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High ideals, low reach

Just before the 2008 Delhi Assembly elections, motivational speaker Shiv Khera’s face stared out at Delhi-ites from newspaper advertisements, billboards and pamphlets. He was the president of the newly-formed Bharatiya Rashtravadi Samanata Party (BRSP). The party’s sole candidate lost. Four years on, no one recalls BRSP and Khera has called it quits. “I ran out of steam,” he admits.

In 2009, a three-year-old party called Lok Satta fielded 230 candidates in the Andhra Pradesh assembly elections. Only one person won — founder Jayaprakash Narayan. But Lok Satta enjoys some brand recall in the state even now.

Which of these two fates awaits anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal’s political party which formally christened itself as the Aam Aadmi Party yesterday? “Kejriwal may do well initially but sustaining the party will be a long haul,” says Suryaprakash Loonker, Delhi state president of Jago Party, which was started in 2008.

The past few years have seen several political parties being started by people who decided to stop merely grumbling about poor governance and do something about it. However, the interest they sparked off has not translated into votes. Candidates of these do-gooder or new-age parties (as they are variously referred to) have invariably lost their deposits whenever they stood for elections. There is no trace of some like Lok Paritran, started in 2005 by a bunch of Indian Institute of Technology graduates.

“The existing political system is loaded in favour of traditional parties,” says Parakala Prabhakar, a Hyderabad-based political analyst. Talking about transparency and change is all right for television debates but these new parties need to deal with ground realities, he points out.

For starters, there’s what Narayan calls a “very hostile electoral system” to deal with. This system, notes Prabhakar, revolves around territorial constituencies — where caste, religious and regional identities play a powerful role — and not around ideological constituencies. Besides, he points out, people are not interested in how their MP or MLA is influencing legislation, but want them to solve their local problems. The do-gooders are not seen to be very effective in this area.

Perhaps that is why the parties haven’t been able to significantly expand their reach beyond the cities or states they were started in. “None of us has been able to ramp up,” rues Girish Deshpande, president of the Professionals Party of India (PPI), which was started in 2008.

Some parties are attempting to address this lacuna. In November 2009, Jago Party launched a Shikayat Karo, Bharat Badlo (lodge complaints, change India) campaign that follows up complaints about public services ranging from underweight gas cylinders in Karnal, Haryana, to encroachment on roads in Mahbubnagar in Andhra Pradesh. It also holds district-level jan sunwais (public hearings) in Rajasthan where people’s problems are taken up with relevant authorities. Lok Satta has started a few Citizen Service Centres that will provide information on government services and help people with these, among other things. Core group members of the PPI take up civic issues in their respective localities in Pune, where it is headquartered.

Deepak Mittal and (top) Shiv Khera

The limited appeal of these parties also stems from them being seen as single-point agenda parties, revolving around good governance or fighting corruption. “Most of these people started parties as a spontaneous reaction to an incident. Some anger is always the trigger,” says Loonker. BRSP’s convenor J.R. Agarwal is the only one who admits to this lacuna. The party focused largely on reservations since it sprung from a voluntary organisation opposing it — All India Equality Forum. It has now drawn up a more broad-based manifesto, Agarwal says. However, Jago Party’s founder, Deepak Mittal, says that parties will lose focus if they highlight too many issues at the same time.

Other parties like Lok Satta and PPI deny that they are one-issue parties and point to their manifestos that deal with diverse issues. In the public mind, however, the new age parties are still associated with an undefined idea of cleaner politics. “The issues they address are peripheral governance issues which lack staying power,” says Prabhakar.

Fortunately, the parties realise the need to remain relevant by being active between elections. Lok Satta has been taking up issues as varied as farmers’ problems, regularisation of unauthorised constructions and liquor sales, to name just a few. PPI has organised symposiums on topics ranging from police reforms to citizens’ indifference and model parliaments in schools. Bharat Punarnirman Dal (BPD) — a breakaway from Lok Paritran — organises events to sensitise people about their voting rights, has taken up the issue of anomalies in voters’ lists in Kanpur and Lucknow and started classrooms in a backward district of Dewaria in Uttar Pradesh. “You have to be in touch with the people constantly,” says Ajit Shukla, BPD’s founder-president.

That can be a bit of a challenge, given the lack of funds. A party needs a steady revenue stream to pay the salaries of its full-time staff, run an office and to fund activities. More is required for elections. Lok Satta and Jago Party are the only two new-age parties that are said to be financially strong with a significant corpus, though neither Narayan nor Mittal confirm this or offer details. Membership fees and donations are the main source of funds. Usually, the party relies on one or two individuals for the bulk of the money. Mittal, who has an automotive batteries manufacturing business, ensures that the party is never in the red, putting in money as and when necessary. “I decided that whatever I had saved in the past 30 years, I will spend on the party.” Corporate houses that fund established parties don’t write cheques for these parties. “One day when the party is well known, people will start contributing. I hope that day comes soon,” says Mittal.

Another weakness of these parties is that most of them revolve around the individual personalities of those who set them up, leading to ego clashes. Lok Paritran is said to have split because of this. BRSP is reported to have faltered because some office-bearers resented Khera’s high-profile image, while Lok Satta is said to be over-dependent on Narayan. That will be an issue when a party is in a nascent stage and leadership is scarce, with no one willing to come forward to take on the mantle, says Narayan. “The risks are too high, the pain is too great, the sacrifice is unbearable and success is uncertain.” He has given up leadership of the Andhra chapter of the party and elections are to be held for the post. “Over time leadership will evolve,” he says.

Even if all these issues are addressed, it will take at least a couple of decades for these parties to start scorching the political scene. But they are willing to wait. “To think that we can instantly make a difference in a complicated scenario would be foolish. If we can mobilise the educated and the aware classes, we will force mainstream parties to change their ways. If that happens, political transformation will take place,” says Narayan. BPD’s Shukla seconds that. Twenty years back, he points out, opposing reservations was a strict no-no. But that has changed with the newer parties actively campaigning against it. “Our value is to change the discourse and to force policy makers to accept that these are issues that need to be addressed,” he asserts.

It’s still going to be a long haul. “If you are not physically, financially, emotionally and morally strong, you have no business to be in politics,” says Khera.

Take heed, Team Kejriwal.