Scripting politics of change: If India triumphs, so will we all, says Pavan Varma

Pavan K. Varma is an incorrigible optimist. Varma, who was till a few weeks ago India’s ambassador to the idyllic Himalayan state of Bhutan, has fashioned a new vocation for himself by taking a plunge into politics. He is now an adviser to Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, with the rank of a cabinet minister in the state government.

Varma’s new vocation is underpinned by a radiant vision of the politics of change and renewal that forms the heart of his new book Chanakya’s New Manifesto: To Resolve TheCrisis Within India (published by Aleph).In this book modelled after iconic thinker Chanakya’s Arthashastra, a classical treatise on governance and statecraft, the author argues passionately and incisively that despite gloom and doom theorists, India is capable of original and audacious thought. A great destiny awaits this young republic if it can fix multiple crises besetting it with clear-headed thinking and a concrete plan of action, he says.

Having served the government of India for decades, he knows the system from inside and strongly feels that posturing and rhetoric (what he calls “sterile sophistry” in his book) will not deliver India from the current impasse this country of one billion people is enmeshed in. If India is to fructify its destiny, it has to think afresh, and only a new brand of transformational politics can make CHANGE happen. As he says in Prologue: “India, in order to make its real tryst with destiny, must change. We have the potential to be a great power, and must find a way to achieve that goal.”

In the first part of this interview with Manish Chand, Editor-in-Chief, India Writes (

(Excerpts from the interview)

Q) Your book, Chanakya’s New Manifesto, argues about a new kind of politics, a new kind of transformational politics. What was your provocation for writing this book?

A) My provocation for writing this book is that I am a great optimist about India. And I believe that for all its unbounded potential, India is currently in the throes of a state of crisis. A great 5,000-year-old civilization and a young republic are today at a crossroads, and have run out of ideas.There is an imperative need to identify the problem with courage, clarity and honesty. I explore five areas in this book, which are at the core of the crisis- governance, democracy, security, corruption and inclusive society,and how to genuinely build it.

Q) There is a major governance deficit in the country, what critics have called policy paralysis. What’s the way out of it?

A) As far as governance and democracy are concerned, the crux of the problem is that we are in a situation not envisaged by constitution-makers of the country. Their assumption was that democratic elections would throw up a party with a stable majority which will have five years to govern.Unfortunately for the last fifteen years, we have been seeing something which we have failed to recognize, that the imperatives of governance and the mandatory requirements of democracy have become antithetical to each other. The reason is that today due to the democratisation of politics, instead of one banyan party, we have a proliferation of political parties. There is nothing wrong in that, but they create finally at the Centre a 22-member coalition government with a wafer-thin majority. So all energies go to the political management and survival, and none to governance. And even the governance that occurs is largely driven by short-term populist reasons rather than to finding enduring solutions for foundational problems. This is a real crisis because the challenges before India and its untapped potential are such that democracy must enable governance. Now once you realise this crisis, you have got to understandhow it’s treated in order to short-circuit this adversarial correlation between two fundamental pillars — governance and democracy. So I propose a solution after very careful thought.The fundamental principle is that the voter cannot be taken for a ride either during the democratic process or either what follows in terms of his expectations for governance?So I suggest that all coalitions must announce their constituents prior to the election. And among them, they must announce who would be the prime minister prior to the elections so that you do not get a candidate who is a consequence of intra-coalition compromises.

The voter is entitled to know who will be the pivot of that coalition. In reality, what often happens is that the voter decides to vote for party A and against party B, and finds that after the election the party A and party B have come together. This is a complete betrayal of the reason of why he voted for party A in the first instance. You cannot take the voter for a ride. You must insist on coalitions announcing their constituents prior to the election along with their prime ministerial candidate. And whichever coalition wins, before the electionseach of the coalitions must come out with a workman-like governance agenda,not a manifesto, which could be vetted by the ElectionCommission so that it conforms to realistic parameters. This hasn’t been done.

