hind, Jai Bharat!

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