NRIs – Use ‘m, don’t lose ‘m

Why should NRIs care about an assembly election in far away Delhi? Why are they so supportive of AAP? These are questions that people ask me both in India and abroad. This is a loaded question with no short answer. But before I answer that, let me clarify the definition of NRIs at least as it pertains to Indian elections. NRIs are Indian passport holders residing abroad. So they have all the rights available to Indian citizens, including voting in elections (provided they are in India at the time of elections) and donating to political parties.

To start with, when you grow up in India, you witness poverty, crowds, corruption, riots, bad roads, power cuts, water shortage, poor infrastructure, etc. You tend to grow up not questioning these problems. You just take it as a part and parcel of everyday life. Once you go abroad, particularly to the more affluent west, you notice immediately that everyday living is not so hard. i.e., basic essentials like water, power, clean roads, etc., are almost taken for granted and riots are almost unheard off. Besides, there is also a very effective mechanism in place to address the concerns of the people. This gives you a basis for comparison and a unique perspective. Then you start to wonder and question what it takes for us to achieve similar things in India. You begin to think in terms of problems and solutions. Why is there a power shortage? Why is there water shortage? Why are public schools in such a bad state? Why can’t government hospitals be better maintained? When you dig deeper and ponder over these issues, you start to identify that corruption, poor governance and politics are at the heart of most of our problems.

Secondly, I suspect distance makes the heart grow fonder. Many NRIs carry with them their traditional values, customs and world view, no matter where they go. In fact, while India is changing rapidly and becoming more westernized by the minute, several of our NRIs are caught in a time warp. To them, India is what they left behind, in some cases decades ago.  Edward Luce in his book, “In spite of the Gods – The rise of modern India,” writes that inter-caste marriages are very common in the IT sector in India while they are less common among the Indian software professionals in the US. In short, many NRIs might have physically left India but their hearts and minds are still wedded to their motherland. Thus, they are genuinely concerned about bringing about change in India.

Many people of Indian origin have taken up citizenship of foreign countries primarily to ease the burden of travel. The moment you are an Indian citizen, the paper work required to get a visa for travel multiplies several times. To avoid this hassle, many take up foreign citizenship. (Such people are not considered NRIs.) But many, even among such people, still deeply care about India. They frequently visit India due to family ties and consciously dream of a better India. Besides, there are many people who have taken up citizenship of other countries but prefer to live in India with an overseas citizen of India (OCI) card.

Click here to read the rest of the article in The Economic Times

AAP deserves the benefit of doubt

“Your party needed Rs 20 crores to fight Delhi elections. We have met that target. We don’t need any more money for Delhi elections,” tweeted Arvind Kejriwal, AAP’s national convener – Simple, direct and unbelievable. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) then went on to stop accepting donations on their website. When probed a little further on the issue by a reporter as to why the party had stopped accepting donations, he said, “We had set a target, we have achieved it. We are not here to accumulate money from donations!”

When is the last time a political party said, thank you, we don’t need any more donations? (Many of our existing political parties have a big enough war chest to say this. But would they?) When is the last time a political party vowed to fight elections purely on donations from the common man? When is the last time a political party could account for every paisa that was donated to it? When is the last time a political party could provide a list of its donors no matter what amount they donated to the party? When is the last time a political party released its income and expense statements on its website?

God! Is this real? Will someone please pinch me so I know I am not dreaming? Is this what the young, vibrant and new India has in store for us in the years to come? I certainly hope so.

Arvind Kejriwal, AAP’s National convener, has the habit of saying, “Desh me ek prakrithik shakti paida hui hai (a unique force of nature seems to have taken shape in the country).” In the backdrop of rampant corruption, blatant nepotism, and black money, AAP’s approach to this election is truly unique and commendable, and it nothing short of a miracle to accomplish what AAP has achieved as of today. This might sound bizarre and superstitious, but I must confess, Kejriwal’s words about a “prakritik shakti” ring true.

This is surely a watershed moment in Indian politics. It is hard not to be excited and optimistic about India’s future, when you see a new political force fueled by the youth emerge in the nation’s capital. It is interesting to note that AAP has gone from being treated as a marginal player to a key participant in a three-way contest to a possible winner of the Delhi elections – quite a journey in less than a year.

