29 Apr 14

Interviewing Jayaprakash Narayan

Why does JP support Modi? Is it fair to call him a Monsanto-agent? What are his political views?


As the political climate heats up, one man has been on the road non-stop for over a month, convincing voters in his state to choose a better alternative this time round. He is a doctor, a civil servant and a politician – in that order – and his ragtag bunch of largely urban, educated professionals are trying their best to expose residents of Telangana and Seemandhra – erstwhile Andhra Pradesh – to his work and wisdom. He is Dr Jayaprakash Narayan of the Loksatta Party, or JP to his supporters. Smart, scholarly and statesman-like, he promises real change in Indian politics. But do we deserve him?

Excerpts from an extended e-mail interview:

You’ve been called a Cancer, a Monsanto-agent and lately you’ve been at the receiving end of significant twitter abuse. Do you laugh these things off or are you bothered by them?

I laugh these things off. When you use invective instead of argument you have already lost the argument. Democracy is about civilised discourse and healthy scepticism that allow you to keep an open mind to the other point of view. These are all the hallmarks of our civilisation.

You moved to Godavarru village in Andhra Pradesh when you were little. When was the last time you revisited Godavarru? Has life there changed much?

I last visited Godavarru three years ago. I was privileged to get 431 toilets built in the village to eliminate the scourge of public defecation from there. I also got a bridge built across the canal to make travel and transport easier and safer. Sadly, the school where I studied is no longer a beacon of hope for youngsters. Like most government schools, there is no accountability and the children are getting very little education. The plight of the school and the children causes enormous distress and makes me angry.

Tell me about the day you decided to sit for the civil services exam. Or was it a slow process brought about by your disenchantment with the medical profession?

No. I was actually in love with the medical profession. I remember very vividly. It was June 1978, a hot and humid summer. I was an intern in Vijayawada district hospital. A few friends from Guntur came to visit and we were walking along the Eluru canal. I was disenchanted with the failure and collapse of the Janata Government in the post-Emergency phase and was expressing my deep disquiet. My friend Meera, now a practising doctor in New York said: “JP, why don’t you join the IAS?” I decided then and there to take the exam. As simple as that.

How would you encourage doctors to work in villages? Isn’t it a fact that most of them are hesitant to do so?

The traditional idea is to send doctors to villages. A Primary Health Centre must no longer pretend that it is a hospital. That’s a farce. It must be a preventive and maternity care centre. We should build a proper hospital for every area with over 100,000 people with 5 to 6 doctors, 30 to 50 beds including specialisations and surgeries. And make that work well. Bring in private-public partnerships for these hospitals and raise the bar to attract good doctors.

In a recent speech, you lambasted the UPA government for its Health policies. What percentage of its GDP, do you think, India should spend on Health?

The rich countries spend around 8% of their GDP on Health. If we reach 3% over the next few years, it’s a good number. More than the share of GDP, where the money goes is the key. We must create a Universal Health Care service with PPP model with the key principles of competition, choice, guaranteed primary care, standard protocols and costs.

Coming to Education, should it be state-controlled? I ask this because as we know, especially in Maharashtra, every second politician is running an educational institute or a medical one. There is clearly money being made although Education is strictly supposed to be a not-for-profit enterprise in our country.

The Right To Education Act has done a great disservice to the country by increasing state control. As a result, school education has become a tremendous source of corruption for education officials. What we need is monitoring of quality, PPP and some system of vouchers. Similarly in higher education, state control has led to monumental corruption and appalling quality. Again, autonomy, a system of electives at college level, nation-wide standard testing for admission, focus on problem solving, exposure to industry and society as part of the curriculum and sensible evaluation must be the key features of any reform.

Your stand on genetically modified foods and nuclear energy has ruffled a lot of activist feathers. Why is there so much resentment against scientific progress in our country? Is it because of ignorance or misinformation or both?

