open house

All Are Invited

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Indian democracy has a surfeit of parties with peculiar agendas. A look at some parties that have emerged before this year’s general election
It was sometime in September 2011 that Yogendra Yadav received a phone call that would turn him into a corruption fighter. The caller rang up one afternoon while Yadav was taking a stroll in the lush banana plantations that surrounded his ancestral home in the town of Bakhtiyarpur, about 50 km from Patna, a place he and his wife would retreat to when they weren’t at their son’s place in Ghaziabad, near Delhi.

It has been over two years since that call, and Yadav still has no answers to some questions. “I don’t know how he got to know about me,” he says. Or why he was picked for the role. What he did know after the telecon was that he needed to go to Delhi. A certain Jasvir Singh, an NRI working at a management firm and the caller in question, wanted to meet him. Back then, the two were strangers to each other, Yadav confesses, so it was natural to be suspicious. All they had in common was a desire to rid their motherland of the stain of corruption.

In any case, Yadav told himself as he packed his bags two months later, a trip to the capital was long overdue (to collect his pension). When he reached the meeting venue, the canteen of a community centre, he did not expect himself to be but a blip among some 400 people gathered there—all at Singh’s behest. After a discussion that lasted 8-10 hours, the gathering decided that platitudes about getting one’s hands dirty to clean the system held true, and that it’s imperative to involve the youth as change agents. And thus emerged the Bharatiya Rajnitik Vikalp Party (BRVP), an outfit of youngsters who unanimously decided to appoint 75-year-old Yogendra Yadav—not to be confused with his Aam Aadmi namesake—as the party’s face.

In October and November 2013, the Election Commission of India released two successive lists of newly formed political parties. The world’s largest democracy, the lists indicated, had got a shot in the arm with the number of registered political parties rising to 1,534, up by 142 since January that year. A cursory glance reveals the politically charged landscape of the north emerging the most active on that front. Uttar Pradesh leads the bandwagon with 28 new parties, with New Delhi hot on its heels with 25.

Poll pundits look at this trend without enthusiasm because it happens before every general election. Most such outfits are merely letterhead parties. In the run-up to the previous Lok Sabha polls of 2009, India’s count of registered parties stood exactly at 1,000. By the time the battle reached the polling booths, only 364 of them surfaced on the ballot.

Nevertheless, every party wants a revolution, some through means more colourful than others. The BRVP, for one, wants to start by redefining the word ‘youth’, whose classification will be enhanced to include everyone from 18 to 50 years of age. “No,” Yadav interrupts as I quote the aforementioned part of his party’s constitution. “We changed it to members between 15 and 60 years. People suggested, ‘Sixty tak log tight rehtein hain, aap unko yuva consider kar sakte hain.’ (People are fit till the age of 60, so you can still consider them young).” Although Yadav doesn’t quite fit into that generously defined bracket, he claims to act as an in- house adviser since “nobody takes these youngsters seriously”.

The USP of the party, however, lies in its proposal of a complete overhaul of the existing Parliamentary form of democracy to replace it with a Presidential system, a lá the United States of America. Several years ago, Yadav had a chance to witness a US Presidential election from up close, and he returned overawed with how it works. But it was only years later, after he started getting emails from Singh, that he thought of adopting that form of governance. That, and, as he puts it, “Kuchh timepass chahiye, na.” (One needs a pastime).

Except he himself, all members of his party are young—of average age 30— mostly unlettered and, to his mind, ‘incorruptible’. Yadav says that he avoided getting members with experience, since those who know the mechanics of corruption also know how to practice it. Not that the party has been insulated from vested interests. The NRI founder, it turned out, allegedly wanted to control the party from Belgium. Party members, however, did not accept this, so, in May 2012, Jasvir Singh disassociated himself from its active functioning.

Yadav is realistic of his party’s chances in the upcoming election. Though the BRVP aims to contest the polls from 14 constituencies, he says it might win only one or two seats in the Lok Sabha. However, for now, its members have a bigger cause: that of educating people on a Presidential form of democracy. This, he admits, will be a long haul—convincing people that the post of Prime Minister needs to be abolished and autonomous states favoured. It could take three or four decades, and the party might still not manage to reach all voters. What then? “[In that case,] just like the Parliamentary system governs us all without people knowing what it is about, a presidential form of government will take over.”