Click here to read the rest of the article in The Economic Times

Transparent Funding Demystified

The Union Home Minister, Mr. Shinde made a huge blunder by calling for an investigation into the funding sources of the Aam Aadmi party (AAP). The supposed motivation for the probe was that AAP is the beneficiary of foreign funding. The more likely reason for the probe was that Sheila Dixit requested one in a desperate attempt to destabilize her new adversary – the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). For the first time in India’s political history we have in AAP a party that depends entirely on donations provided by the common man – bulk of it is received online. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand from the AAP website that the donations are listed almost instantaneously. In fact, it’s fascinating to see donations of all sizes coming in every few minutes – an unheard of level of citizen engagement in Indian politics. Just seeing this level of transparency is enough to give any true lover of democracy goose bumps.

Anyone who knows anything about technology should know that AAP can simply export a spreadsheet and provide the government the details of every single transaction in no time. Also, anyone who knows anything about technology should understand that if the donation page does not appear it is most likely because of an overload of traffic on that page. Spokespersons of political parties trying to evade direct questions on their party funds is bad enough, but these folks take this one step further with completely inane comments about the donation list page on the AAP website not loading when they accessed it. The spokesperson for a major party showed his complete ignorance when he said, “Your website is ok except for this donation page? This must be the greatest invention since Google.” An infuriated techie friend who saw the clip said, “I wish there was a way to provide virtual slaps when participants go beyond the scale of permissible ignorance”

NRIs who contribute to the AAP are asked to provide their passport information before they can make a donation. This is as transparent as it can possibly get given the current state of technology and government guidelines. Ideally, there should be a way to dynamically verify passport numbers against a government database (or semi-automatically) of passport numbers. But given the state of our government and security and privacy concerns this level of sophistication is perhaps a long way off. The only scope for foul-play of any sort is if someone deliberately posed as an NRI and provided a fake passport number in order to donate to AAP. Now what are the odds of that happening? How crazy would someone be to even attempt such a donation? And even if they did the government should be able to identify this from the spreadsheet that AAP can provide and the party can simply return the donation.

Click here to read the rest of the article in The Economic Times

Congress, BJP face heat in Delhi

There are times when you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry – Like when you watch the spokespersons of political parties such as the Congress and the BJP parrying pointed questions about the sources of their funds. The Union Home Minister’s decision to probe funds of the Aam Aadmi party (AAP) just complicated the discussion even more for the Congress and BJP. “Why target a fledgling political outfit which has raised a paltry 19 crores through tens of thousands of small transparent donations when as per publicly available data the Congress and the BJP have handsome kitties of 2000 crores and 800 crores respectively — a majority of which were received in hard cash and can’t be traced to specific donors?” – is a fundamental question that comes to mind.

While there are no easy answers for both the Congress and the BJP, by raising a furore the two have unwittingly put AAP on the media map and in the forefront of the public consciousness.

For the first time in India’s history we have a political party starting from ground zero with no money whatsoever and promising to raise funds directly from the public. In the spirit of transparency the party has listed every single donation on the website and continues to do so as the issue is being debated threadbare. The NRI community has stepped up to support AAP through online donations and the government now calls that “foreign funding”. Perhaps the government thinks NRIs are Not Really Indians. Sadly, the Government’s interaction with the NRI community has been reduced to having a dog and pony show once a year on Pravasi Divas.

And what does the BJP have to say on the government probe into AAP’s donations? It says the AAP is a front for the Congress and that is why it has taken them so long to institute a probe. Applying the same logic, the AAP rightly pointed out that since the Congress or the BJP have not called for probes on each other’s sources of funding for years, they are probably working in collusion! Not surprisingly AAP has accepted the challenge and turned the heat on the Congress and the BJP by asking for a probe into their respective finances.

Click here to read the rest of the article in The Economic Times

AAP heralds the return of idealism

There appears to be widespread discontent, especially among the educated classes, with the UPA government. However, with the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 just round the corner, a firm and united alternative to the UPA seems like a distant dream. Modi fans dream of a Modi wave. But the electoral math indicates that the BJP has a strong presence only in a handful of states. The chances of forming the next government almost entirely depend on coalition partners. Unfortunately for the BJP, the NDA is now a shadow of its former self as partners fear losing the Muslim vote should they cosy up to Modi. The dubious third front, meanwhile, is plotting an anti-BJP and supposedly anti-Congress platform. In the backdrop of this impasse which will have to be sorted out post the 2014 elections, it is heartening to see the rise of the Aam Aadmi party (AAP) in Delhi, and with it, a resurgence in idealism.