Q) What should be the code of conduct after a coalition comes to power?

A) Once they come to power, I have proposed that all the coalition members should have a lock-in period of three years, when no constituent can withdraw support. It’s similar to the anti-defection law which also imposes a certain discipline. On the other hand, it’s an infringement of absolute democracy as it circumscribes my individual right, but for the purpose of making democracy happen, you need an anti-defection law. All constituents of the coalition, therefore,who have decided to support the governance agenda must have a lock-in period of three years, which allowsfor the mandatory stability for governance to happen.So even if one of the constituents decides to withdraw after three years, governance does not suffer. The government will then act with confidence and assurance of stability to fulfil the promises made to the people, because work needs to be done in this country all the time. The problems and challenges are colossal.

There are some who has asked me why not make the lock-in period for five years – I have not said that because the idea is to marry the imperatives of stability for governance with imperatives of democratic choices. The whole point is that years go by without doing anything, what is called governance deficit or paralysis of governance.However, if any constituent decides to withdraw after three years and join the opposition, it can do so, but it would be only for a balance period of two years. If the collation does good work for three years, that constituent who opted out will be punished by voters for making an opportunist choice.

The central point I am making is that you can then tweak the system so that you can have both governance and democracy. In the specific circumstances of Indian democracy, because the crisis is systemic, it requires systemic solution.It’s not a crisis about an individual, not a crisis about a party, not a crisis about the international economic slowdown. There need to be a nation-wide debate. I have been bold enough to offer a solution. Somebody will have a better one. But one thing is clear we can’t continue like this. We can’t imagine some miracle will parachute into our lives and transform the life of the polity and politics around.  It’s not going to happen.

The key to democracy today is electoral reforms – all the proposals are there. But none of them are being worked upon. We have to push hard for implementation of these electoral reforms for real democracy to bear fruits. We have to break the nexus between elections and  black money. Imagine one-third of members of our parliament have criminal background? We are not a banana republic; where do we go from here?

Q) How can democracy function or be effective with all the chaos and unruly behaviour one gets to see in parliament – the heart of any democracy?

A) Well, this is the sad part. The speaker has all the powers to enforce discipline, of suspending the member for the duration of the session or for the entire period of the parliament or to deprive trouble-makers of financial remuneration. All the powers are there to run a disciplined house but she doesn’t run it. What is an aberration,therefore,becomes a routine. Entire sessions go back without business.

Q) What about corruption? The last few years have seen a spate of scams. What’s your solution for cleansing the system of the scourge of corruption?

A) Similarly, as far as corruption is concerned–I propose a five-pointarchitecture against corruption, not just the Lokpal, which includes first and foremost electoral reforms. Secondly, the neutral intervention of technology in as many areas as possible, where the citizen has to interface with the state. I laud the Right to Public Services Act in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. The official who doesn’t render the service has to pay Rs 500 fine per day. Twelve departments,58 services, which are the maximum areas where the citizen needs something from the state, allonline. Seventy-two IT experts and professionals have been hired in Biharfor high salaries, one in the department and one in the district, to monitor each application.Against each service the precise time line has been prescribed. Every day delayed is a fine on the concerned official. And it’s working. Two crore(2000000) applicationshave been disposed of. It should become a national law. Thirdly, complete transparency in the disposal of state owned resources- spectrum, mine, land. Again a draft bill is pending. You see corruption being what it is, you need an architecture to combat it effectively and comprehensively.Fourthly, I suggest timely and deterrent punishment for the corrupt. If you know that you are indicted in the fodder scam in 1995 and the judicial process is such that you become railway minister. Then, it goes to the CBI in 2004 when you become a member of the ruling coalition. The CBI frames charges in 2012. Therefore, a fast-track course for corruption is the need of the hour. But for that, you need judicial reform. Allahabad high court- 50 vacancies and 500000 cases pending! Where are you going to get justice? Who will be punished? This is the only county where the judiciary appoints itself in the world. Vacancies are known. Why are they not filled? We are seriously in need of judicial reforms.  Lastly, we need a Lokpal. But a Lokpal without powers of prosecution and investigative powers is nothing. I have advocated setting up a wing of the CBI,with the investigative and prosecution power,reporting to the Lokpal. Similarly, I have argued that the judiciary will never agree to come under the ambit of Lokpal. So I have advocated a separate judiciary for the Lokpal.