It is both. Globally, GM crops have been raised in about a billion hectares of land cumulatively. There is not a single known incidence of proven health hazard. Obviously, there must be adequate safeguards before introducing any new technology. But the decision should be made by qualified scientists and not emotional activists. Ultimately, the use of technology by farmers will make them the best judges as they know what works and what doesn’t by experience.

Coming to Lokpal, you say the Prime Minister cannot be accountable to an extra-parliamentary authority. Why not?

The central issue is that in a Parliamentary system, the PM is the focal point of all authority and legitimacy in Government. If the PM is subject to investigation or scrutiny by an appointed body however exalted it is, there is always a danger of abuse of process undermining the stability, effectiveness and legitimacy of the government. The argument that if the PM is exonerated after a Lokpal enquiry, everything will be alright is fallacious. The very fact that the PM is under a cloud for the period of enquiry undermines the government and the damage will be considerable and sometimes irreversible. It is best to leave the PM out of Lokpal and subject to Parliamentary scrutiny. The present model of Lokpal jurisdiction but with effective safeguards is the next best solution.

You also don’t want the Central Bureau of Investigation to be brought under the Lokpal. Isn’t there an overwhelming need to make CBI independent as soon as possible?

CBI should be both autonomous and accountable at the same time. As a rule, over-centralisation of power in the hands of any single body or individual is unwise and dangerous. There must be institutional checks and balances, particularly in respect of police, who exercise powers of life and death over others. Under the current system, the CBI is broadly accountable to the Central Vigilance Commission. With the Lokpal Act, CBI reports to Lokpal in respect of complaints referred to by that institution. If the CVC were made ex-officio members of Lokpal, it could have solved many problems but bringing everything under one Lokpal or any other institution is not the solution.

Your position against populist measures by ruling governments is well known. This includes subsidised electricity and water and a host of other freebies. Isn’t that political hara kiri?

Not necessarily. If we make people see where the money is going, or how better use of resources is going to improve their lives, they will accept it. That’s why decentralisation is critical. If you preach to a smoker to stop smoking, but transfer the money which is saved to a higher authority who will decide what to do with it, obviously the smoker will reject the argument. But if the family has the power to choose how the money will be spent, then he is more likely to make rational choices. I am firmly of the view that school education and healthcare must primarily be the responsibility of the state. There is also a case to subsidise urban housing and employment generation until the products become competitive but consumption subsidies that do not enhance productivity or income-earning capacity are a drain on the exchequer and serve only to perpetuate poverty. The fact that the UPA has now lost public support despite unprecedented freebies shows that people eventually wake up to this reality, but it requires great leadership and innovation to come out of this freebie culture.

You say in your manifesto: “Twenty-four-hour power supply will be ensured in the next three years. Steps will be taken to ensure there are no hikes in power tariffs for the next five years.” The first promise is fine, but isn’t the second populist?

In the Andhra Pradesh context, happily, the government has already significantly enhanced tariffs. Therefore with improved distribution, better energy auditing and reduced transmission and distribution losses, there will be adequate cushion to account for inflation. This promise is more practical than populist.

You also promise that “The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme will be extended to the agriculture sector.” But you have criticised this scheme on many occasions. Is it in your mind to reformulate it?

Yes. I have always believed that NREGA should only be a security net in times of distress and should not be an employment scheme. In this day and age, it is an insult to our people to consider digging and filling pits as employment. NREGA has also distorted labour markets and destroyed the work ethic. Note that since there is a central law, at the state level you have little room for manoeuvre. Therefore, Loksatta advocates the utilisation of the scheme substantially in drought-prone areas for water harvesting, soil conservation, reforestation and other capital works to enhance the resource space and incomes.

Loksatta is probably the only party – apart from the UPA – to have openly welcomed Foreign Direct Investment in retail and farming. Indeed, you’ve been quoted as saying that “a farmer gets only 35% of the consumer price of vegetables & fruits” and that FDI would remove corrupt middlemen. Why do you think all other parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party and Aam Aadmi Party, are opposed to FDI while you are not? What do you see that they can’t?

