'AAP has brought about a paradigm change in Indian politics'
Banker-turned-politician Meera Sanyal on why she joined politics, her plans for South Mumbai, women’s empowerment and the promise of the Aam Aadmi Party.
Meera Sanyal, the former head of Royal Bank of Scotland, has been with the banking sector for over three decades.
In 2009, she decided to move to politics and contested the Lok Sabha elections from the Mumbai South seat as an independent candidate but did not do too well. Not the one to give up, she is back in the fray as the Aam Aadmi Party candidate from her old seat again and having a re-match with Milind Deora, the two-term sitting Congress MP from the seat.
Sanyal spoke with rediff.com’s Upasna Pandey. She says that every constituency in the 2014 election is going to be a tough fight. She shares her plans for South Mumbai and her experience of working with women solo-entrepreneurs or solopreneur. She says that“women don’t need charity, handouts or reservations and we can succeed on merit if we are provided the opportunity.”
Why did you chose the AAP and to contest from South Mumbai for the second time? How do you think things are different this time?
I’ve been associated with policy matters for much of my life. Though I was a banker, I worked on white papers with the government, the Planning Commission, and the Reserve Bank of India. That’s a part of my life I enjoyed a lot.
But after the 26/11 attacks (in Mumbai), I felt like a lot of us spent time criticising what was happening, analysing what was happening. We are great armchair critics. I just felt that, at least for me, the time had come to stop talking and criticising, and do something. So I stood in 2009 elections, and it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I lost but I gained a lot. I learnt a lot. And at the time I knew that this is something I would want to do for the rest of my life.
What are your focus issues/promises for South Mumbai?
I would say, of the top three for me, the first is affordable housing -- starting from the poorest to the middle-class. The builders’ lobbies and the cartels, just the stories make my ears burn to know about the violations that are taking place. It’s extraordinary.
I think Mumbai is very lucky to have a very efficient suburban rail network, about 8-9 million people travel on the rail network every day but around 5,000 people die every year on the trains. So, we need to invest in the public transport system.
I also want to focus on open spaces, public spaces, the parks, playgrounds. Mumbai has the smallest percentage of open spaces of any city, certainly in India, and one of the lowest in the world. We need to address that, and we particularly need to address it now because once again, the same builders’ lobbies and the political nexus have got their eye on every little playground space and want to appropriate it.
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Image: Meera Sanyal, Aam Aadmi Party candidate from Mumbai South seat
Photographs: Courtesy AAP facebook
'We need leaders who stand to serve, not to rule'
You have been doing ‘swaraj baithaks’ and preparing database of issues, what do you plan to do?
This is not a campaign about class-warfare but what matters is that the citizens in India face a common problem: corruption and a lack of governance. This is making life very difficult, and we need leaders who stand to serve, not to rule. The AAP reflects this kind of leadership.
I feel politics in India has become very personal, very vicious, and very polarised. I think we have to come back to the point where we can have a civilised discourse on what we agree and what we disagree, and we can agree to disagree. I stand for a positive agenda. In this way, the AAP or Kejriwal concept of swaraj is a very good one and it cuts across the class-divide.
And this is a secular trend across the world. People are looking for what we call good governance, and they are also looking for empowerment. You get very frustrated by seeing someone very far decide your budget, decide how much should be spent on a nana-nani park, or on a municipal school. You’re seeing the deliverables not coming.
Bad governance comes from this distance where one set doesn’t know what the other set means, and from the leakages that are taking place right through. So what swaraj talks about is empowered local self- governance, and this is actually enshrined in our Constitution in the 73rd and 74th amendment. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been implemented anywhere.
So what I’m doing in my constituency is two things -- we’re having safai yatras (cleanliness movements) and swaraj baithaks. In a safai yatra, we jump onto a train, we go to every train station and we clean it. We walk through the constituency and we actually sweep as we go along. We are connecting with the people and putting into practice that we’re here to clean up the system. People have ideas. The solutions to most of our problems are local. The real aim, “hamara sachcha lakshya swaraj hai” (is self-governance).
Then, you will see local leaders arising. Not politicians, but true leaders, people who I hope will stand as corporators, people who will stand in the Vidhan Sabha.
Leaders such as Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal or Rahul Gandhi have been campaigning for some candidates, how much do you think this works for any candidate's winning prospects?
This is a campaign about problems that affect all of us and cuts across caste, class, religion and language divide. The problems are corruption and poor governance. Though many of us feel that India is at a tipping point and up until now we also believed there was little to choose from in the current political establishment. When I stood for elections in 2009, many friends in corporate India shared that they would also like to enter public service/politics but felt it was too "dirty".
