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'It is no longer a feudal democracy. It is a middle-class democracy'

May 13, 2009 17:28 IST
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Mani Shankar AiyarMani Shankar Aiyar was the one-man opposition within the Union Cabinet led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He held the sensitive petroleum ministry, but his worldview of energy security was not in harmony with Dr Singh's ideas and he was shifted out of the ministry to the sports ministry and then eventually to his favourite panchayati raj ministry.

Aiyar, quite justifiably, takes credit for ushering panchayati raj all over India by pursuing then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to enact enabling a law to strengthen democracy at the village level.

He was born on April 10, 1941 in Lahore, educated at the Doon School, Dehradun, and St Stephen's College, New Delhi, and also at Trinity Hall, Cambridge University. Under Rajiv Gandhi's influence, Aiyar left the Indian Foreign Service and joined politics. He was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1991 from Mayiladuturai in Tamil Nadu.

Two years ago, he cautioned his government that the Congress-led coalition could lose the support of the 'aam admi' (common man) if it did not undertake a course correction in its economic policy. He said there was a 'disproportionate benefit' of the 9.2 per cent growth rate going to the classes.

At a Confederation of Indian Industry conference, Aiyar said the masses determine who will form the government. But the classes determine what the government will do, implying that his government policies do not always favour the majority.

In this conversation with's Sheela Bhatt, he discusses the interaction between him and his voters. A lucid conversation that provides unique understanding about an MP's role, especially in a far away corner in the deep south of India.

On the great divide

I wish I knew the Tamil translation of Hanoos Dilli Door Ast (Delhi is far away). I would reply that way to describe how we see Delhi from Mayiladuturai, my constituency in Tamil Nadu.

For my people Singapore or Dubai, Riyadh or Jeddah are greater realities than New Delhi. Delhi for them is a very distant, very foreign, very strange.

When I go to the northeast as part of my duty, because I am also minister in charge of the region, people there talk to me about alienation. I tell them the most alienated part of India is where I come from! If Tamil Nadu can be a part of India, then Nagaland should have no problem.

My election campaign is a pretty well set routine. When do I start canvassing for votes? It is the day after the election results are announced! I canvass for five years, not for five days.

My campaign style is fairly standardised. About 3 to 5 days a month round the year, I prefer to get into a jeep with friends and I visit the poorest part of the villages. The poorest part by definition is always a Harijan basti (area)). In the coastal areas, of course, it's fishermen colonies.

Nothing gives me a greater satisfaction when they give me their plastic chair to sit on, which is usually the only capital asset they have in their household. These moulded plastic chairs I see in every juggi (hut). I tell them I can't stand the heat so they let me sit in the shade.

I tell children to sit in front of me because there are women around. They feel comfortable when there is a barrier created by children between me and them! Then, men come and the meeting starts.

These group meetings are of 5 or 10 people to maximum 100 people. I encourage them to talk about their problems.

For years only men spoke but after women Self Help Groups have been formed in big numbers, women do speak about their problems. After this SHG movement there is a tremendous rise in self awareness, self confidence and self consciousness of these women.

Now, I find that women who do more of the talking and men have to be encouraged to join in.

Amongst the children, between the ages of 13 to 16 you can easily spot a boy or a girl who is listening with specific interest. I encourage them to speak. First three to four villagers speak about their problems and then I respond. Sometimes their problems are related to various state-level schemes there. I have very good men -- Rajkumar and T R Lognathan -- there who explain to people how to apply. Rajkumar is an MLA now. These guys understand the nitty-gritty at the local level.

I speak on a broader level. There is not a single village panchayat that I have not visited. There about 600 panchayats, each of them has five to fifteen hamlets.

On the overwhelming demands of voters

I am unable to make real difference to their lives because their requirements are so enormous!

Of food, of personal security, housing, drinking water, sanitation, of connectivity. The demands are overwhelming! Our schemes are so badly designed here at the Centre and it is worse and distorted in the states. The inefficiency in delivery is overwhelming so there is deep seething dissatisfaction.

Amongst the young, particularly the Dalits, you can see fury bubbling over their condition. They are the ones with whom I have to spend most of my time to convert them to understanding the issues involved.

They begin by screaming, shouting and by not allowing others to speak. Normally they tell others who talk to me, "what do you know?" Then, they tell me, "You have been elected three times. What have you done for us? Look at the condition in which we live."

I take them through a very logical process. I tell that the first time I came here there was no local government. Now, you have the village panchayat, there are ward members and a village president there. Then we have intermediary chaps like the zilla representatives and then above them are the MLA and MP. I tell the angry boys, "You are asking me where have I been? I have been to New Delhi."

I explain them that you voted for me to go to Parliament and that happens to be in New Delhi. I tell them that in New Delhi, I worked on the larger schemes like the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). I was asked by (Congress President) Sonia Gandhi to involve myself in drafting it.

The centrality of the panchayat in the NREGA is due to my struggling for it within the Cabinet and elsewhere.

I tell villagers money for lakhs of people has been arranged from New Delhi. It cannot be arranged from anywhere else. Do you think sitting in this village, I could have got such a thing done? The villagers's understanding is profound.

I tell them that it's my job to get more money and make sure that it reaches the state government. The distribution of that money is the business of the state government, that's why you have MLA here whose responsibility is to see that state actions conform to the broader national objective.

