Anoothi Vishal speaks to Bimal Jalan on the need for cleaner, better governance and a unique initiative aimed at enlightening voters.
"So I hear you are interested in criminals," jokes Dr Bimal Jalan, one of India's best known economists, former governor of the Reserve Bank and Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament ,when I call him up to set up this meeting. The context is a "No criminals in politics" campaign that Jalan and some others like him (from the corporate world and the world of films) have launched under the umbrella of the Public Interest Foundation that came up some time last year to take up 'large scale' issues of public relevance and that Jalan heads, albeit as a self-admitting 'hands off' chairman.
When I call him, the foundation has just launched the campaign, to be largely facilitated by SMSes that can be sent out detailing known criminal backgrounds of people's representatives. It's one more example of technology being harnessed to encourage large-scale participation of the middle class in the political and social process of the country. At the very least, a measure such as this should be able to raise awareness in the metros. And Jalan is very keen that 'young people like you', yours truly included, are touched by it.
As the nation goes to the polls, it's a timely cause not just a worthy one because, as Jalan points out, politics in India has become an 'attractive destination' for all kinds of people. The power that the government wields in the country is different in scale from anywhere else in the world in a democratic set up, he says. But as the discussion gets underway, he points out "I am not against Public Sector Unitss," referring to the fact that controls in an economy may not be all bad as we've seen by the light of the current economic crisis. But the fact that there is more incentive for the wrong kind of people to enter the system and manipulate it because the influence of the government is all pervasive and tremendous cannot be denied.
Political reforms is a subject close to Jalan's heart. As we sit in his office sipping some soothing jasmine tea, he signs for me a copy of his book, India's Politics, A View From The Backbench. "An insider's account of how politics is practiced in India, and to what effect," the book details his observations "from the backbench" about the working of the Parliament and on the subject of multi-party coalitions.
So what struck him in Parliament when he became a part of its functioning? The fact that "inside these walls everyone is equal" he says promptly enough, as also the cordiality of inter-party relationships (perhaps even when these are opponents giving bitter bytes outside). But also, and not so complimentarily, the "casual way in which so-called government business gets done".
As an example, Jalan reads out an extract from his book revolving around the events that took place over five days, between March 18 and 22, during the Budget session of 2006. This eyewitness account shows how a number of unexpected decisions were announced by the government regarding the business agenda of the two Houses. These were passively accepted, without any discussion, even as there was a sudden adjournment of Parliament sine die (followed by a reversal of this decision a few days later) in the run up to the "office of profit" controversy at that time.
"Constant vigilance is indeed the price of liberty," Jalan reminds me of a few history lessons as well from the war for American independence, for instance. It is just as well then that the mood of the nation's youth seems to have gradually changed this time round and disengagement with politics is no longer regarded as fashionable.
But how is this sentiment different from the time when he was a young, somewhat idealistic and academically-inclined student growing up in Calcutta? (He studied at the Presidency College before moving on to Oxford and Cambridge.
With his grandfather being the first speaker of the West Bengal assembly, politics couldn't have left Jalan untouched even though he says that what made his time as an Indian student abroad exciting was the interest in the newly independent nation as also in the study of development economics internationally. "Nehru and Gandhi were inspiring leaders" and there was this sense of nationalism inspiring many students at that time. Today, what inspires the younger generation may have changed. But 'the bright India of now is not a myth', he says.
For someone who is not so savvy with technology -- his books are all handwritten, for instance, though he can, and does, answer his private emails himself -- Jalan has a host of ideas all involving technology.
To bring about greater transparency in the working of the government, for instance, he asks, "Why can't we have a system where every ministry updates its website every day or every week?" putting information as to its expenditure in the public domain. Why not indeed? It's a good enough idea but as I get ready to drive my way back, I can't help but ask: "You mean you write all your books in longhand?"
"That's what my children ask too," smiles back Jalan, "your children will ask you the same about typing on the computer."