AAP offers an alternative -- a way to serve our country with integrity, ideals and intellect, and therefore it is attracting good people into politics. We offer a real alternative -- I am therefore confident that many who have not voted in the past will now do so.
Who do you consider as your closest opponent and why?
I say to the voters that look at the other choices you have and then decide. In South Mumbai, the Congress candidate has been MP for 10 years, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena candidate has been MLA for 5 years in his current party and for more years in his previous party, and the Shiv Sena candidate's party has run the municipal corporation in Mumbai for several years.
If you are happy with the state of our city and our country please vote for them. But if you feel we need a change, then give AAP and, in South Mumbai, me, a chance.
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Image: Medha Patkar at a rally in Kannamwar Nagar in suburban Vikhroli. Also seen are Arvind Kejriwal and, extreme right, Meera Sanyal, the AAP candidate from Mumbai South.
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
'Women don't need charity, handouts or reservations'
What are your plans for women empowerment if you get elected?
In my work with micro-finance and self-help groups across the country, I have found that women have a natural knack for starting and running businesses. They understand numbers, can multi-task and they always make the most efficient use of limited resources. Converting cow-dung into vermicompost, rice-husk into mushrooms, barren landscape into mango orchards -- the stories of these wonderful women are like a string of pearls. In their hands, India is safe and our future, assured. They are the solopreneurs (solo-entrepreneurs) who can double India’s GDP growth if we harness their full potential.
When a woman is financially empowered and generating income, life in her family dramatically improves. Many of the women solopreneurs I have worked with have travelled across the country to share their leanings of setting up their own small businesses. The self-confidence of these women is wonderful to see, as is the respect they receive from their families and their local communities.
I believe it is also critical that women are part of the political structure from the grassroots-up. In my travels I have found that wherever women participate in local political self-governance such as gram sabhas or mohalla sabhas -- all metrics are better. What is very interesting is that empowerment can start from any part of this troika. If she is economically empowered, social and political empowerment follow naturally, but equally if she is politically empowered, a woman makes sure that other women have access to equal opportunities in the economic and social space.
I would like to share some practical steps for improving the safety and empowerment of women: Educate for equality: In our homes, our schools, and through media, films, SMS, radio and TV, as well as social media to transform mindsets. Let’s treat women as equals and say no to violence and mistreatment of women.
Make laws count: Let’s pass laws to secure equal pay for equal work in all sectors, and ensure non-discrimination in employment. Let’s support the amendment of provisions in existing laws that perpetuate violence against women such as removing the marital rape exception. Let’s ensure that women achieve equal property rights in natal families and fair shares through marriage.
Provide political opportunities to women: Every political party should ensure that women are given a fair representation, both as candidates and within the party organisation.
Police for the people: We must implement police reforms and ensure that police personnel are sensitised to deal with crimes against women and establish and enforce a response protocol for crimes against women.
Swift, certain justice: We must work with state governments to establish responsive and fair fast track courts for crimes of violence against women.
Support to survivors: We must provide comprehensive services to women who are victims of violent crimes, helping them to fund and set up one-stop, 24-hour crisis centres and shelters in each police district.
I believe women don’t need charity, handouts or reservations. We can succeed on merit if we are provided the opportunity. I am delighted to be part of a party that offers women an equal opportunity to participate I the change that is taking place in our country.
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Image: 'When a woman is financially empowered and generating income, life in her family dramatically improves,' says Meera Sanyal
Photographs: Courtesy AAP Facebook page
'AAP has forced established parties to re-evaluate their own strategies'
How do you view AAP government's performance in Delhi and particularly vis a vis women safety in Delhi?
The AAP manifesto speaks of creating a level playing field for women in India so we provide them the means to feel safe, confident and empowered. We must focus on the issue of safety, within our homes and also in public spaces, both in rural and urban India.
Do you see AAP playing a role in forming the next government at the centre, if yes, how do you view your party forming an alliance with other parties?
Every constituency in the 2014 election is going to be a tough fight. I expect Mumbai South to be no different. However AAP is strongly positioned. What is most impressive is that the AAP campaign has been powered by volunteers not by cash. Thousands of people gathered during the Delhi 2013 election volunteering their time and skills. Irrespective of the outcome of the election, AAP has brought about a paradigm change in Indian politics.
We have altered the perception of “winnability” forcing the established parties to re-evaluate their own strategies. And we have also shown that Indian voter is not apathetic -- when provided with a good alternative, voter turnouts increase dramatically.
Image: An AAP election rally in Delhi
Photographs: Courtesy AAP Facebook page