Then, I tell these angry boys that I can't know the work of the village president as he would not know my work. All of us will have to move forward together. I tell teenage boys that you were not born when I first become MP here. Ask your village elders were there any of these cement roads when I first become MP? I got the canal cleaned up from the money for the Cauvery modernisation programme.

See I have served an entire generation in my constituency. A child who was born here the day I became MP will be voting for me this time. I ask them have I taken one paisa from you in these 18 years. Can anyone point fingers about corruption? Have I troubled you? Have I ever been to the police station to release a rowdy element and run what is called katta panchayat (kangaroo court)?

On his performance, on his constituency

If you are asking me am I satisfied with my performance in 18 years? Oh, I am sure I am not. I will also tell you that my elite background does not make me less eligible to understand the less privileged people.

My passion for panchayati raj didn't begin with Rajiv Gandhi. When I was 18 and studying economics, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru started panchayati raj. Balwant Rai Mehta's report on it was part of our economic course and I was fascinated by the idea that we should take democracy down to the grassroots.

In 1964, I was posted in Rajkot as a probationer in the IFS. The first panchayat election in Gujarat took place when I was there. I was posted in Brussels for seven years as an IFS officer and there I saw firsthand how brilliantly local self government works. Self rule is better than sound rule that I understood early in life.

Coming back to my constituency, I see no impact of the English or Hindi television channels here. But, since the Tamil Nadu chief minister has distributed colour television sets in every juggi for free, there is a huge impact of Tamil urban channels in rural areas.

But just as there is a disconnect between what you see on television in your drawing room and what is happening in the servant quarters behind your room, I see that villagers see the urban channels as a fantasy. It is like you and I seeing the lives of Californian cities. It is there, but it is not our lives but it is interesting to watch. It does not cause a revolution.

A thinking man knows that the visuals of Indian television channels are unrelated to the real India. And what is most disturbing is that the newspapers and television channels are catering to a customer and not to a citizen. And the number of customers in India is around 20 to 30 crore (200 to 300 million), while the population is around 120 crore (1.2 billion). So, 90 million plus are citizens without being customers.

The media is driven completely by customers. So, the citizens are as amused by saas-bahu stories as any customer is. I don't think anyone believes that what they see on television represents their real life.

When inflation was quite high the issue of price rise was very much real in my constituency than it was in the urban middle class. Terrorism was not such a big issue in my area as other parts of India. I am not sure what impact 26/11 will have eventually.

The India-US nuclear deal is too sophisticated an issue for my voters. When we say nuclear deal will give us electricity, it is not a bad thing but it will not turn them on like it has done to the section of our establishment.

My voters will be impressed by NREGA, to some extent the RTI act and farmer's loan waivers and a scheme called backward region grants.

On Election 2009

When I entered politics in the early nineties it was an era of single party rule except during the brief period of Morarji Desai and Charan Singh's rule that was a disaster. Then, we understood only single party rule.

Ever since we have been relentlessly dragged into a ghastly coalition era!

And we have seen a lot of political instability. It is a short-lived government. There is tremendous dilution of ideology. We are now in a much more fractured polity which also reflects a certain maturity of democracy. It is no longer a feudal democracy. It is a middle-class democracy. But it is not yet the people's democracy which it will be as soon as we get results of panchayati raj.

The army of 32 lakh (3.2 million) elected representatives in panchayats should get more funds and should be made responsible for governance.

I think the biggest danger to our democracy comes from huge widening divide between those who are on the trajectory of growth and those who are been left behind in this period of accelerated growth.

On his association with the Gandhi family

I was never close to the Gandhi family. I had a professional relationship with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

On the day he was assassinated, a close link to one of the members of Gandhi family was brought to an end. A similar close relationship at a familial level or at the personal level or at the professional level has never existed between me and Shrimati Sonia Gandhi and between me and Rahul Gandhi or between me and Priyanka Gandhi.

I think I am right in saying that I have never seen Priyanka Gandhi in the last five years. I have seen Rahul Gandhi at most a dozen times and those meetings have been very brief. Of course, Soniaji is the Congress president and I have seen her little bit more often. But describing me as being close to the Gandhi family is a huge exaggeration. I am not.

On his prospects of winning the election

The parliamentary election is not about personalities, it is about parties. The Tamil Nadu electorate is committed to either of the two Dravidian parties. Maybe the segment of that in MGR's (the late All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M G Ramachandran) time was 80 percent and that may have shrunk to 60 percent, but the large groupings are still the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

So, I am depending on our coalition to win the election and that is a fact. Youth know well that I am old. I am 68 years old and an 18-year-old voter is half a century younger than me.

He will vote for me because I think a young person is not stupid to think that to vote for young is good and to vote for old is bad. That's silly. I think out of all the Congress candidates in Tamil Nadu, I stand just about the best chance of winning!

I don't think that means that I will win. It's a very tough election. Electoral alignments are completely different then what they were in 2004. And the political fallout of this is not very easy to calculate.

My majority in the last election was just under two lakh (200,000) votes, it can come down to under 50,000 votes.

At the end of the day nothing scares me at election time, but what concerns me is what little we have done for the poor.

Image: Mani Shankar Aiyar on the campaign trail in Mayiladuturai. Photograph: Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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