The two main governmental agencies that must deal with this upsurge in new party formation are the Election Commission and Income Tax Department. By design, donations to political parties are exempt from income tax. The only catch is that details of donations above Rs 20,000 must be submitted to the taxation authorities.

Time and again, the EC has tried to draw attention to the grey activities conducted under the guise of political outfits. In 2006, the then Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami had expressed concerns over money collected by political parties. In a communication dated 31 July 2006, as reported by The Times of India, he wrote about instances of the EC having encountered cases of little- known parties getting donations from individuals and companies that ran into lakhs of rupees. Often, the payments were made in cash. In 2011, the EC took a close look at all registered parties and studied their operations. It found that only 16 per cent of the 1,200 parties at the time were actually engaged in ‘political activities’. Most had been floated to park money illegally as donations to exploit tax exemptions.

Some ‘politicians’, like property dealer Mahesh Tyagi who formed the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (Baba Saheb) last year, are upfront about the purpose of such a party. Asked about the reason for setting such an entity up, Tyagi reportedly told a journalist, “Politics helps business. You know it better than I do.”

It makes the EC cringe. Its ability to derecognise one is severely restricted. Setting up a party is easy. All it takes is 100 members swearing allegiance to such a formation on an affidavit and a demand draft payment of Rs 10,000 in the EC’s favour as registration fee. Registration may take anywhere between six months and one-and-a-half years, and even if the party does not participate in elections, it continues to exist. One can sense frustration in Gopalaswami’s voice when he talks about how a dormant party cannot be knocked off the register: “Not as long as you have the [present] constitution. The interpretation can be so wide, that tomorrow someone might go to the SC and say that ‘Forming a political party is my birthright’.”

The former CEC lists a number of reasons for the formation of a dummy party, ranging from money laundering and simple egoism to squatting on a party name/symbol and dividing votes to meet another party’s strategic aims. “There could be a minuscule minority who genuinely want to do something different,” he says, “Most of it is bullshit.”

For a man in the business of soliciting votes, 55-year-old Dilip Thakore comes off as surprisingly—if not refreshingly— reluctant to approach voters. Although the Lok Sabha polls are less than four months away, Thakore is averse to organising rallies and giving speeches, unless invited. “I don’t want to pander to the people; run after them and tell them how great they are,” he says. “I am going to tell them [that] I have solutions. If you want solutions, you have to come to me... It’s irrelevant whether they vote for me. Either way, I gain as long you begin to understand things.”

A resident of Bangalore, Thakore is publisher-editor of Education World, a human development magazine, and also the founder of Children First Party of India. On the face of it, the CFPI might sound like a party that wears a single- point agenda on its sleeve. Thakore thinks otherwise: “Nobody has a better manifesto than us.”

The party’s manifesto focuses on making an attempt to assess each aspect of national spending, snipping it appropriately and releasing funds for the empowerment of the ‘next generation’. In addition, the party promises to reduce crimes against women by 75 per cent in one year.

A barrister trained in London, Thakore has been rubbing shoulders with politicians long before he decided to field a political party. He practised law at the Bombay High Court for five years before getting disillusioned with the legal system and joining the manufacturing sector. During this period, he went from being a Congress sympathiser to a Janata Party supporter, helping raise campaign funds and generate support among the masses. Now that he has entered the arena himself, Thakore complains of being unacknowledged for the same reason he attributes to all the other problems plaguing the country: civic apathy. His party has a website; Thakore has a Twitter account, an editorial page in his magazine, and “a million readers”, as he puts it. “They know about us and yet they are overlooking it,” he says. “It’s possible that the people of India don’t want to be saved. You can take a horse to the water but you can’t force it to drink, right?”

At its onset, the 400-member strong CFPI had a novel approach towards recruiting party workers, a concept typical of pyramid marketing. Membership is conditional and granted once an applicant ropes in two other members, who, in turn, are supposed to enrol two each. ‘Through this multi-level marketing strategy,’ the website reads, ‘CFPI intends to build a membership base of 100 million within 12 months.’

“It has been over ten months since you launched the party. How is it working out?” I ask.

Thakore laughs. “I think the 12 months is a bit too optimistic,” he says, “Put a full stop after 100 million.”

“Over what time span then?”

“I don’t know. I can’t predict.”

“But when you wrote that...”

“Well, it’s okay,” says the aspiring politican. “It’s not written in stone.”

