Saturday, November 05, 2005

Ask not what your country...

Bihar, to most of us, serves as a glaring illustration of exactly what is wrong with India. Even more so, at election time.

But can we, the urban 'elite', DO something about it? The answer is - it's never easy, but you can make a difference.

This piece I wrote on ADR (Association for Democratic Reform) shows you what kind of commitment and perseverance it takes. But, pay-offs do come.

And yes, it is a matter of great pride that the founding trustees of ADR were professors and alumni of my own alma mater IIM Ahmedabad.

A few good men
B-schools are not known for people fighting to clean up politics. But some do
published Businessworld, dt Nov 7

The political and commercial morals of the US are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet, commented the inimitable Mark Twain. That being the case, the state of Bihar - as it goes to the polls - would certainly qualify as a public orgy. Affidavits filed with the Election Commission in October 2005 reveal that one in three candidates fielded by major political parties have chargesheets pending against them.

But there's a story behind the statistics. A story of how a few good men can take on a mighty messed-up system, and make a difference.

The story begins in August 1999, when a group of intellectuals got off their armchairs and formed the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) in Ahmedabad. The 11 founding members included eight professors of the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A), two IIM-A alumni and a professor from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

The challenge before them: to make the voting public think, and thinking people vote.

ADR decided to start by addressing an issue, which almost inevitably cropped up in the post-prandial conversations on problems facing India: the criminalisation of politics. Public interest litigation (PIL) was the chosen route.

In December 1999, Kamini Jaiswal filed a PIL on behalf of ADR in the Delhi High Court, seeking disclosure on criminal charges faced by candidates, as well as their financial and educational history. The PIL was upheld, but the Congress, Samata Party and the Union of India appealed against the judgement.

In May 2002, the Supreme Court again upheld the PIL and on 28 June 2002, the Election Commission issued a directive implementing the judgement. With remarkable alacrity, 21 political parties met on 8 July 2002 and unanimously 'rejected' the court orders. They decided to pass an ordinance to circumvent the judgement.

Founder-trustee and IIM-A 1984 alumnus Ajit Ranade recalls the tensions prevailing at the time: "A group of us met President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and explained the situation to him. Kalam returned the ordinance but the Cabinet sent it back unchanged. He had no choice but to sign it the second time."

ADR and several other organisations moved court once again. In March 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in their favour, linking its judgement to the citizens' 'fundamental right to know'.

It was a well-earned victory, but even before the formal judgement came in, ADR had initiated its first ever 'election watch'. The battleground: the post-Godhra Gujarat elections of September to December 2002. ADR issued 40 advertisements appealing to the public for information and collected over 1,000 affidavits filed by candidates.

Names of 138 candidates with criminal records were released and widely reported in the print and electronic media as well as disseminated to political parties, bureaucrats and NGOs.

The 'election watch' movement has now spread across the country. In every state, ADR ties up with local NGOs and citizens' groups to help in collecting, compiling and disseminating information among public.

In Mumbai, ADR worked closely with AGNI; in Bihar it is collaborating with Lok Samvad, a network of NGOs it has identified and trained. Says Bibhu Mohapatra, ADR's full-time co-ordinator: "The affidavits are written in a language that is gobbledegook to the lay person." ADR's task is to simplify the data and amplify it through the media so that voters can make more informed choices.

Of course, critics argue, many candidates file false or incomplete affidavits. Mere criminality is not a ground for disqualification of candidates and, sadly, criminals often romp home victorious anyway. Counters Trilochan Sastry, a founding member of ADR and now a professor at IIM, Bangalore: "But there are many early signs of change." For example, MPs are paying up their electricity and telephone bills as liabilities must be disclosed.

Founder-trustee and IIM-A professor Jagdeep Chhokar believes the idea is to build up pressure on parties themselves to field cleaner candidates and the indication is that "it's happening". Rome wasn't rebuilt in a day, and one thing ADR is not short on is patience.

Fighting long drawn-out court battles, travelling through cities like Bhagalpur and Begusarai and taking on the establishment are not the general domain of IIM professors or alumni. Thinking 'out of the box' is an old management dictum. In this case, the pandora's box that is Indian democracy has actually been opened.

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  1. Have to agree that the congress is one bunch of corrupt idiots who have no sense of running the country....or else they would have been ruling Bihar by for the petitions started by the ADR...its a good thing...a big thumbs up from me.

  2. God ! Give me some courage !

  3. Anonymous2:38 PM

    Really inspiring to read some of the so-called 'thinking class' actually doing something concrete. I think its high time the educated classes stood up and fought for their country instead of the current apathetic attitude on display for generations. The workers will work, the educated classes will pay taxes and the politicians will stay corrupt... too long this has been accepted with the convinient excuse of 'what can a single person do'.
    Rashmi is there some way in which i as an individual can contribute to this cause?
    It would be great to actually contribute than be a by-stander all the while!!!

  4. Good to see the topic of Bihar mentioned here. There are indeed many organizations who are working selflessly but are very much publicity shy. One such loose group can be read about at

  5. Yes, Rashmi, thanks for reminding us here that we too are supposed to belong to the thinking elite and thus, we too might be in some way linked to the ADR. This story was mighty inspiring. Will look forward to more of the same.


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