Q)In your book, you come out with some innovative ideas on building an inclusive society…

A) The real challenge is how to build a genuinely inclusive society. I have very serious problems with the model that was adopted which is state altruism, which shovels money from the top down. This creates an entire scaffolding of corruption, with people sitting in air-conditioned rooms and deciding whether to give Rs 22 rupees or Rs 28 to the abjectly poor. We need a different model and I argue what it can be. Today if I want to set up an NGO or give back to society which has given so much to me, every form of discouragement is provided to me by this state. In other words, as I argue in the book, the existing official regimen in India to encourage philanthropy, NGOs and non-profit organisations is woefully inadequate. We have the largest number of the abjectly poor in the world, the largest number of people who can’t read and write, the largest number of people who are malnourished. Except in fantasy you can’t make a first floor without a ground floor. We need to act fast to build a genuinely caring society.

Q) The problems India is facing are so colossal that the paralysis and decision-making in just about every area of governance is impacting the lives of ordinary people on a day-to-day basis. A few weeks ago, we saw an upsurge of civil society activism and mass protests against the rape of a young physiotherapist in Delhi. That crystallization of popular anger and discontent is a formidable force to reckon with — why don’t we come out on the streets on issues of governance?

A) There is anger, there is discontent, there is alienation. I speak to the young and I am travelling across the country and address them. I even launched this book in IIT Delhi and I say to them that your future is at stake, for god’s sake do it in your own self-interest. I say to them that anger without being harnessed to ideas will be subverted, co-opted, derailed or subsumed. We need the anger but we need that anger to engage with ideas; otherwise it is staccato, sporadic and does not lead to enduring change. I say to the young that if 1 million of the young across India sign a petition and submit it, that before the next elections the parliament will convene a special session on electoral reform for which all the proposals are already drafted and pending. How can the government ignore it? The power of the young is disproportionate to the numerical strength because of two factors- the electronic media and instant connectivity through the mobile telephone. Mobilisation for change…. for demand of change must engage with ideas.For that unfortunately, you have to also involve yourself with issues and ask for specifics. Disused anger is wasted energy.

Q) You had spoken to me earlier about why you chose to join the JD(U), the party of Nitish Kumar and how he is a clean politician who stands for effective and transparent governance. You had other options. What made you choose Nitish Kumar?

A) I was looking for a leader who stands for three things:clean politics, good governance and a secular vision. Then, I went to see for myself the scale of transformation that has taken place in Bihar in the last few years. The revolution in agriculture – that’s absolutely amazing. The quick delivery of public services, and people-centric governance.

I have friends in all political parties, including the Congress and the BJP. I have nothing against them per se. But I am inherently against dynasties in politics. It’s repugnant to the democratic spirit.We are not a banana republic. It’s repugnant to the democratic spirit. The inert political milieu, the sterile intellectual atmosphere, the politics of dynasty breedsis the negation of our entire civilizational evolution as a dialogic and open society. You should read the correspondence between Nehru and Gandhi and then the correspondence between Nehru and Patel to understand what were the beginnings and how sycophancy has now become the norm. We have become a republic where we have absolute leaders, absolute followers and absolute subjects.

Q) So they think, those who propagate dynasty, the voter an imbecile?  

A) How can you take him for a ride? What do they seek to achieve by legitimising the perpetuation of the family rule? And what can I say of politicians who fall prostate in obeisance to the dynastic impulse! As I say in my book Chanakya’s New Manifesto: “The resolve to become agents of change, rather than just passive critics of the status quo, must be taken in our self-interest, If India triumphs, so will we all.”