Unfortunately, the default option of most Indian politicians is Luddite policies. There was a time not too long ago when bankers, who at that time were among the highest-paid employees in the country used to habitually go on annual strikes to oppose computerisation. This, on the specious grounds that it would reduce employment. To my recollection, every political party supported those strikes. Today, if a party takes that position, it will be laughed out of existence. The Left parties during UPA I vehemently opposed airport privatisation on similar grounds. Public opinion forced them to retreat. Until consumers and producers are aware of the implications of policies, myopic political pygmies will continue to treat people as vote-banks instead of people.

Do you see Loksatta Party as a modern-day re-embodiment of the Swatantra Party, a much-needed alternative to the Socialist policies of the time? Your party’s economic vision certainly suggests so.

In a large measure, yes. We probably have the benefit of hindsight and hopefully we articulate it in a more integrated manner. The founders of Swatantra Party were visionaries and had India followed their leadership, we could have been where China is today, economically.

You are a strong advocate of proportional representation (PR), i.e. a 20% vote share, say, for a party entitles it to a 20% seat share in Parliament. While it has its merits, how will you be able to prevent a secessionist, Maoist or an anti-India party from gaining seats in Parliament?

There is always a risk of extreme fringe elements gaining representation in a PR system. But the risks can be mitigated by a reasonable threshold like 5% or 10% voting requirement across a state for representation in legislature. If it is a serious secessionist movement, the existing law already takes care of the problem by allowing only the candidates and parties with allegiance to the Indian constitution to participate in the polls. In cases of lesser extreme opinions, if they do get reasonable vote share, that will actually lead to healthy debate and moderate them. It will also make the society and polity aware of important trends in public opinion and eventually will accommodate them and self-correct.

What is your stand on the Uniform Civil Code?

Obviously, a Uniform Civil Code will be good for the secular polity. But there are also a hundred other things that will be good for the country. If this one issue is going to fragment society, then wisdom demands that we put it on the backburner until minorities feel comfortable with that. The absence of Uniform Civil Code is not the greatest problem India is facing.

Would you want a referendum on Kashmir?

No. Obviously the conditions envisaged for a plebiscite are no longer in place. Even otherwise, for a society like India, a referendum on contentious issues like this will be extremely dangerous and polarising. We should recognise that the nation state is a reality. If you carry the principle of self-determination too far, India may end up Balkanised. One Partition caused untold misery and havoc and we still live with the consequences. Unity of India is non-negotiable.

Many people, especially from the Left of the political spectrum, are sceptical of unbridled economic growth and private enterprise going on to cure our problems. They say it will only increase the disparity between the poor and the rich. You, on the other hand, are a firm believer in as little state control as possible. Why so?

Every sensible economist agrees that the State has a definite but finite role. Nobody can seriously argue that the private sector is a substitute to the state. The problem in India is that much of this debate is muddled, while the real issue is the State’s role in a modern society. Apart from defence from external threats, the State’s primary responsibilities are public order; justice and rule of law, basic infrastructure including water, sewerage, power and transport; human development including education and healthcare and sustainable natural resource development. The Indian State has spectacularly failed on almost all these fronts. In the face of such a dismal performance, it is an absurd argument that the State should play a greater and greater role in the production of goods and services. The history of the last century has taught us very valuable lessons and we can ignore them only at our peril.

Do you think the issue of crony capitalism is a political one? Why can’t we have faith in our laws and courts to decide one way or the other if a capitalist is indeed of the crony variety?

Competition, total transparency and mandatory disclosure (of transactions and business interests of all stakeholders including those in power) will go a long way in substantially reducing crony capitalism. In the real world, political proximity will certainly give some advantages in business planning but most mature democracies have learned to deal with that. So can we.

