If a banker can fight polls, why not civil servants too?

Meera H. Sanyal deserves acclaim for the courage she has shown in joining the Lok Sabha battle in Mumbai South. Whether or not she makes it is a different issue, but she has already managed to capture the nation's attention. She says she is frustrated with the state of the country's politics, with all-round hypocrisy and the lack of commitment towards the good of the nation. She laments the casual way in which serious problems are handled or simply cast aside by parliamentarians and politicians, and wants to bring a professional and managerial approach to dealing with these.

These words are like a breath of fresh air in our politics. Ms Sanyal has come a long way from the time this columnist first encountered her as a young bride and management graduate. She has risen high in her profession as a banker and is currently the country head of an international bank. She has also set a new precedent by applying for leave of absence from her job to enable her to contest the Lok Sabha elections. Her employers will hopefully give her leave with permission to return to her job if she does not succeed in the electoral battle; which itself will be a trendsetter: an example for other employers to follow.

Ms Sanyal marks a new phenomenon in our parliamentary democracy: the entry of a professional into electoral politics without abandoning a corporate career. That she is a woman makes it all the more remarkable.

Along with Ms Sanyal, we also have the example of dancer Mallika Sarabhai and budget airline pioneer Captain G.R. Gopinath. All three exemplify a new trend in electoral politics in India.

The question arises: Why are members of our civil services, possibly the biggest repository of professionals in our country, barred from entering politics while in service? At present, if they want to stand in an election, they can do so only after resigning from government service or do so after retirement. Why should India not follow the example of France, where civil service rules contain a provision under which a civil servant can take leave to stand in an election? (Much like what Ms Sanyal has done in the private sector.) If s/he wins, then s/he resigns from government service and opts for a political career. If s/he loses the election, s/he can return to the government job. India could well emulate this French practice. This will make our politics richer, and open up a new horizon for ambitious people in government service.

Ms Sanyal, meanwhile, has also shown a lot of innovativeness in her campaign. She has no cadre, not too many followers, and therefore no public meetings, no padyatras and not much wall-postering. She is relying on emails and SMSes to reach voters. Her constituency includes some of the country's poshest areas, so this could well be a workable proposition. But it is debatable if emails and SMSes can successfully replace more conventional methods of electioneering in this country, even in such areas. It might be interesting to check what percentage of Mumbai South's electorate are residents of its teeming skyscrapers, for whom the email/SMS campaign might well work, and what percentage are the domestic helps, petty shopkeepers and others in the area. Will the hi-tech campaign reach them too? And what percentage of the first category will actually make the effort to go to the polling booth on election day? Ms Sanyal might do well to reconsider her mode of campaign.

In this year's election, the names of some luminaries come automatically to mind: Sanjay Dutt, Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, Pappu Yadav... All of them are technically involved in criminal cases. The law on this point is well-established. Mere prosecution in a criminal case does not debar a candidate from filing his/her nomination. But conviction by a court of law and a prison sentence of two years or more automatically debars a person from becoming a candidate, irrespective of whether s/he has appealed to a higher court. The party which had proposed Mr Dutt's name for Lucknow should have been well aware of this, and not have subjected him to the kind of embarrassment he faced after the Supreme Court rejected his candidature. About Mr Tytler and Mr Sajjan Kumar, it is interesting to note there was no major outcry when their names were first announced, both being sitting MPs. It was only after the CBI recommended quashing of the FIR against Mr Tytler that there was an uproar in Delhi and Punjab, followed by the shoe-throwing incident involving P. Chidambaram. Why did the CBI recommend to the court that the FIR be quashed just after Mr Tytler's candidature was announced? It could just as easily have waited till after the elections. This is giving rise to a lot of speculation, and an inquiry into the CBI's conduct would not be out of order. In any case, after the outcry by Sikhs, the Congress took the only sensible decision it could by withdrawing the candidature of both Mr Tytler and Mr Sajjan Kumar, who was also made to pay a price despite his 2004 election victory, for alleged involvement in the anti-Sikh violence in 1984. The lesson for all political parties is clear: avoid those who are convicts, and others involved in criminal cases or those who are "history-sheeters" while selecting candidates. This will go a long way in cleansing our public life.

That brings us back to Ms Sanyal, Capt. Gopinath and perhaps also Ms Sarabhai, all of whom are braving the political waters without the help of any party. Mumbai South has a long tradition of rejecting outstanding Independent candidates - names like V.K. Krishna Menon, Gen. K.M. Cariappa and Naval Tata come to mind. If Ms Sanyal's high-profile campaigners can carry her message beyond the elite, she might well be able to save her deposit. But she, as well as Ms Sarabhai and the others, should remember that in elections, winning is everything. Merely being part of the contest is of little value, and ends up being wasted labour. If they are serious about effecting change, the best way would be to enlist the support of a political party. For parties too, which rely on the children and associates of politicians, Ms Sanyal and her ilk could be the source of much-needed fresh blood.

Nitish Sengupta, an academic and an author, is a former Member of Parliament and a former secretary to the Government of India

Nitish Sengupta


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