Deepak Gaur’s party has been on a networking blitzkrieg of sorts: appointing conveners, organising rallies, gathering signature campaign support and doling out promises. He claims his party has inducted about 12,000 volunteers from various parts of North India. In a few months, the party will be ready to fight nearly 40 Lok Sabha seats.

“I am not a politician,” he says. “I am a kalamkaar (writer).”

So why enter politics? “When writing about it doesn’t work, one has to flex some political muscle, no?” he chuckles.

Seated in his office at Faridabad that serves as a workshop as much as a garage, he rewinds the clock to the time he met Sushma Swaraj of the BJP. It was December 2012, and yet another wave of anti-reservation protests had swept the grounds of Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. There were black bands, coordinated protests and effigies set afire. Of the nearly 8,000 protestors gathered there, Gaur and a few leaders of some NGOs made their way to the residence of the opposition leader, demanding that she meet them.

When she finally did, the leaders crowded around her and insisted that she take up their cause. They cited numerous letters they had written to her registering their protests, pleas which had gone unanswered. According to Gaur, Swaraj expressed helplessness, justifying India’s affirmative action policies as a corrective measure for all the crimes committed against India’s ‘lower castes’ by those from the upper echelons.

A Brahmin himself, Gaur says he struggled to grapple with Swaraj’s sweeping generalisation. “I told her my father was a farm labourer. All he did was toil throughout his life to purchase a few bighas of land. ‘What did he do? If your people committed these crimes, give them your share of reservations’,” recalls Gaur, adding that Swaraj dismissed their case by saying that the issue doesn’t figure on the BJP’s agenda.

“That pinched us,” he says. Four months later, Gaur got together with other NGO members and launched the All India Anti-Reservation Front. He admits that the party has not done any welfare work yet, but adds that it will deliver the goods the day it achieves power.

Although the party claims the support of all citizens, including that of ‘lower castes’, all its state and national working committee members (barring its convener in Rajasthan) are upper caste. Gaur smiles when I ask him about this. “We had appointed our conveners through the internet,” he says, “It is possible that lower castes didn’t notice our presence. Those who did must be availing the benefits [of affirmative action] themselves.”

I ask Gaur about his party’s take on India’s defence policy. “Defence [forces] don’t have reservations,” he replies. What about foreign policy? “When we come to power, then we will think about this,” he says. Issues such as Kashmir can wait, too. For now, the party is gearing up for effigies to be burnt.

New parties mushroom before every General Election, but this time round, the astounding success of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi has spelt hope for many more wannabes than usual. Naturally, their role model of choice right now is Arvind Kejriwal.

However, Prasoon Kumar Mishra, a Supreme Court lawyer who has started the Vishwa Shakti Party, has a different story to tell. In April 2011, social activist Anna Hazare and several of his supporters, including his protégé Kejriwal, were at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on a hunger strike. Two months later, yoga guru Ramdev Baba led another chapter of protests against black money at Ramlila Maidan. Supporting both the movements was Mishra, who claims to have shared the dais with Hazare several times.

“In those days,” says Mishra, “people used to ask Anna why he does not form a political party to fight [for the cause]. He used to say, ‘You can’t expect us to do everything. The leader will come from the masses.’ That’s what inspired us.” About a year later, Mishra and several others of Hazare’s India Against Corruption movement got together to form their own political outfit. The idea was to realise the dreams of their mentors, Hazare and Ramdev.

“Our party was getting increasingly popular,” claims Mishra, “Kejriwal thought, ‘I was at the agitations for all these days but malai toh koi aur khaa gaya (someone else is making off with the cream). When I got wind of this, I told him, ‘You don’t need to set up another party. I have already made one. Why don’t you run it?’ He refused and went ahead to form his own party.”

Mishra is unfazed by the fact that Hazare and Ramdev have little to say about the political outfit that aims to serve the cause they espoused. His party’s agenda, nonetheless, is to bring back the original Jan Lokpal bill and act on Ramdev’s advice against black money. Apart from declaring black money ‘national property’, the VSP also seeks to abolish income tax, make provisions for a ‘housewife allowance’ and outlaw currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 denominations to keep wealth from being hidden away. Although Mishra’s party hasn’t started campaigning yet, he is confident of its chances. The VSP intends to field Lok Sabha candidates in six states, he claims.

With goals as clear as his, Mishra is sure that running a country is not a daunting prospect. “Jaise ghar chalta hai, waise desh chalane ki koshish karenge (We will run the country the same way we run our house),” he says.