Do you think a person is innocent until proven guilty?

Yes, as a legal dictum. There are certain exceptions where the burden of proof should be shifted. Cases of collusive corruption, obstruction of justice, abuse of public trust, or custodial responsibilities and perversion of the Constitution. They all fall in this category where prima facie evidence should be sufficient and the accused must prove his innocence. However, the notion that an accused person continues to stay eligible for public office until he is convicted is nonsensical. Holding public office and the right to remain outside prison are not on the same footing.

Do you think A Raja is innocent until proven guilty?

As mentioned above, it is a clear act of collusive corruption and it is for Raja to prove his innocence. He should be deemed guilty until he proves his innocence. In any case he should be unfit for public office.

Is there a place for anarchy and dharna-politics in our society? Do you agree with Dr Ambedkar when he asked for such methods to be shunned?

I am in absolute agreement with Ambedkar. Once a people have the right to vote, freedom of expression and other constitutional freedoms, they cannot resort to any kind of obstruction, violence or disruption. A free society cannot survive unless people, citizen’s groups and parties exercise restraint and discipline.

You made a comprehensive vision document for the urban planning and renewal of Mumbai. Can Mumbai ever become Shanghai?

To aspire to Shanghai is too far-fetched at this point of time. Let’s acknowledge that. However, we can certainly improve infrastructure and living conditions significantly. I believe there will be increasing pressure from our cities for better governance because unlike in villages, urban people are increasingly globalised, conscious that they are tax payers and demand better services. Unfortunately, there are some constitutional anomalies that need to be addressed in order to create sensible governance structures to suit great cities like Mumbai. We will have to mobilise public opinion over the next few years to make that happen. If we fail to do so, the human suffering and economic loss for the country will be staggering.

Do you think Raj Thackeray has a point when he says that the new government should spend most of its energy in developing Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand to help stem the immigrant influx into Mumbai?

There is no question that we must do everything possible to promote economic growth in all regions and sub-regions of India. But that is unrelated to immigration to Mumbai alone. What we need is planned urbanisation, not ghettoisation, and in situ growth of small towns, not mass migration to a few cities. Recent evidence shows that urban poverty is more gruesome than rural poverty. Economic opportunities need to reach them in place instead of forcing them to migrate.

Do you think development of villages is a prerequisite for development of cities, or should both go hand-in-hand, at the risk of thinning out or diluting visible progress?

We can no longer think of developing villages as small, isolated entities. The cost of infrastructure will be too high and the efficacy too low. Instead, we need to promote growth of a large number of small towns in an organic way, integrating rural economy with urban, agriculture with industry and creating, as Abdul Kalam argues, first rate urban amenities in those pockets. We can probably think in terms of 10,000 small towns and a 100 big cities accounting for 90% of the population.

You have declared recently that, and I quote, “Modi is the best choice for India”. Why not Arvind Kejriwal or Rahul Gandhi or Mulayam Singh Yadav?

Rahul represents a party that is responsible for complete failure in the last 10 years. Moreover, dynasty-based succession is the worst form of democratic leadership. Fledgling reform-based parties have a value up to a point but there is no way they can replace large national parties. In any case, Arvind represents at one level a quest for ethics in politics but at another level he represents Luddite politics and policies and has no sense of institutions and harmonious functioning. Politics is not war. It is about a contest of ideas and reconciliation of a wide spectrum of differing views. Mulayam represents purely sectarian politics with a regional base. That cannot be a voice of change. Among available options, Modi is the only one who is focusing entirely on economic growth, job creation, good governance and “India First”. He has given up the divisive rhetoric. We need a stable and competent government with a sense of purpose. If there is half a chance of that happening, all of us must help make it happen. Nothing matters – caste, region, religion and even party lines, and that is why in the current context Modi is the best option.

Dr Narayan, thank you very much for your time.

Thank you.



This article first appeared in newslaundry on Apr. 29, 2014.

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