A former physician, IAS officer, political reformer and now politician, J P Narayan, the founder and the President of Lok Satta Party has managed to gather a huge following over the last two decades.
After serving two spells as collector of two districts in Andhra Pradesh and as secretary to former chief minister N T Rama Rao, J P Narayan resigned from civil service to start the Lok Satta movement in 1996, before turning it into a political party in 2006.
In an interview to The News Minute, he discusses his views on the two Telugu-speaking states, the health of India’s democracy and politics. Edited excerpts:
How do you think Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have fared after bifurcation?
Telangana has always been a resource-surplus state, thanks to Hyderabad. Though there were initial fears over the power situation and other issues, it has managed to sail through. While the state's bigger dream is reasonably sustainable, the lack of understanding on how to execute plans is disturbing.
The housing scheme for example, is not inclusive of the people it is meant for. If the government pumps the entire Rs 50,000 crore from the state exchequer into the scheme, there is bound to be some corruption at the lower end where contractors are involved. Instead of giving it away as a freebie, the government could fund a portion of the money, and make it a participatory scheme.
Andhra on the other hand, has more problems. For a state that is severely short on cash, large scale loan waivers, massive salary hikes to government employees and the absurd amount of money spent on the festivities for the capital, will drive it to bankruptcy.
The state government has to articulate the society it is creating, and try to improve the quality of its plans. Instead, its plans like Amaravati and Polavaram have just created a hype.
There are still entire districts in both states which lag behind in development. How do you think they can be uplifted?
I have always been a big fan of local governance. Give as much as possible to the local governments including panchayats, but make them accountable for it.
The states can give the funds that are assigned to them to the local government. This not only makes the people who feel short-changed more participatory. Even the state can be a little more at ease, as the local government is responsible and accountable for funds.
Local governance also may change the notion that "nothing happens in government offices."
Many political leaders have defected to the TRS in Telangana. The HC also ruled that it cannot intervene, as it was up to the Speaker. As someone who supported the anti-defection law, how do you feel it can be strengthened further?
If you are really serious about the law, give power to the Election Commission. The problem in India is that a legislator is like a pawn in the hands of the party's leadership.
Legislators should have a voice of their own, and have the courage to speak out, without fear of getting shunned or expelled from the party.
Secondly, the parties are willing to take anyone - even defectors, not considering if the legislator is actually sensible. They only see money, power and caste.
Andhra is facing a severe cash-crunch and lacks infrastructure. What are your views on granting 'special status' to Andhra?
There are many issues to be considered. My first problem is with the nomenclature itself. Whether the centre gives 'special status' or a 'special package', the ultimate goal is to ensure that the backward areas of the state witness development.
Statistics show that three north Andhra districts and four Rayalaseema districts were way more backward than the special category states in the country and we must give them financial aid and industrial tax incentives. As long as development happens, it doesn't matter what it’s called.
Naidu has made tall claims, but results on the ground are uncertain. You have criticized the landpooling method. Do you think Naidu's goals are unreal?
The land pooling method is a disaster waiting to happen. The scheme works for industries and urbanization, not for poor farmers. The main issue with Amaravati though, is the amount of land that has been acquired – 33,000 acres is a huge and unnecessary amount of land for a capital being built from scratch. Instead, take a much smaller area and regulate it by zoning.
When you lost the 2014 elections, you had said that you faced a very "hostile electoral system" where only one of the two leading contenders get the votes while other parties are sidelined. Why do you think this attitude prevails and what can be done about it?
That's a flaw in the electoral system itself - and it's not exclusive to India. In fact, we inherited it from Britain's influence. The third party is only viewed as another party that is only fit for a coalition.
It is a historical accident, but with our level of literacy and maturity today, it is surprising that we still let a bad system function as it is. The true purpose of a democracy is to help the brightest people rise and function, but our system has become inbred with money, power and pedigree.
Once elected, the system should at least allow the people to deliver, but we don't even let that happen. Criticism is necessary, but don't obstruct.
Do you think transparency and accountability among political parties has improved since you started the Lok Satta movement 19 years ago?
It has gotten worse in some ways and better in other ways. We have always pushed for political reform and played a role in making sure that candidates declare their assets, criminal records and their political funding. We also completely supported the RTI Act. But no matter what we do, the amount of things that are still left to be done is massive.
One negative change however, is that political culture has worsened in this country and a high degree of centralization means that some consequences are inevitable. All parties basically function the same way with petty corruption at the bottom and large scale corruption at the top. They pump in money during an election and try to recover it after.
The political system has no moral authority. We must decentralize power with accountability if we want to see some change. The system can't change overnight, but we must look at the larger picture, if we are to start these systemic changes.