If you look back at the days of India’s independence, it was the culmination of several years of hard work put in by a number of people mobilized by Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Ambedkar and others. So when India won independence from the British, a number of those who participated in the independence struggle transitioned into politics. At that stage in India’s history, it was perhaps “cool” to be in politics. Serving the country was a good and noble endeavor. Parents never batted an eyelid when their sons and daughters joined politics with the aim of contributing to a better and free India. The mindset that prevailed at that stage appears to have served the country well for the first couple of decades since independence. Not surprisingly, we had leaders of the stature of Nehru, Shastri, Rajagopalachary, Dr. Radhakrishnan, Rajendra Prasad and others – Leaders who are widely respected and revered even to this day across party lines. But after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri and the rise of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, family-owned political parties and dynastic culture slowly became the norm. Unfortunately for India, this resulted in a dramatic change in people’s attitude towards politics. Most people, especially the educated class started to shun politics. The common wisdom among the educated class was that, “If you are good for nothing, you enter politics.” As a result, those who entered politics were only those from political families or those with strong political connections. Moreover, the voices of the “good people” who joined politics were stifled as they were constrained to adapt and operate within the boundaries of a fundamentally flawed system. Sadly, this situation has persisted to this very day.

The entry of the Aam Aadmi party has started to change this dynamic quite a bit. An unprecedented number of people, especially the young, have put their jobs, education and businesses on hold to serve the party like never before. Should AAP win in Delhi, Indian politics will never be the same again. First and foremost, politics will start to become “cool” again. Many who worked for the party’s election campaign will possibly continue to serve in politics. Several others will join politics anew. No longer will politics be restricted to those with family connections. It will open up the playing field and attract new entrants like never before. The country will soon have new role models in politics. Moms and Dads across the country will wish their sons and daughters became the next Arvind Kejriwal.

Click here to read the rest of the article in The Economic Times

AAP rises despite the media

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi has experienced a gradual but definite electoral surge in recent weeks. A party written-off by most as a product of “OB-Van” frenzy that won’t last has now established for itself an impressive position in the electoral race in Delhi. Arvind Kejriwal and his team of Anna’s foot soldiers in the India Against Corruption movement appear to have come of age and are on the verge of emerging as the true champions of the Aam Aadmi in Delhi. After 15 years of Congress rule and a weak opposition in the form of the BJP, the people of Delhi seem to be leaning slowly but surely towards an alternative that never existed until a few months back – The Aam Aadmi Party.

There is little doubt that everyone including the media completely missed what could turn out to be a tectonic shift in India’s political history. AAP’s consistent message and extensive ground campaign operation seems to have resonated with the people. Even Sheila Dixit who pooh-poohed AAP for the longest time seems to have recognized that “AAP has captured the imagination of the people.” The BJP meanwhile appears to be shaken and has decided to change horses midstream – out goes Vijay Goel and in comes Harsh Vardhan. Modi fans are now gravitating towards, “Kejriwal for CM, Modi for PM” mantra. Clearly, India’s two leading parties appear to be on the back foot on a turning electoral wicket.

As the AAP bus leaves the station, many are jumping on board and not surprisingly this includes the media. After blatant threats from industrial powerhouses the media had stayed away from covering AAP for several months. In hindsight this seems to have served as a blessing for AAP. While Kejriwal and his rag-tag team of die-hards were busy doing the hard yards going door-to-door spreading their message of anti-corruption, accountability, transparency, and reform in governance and simultaneously winning the hearts and minds of citizens on the Internet, the media was busy focusing on the wrong stories. “What would you do if AAP lost the election?” they would repeatedly asked Arvind Kejriwal in the hope that they would land a sound bite that could rake up their TRPs. Frankly, how does it matter what Arvind Kejriwal does should AAP lose the elections? Does the media ask Sheila Dixit or Harsh Vardan (or whoever else is the leader du jour of the BJP) the same question?

Click here to read the rest of the article in The Economic Times