Wanted: An Indian “Yes We Can”

A couple of weeks after the Mumbai attacks, India and Indians are still fuming. There is this great stirring to action, particularly among the young and the educated, who want to see some change. All this is good, but the big question is how do you take all this energy, this dissatisfaction with the status quo, and convert into constructive action?

The recent US elections had some similar contextual elements to it. A general dissatisfaction with the way the country was being run and a section of the electorate – again, the young and college educated – who were highly motivated to do something about it. But that’s where the similarities with India end. In the US they had in Barack Obama, a leader that they could rally around, who represented that hope for change. In India there is no such leader. Most of the ideas for action that one hears today from the intelligentsia are policy related, rather than politics related. And that is a problem. Real change can’t take place unless governance changes.

The educated, discerning voter in India today is in general, alienated from politics. Indian politics, in their minds, is corrupt and dirty. Not something that honest, good people can survive in. There is no leader that is both clean and inspiring. Indian elections are decided by vested interests and caste politics. Someone who promises hard work and clean politics is not going to get elected.

The root cause of this alienation is that Indian elections are decided by “low information voters” who form a very high percentage of the electorate. But many people thought that the same was true about the US too. An ex-employee of ours in California, who is American, has a PhD, has spent most of her life in a liberal state like California, and is liberal herself, said that neither Obama nor Clinton could ever be elected President, because, regardless of what the polls said, when it came time to press the button in the voting booth, they wouldn’t vote for a woman or a black man. But they did. And that too in decisive victories in largely rural states like Pennsylvania.

How did Obama make that happen? Not just by carrying the black, and the young college educated voters. But by galvanizing a vast volunteer base that became a force multiplier. This volunteer base contributed to his campaign with money, but most importantly with their time. They went to phone banks and called undecided voters to explain Obama’s positions. They never tired of talking to their friends about why Obama was the right choice. And calling in to radio talk shows on politics. And of course the bumper stickers. If each one of them got two others to change their vote, that would have been enough to ensure victory.

In India we need our own political revolution. This has to be led by educated voters who are more discerning, wherever they are. They need to roll up their trousers (or sarees) and wade into the murky waters of Indian politics. They don’t have to become politicians but they must become more engaged. Politics is a contact sport. You can’t bring about change by shouting advice from the stands.

They’ll support the right candidates and the right parties because they have the right qualifications and policy positions. They will advocate the right causes. And use their powers of persuasion with their family and friends. They will talk about local politics, not just national politics because you can’t blame the Prime Minister for the state of the road in front of your house. And they will write letters to the editor and call in to radio shows and TV shows and make a general nuisance of themselves when they are not happy. They will become activist voters.

And some of them will actually go into politics. A friend of mine recently left a successful career in the US and returned to India with the aim of joining politics. I have many friends from college who could have had bright careers in the private sector but chose to go into public service (civil services). Politics today isn’t considered public service. But it should. It will. I have great hope.

Photo by Elika and Shannon


  1. ayyappa says:

    I think what is needed is someone who can bring this together and push people out of their inertia of inaction to get involved. Hope that happens sooner than later – otherwise our folks have shorter memories, a capability to tolerate or suffer without complaining and they will go back to the helplessness and inaction, thinking that nothing will change anyway.

    I suppose a lot are thinking in similar lines (http://nostalgica.blogspot.com/2008_11_01_archive.html#8091548342082818757)


  2. Amit says:

    I was an Infoscion, a proud one and have been reading all your blogs with a lot of interest. I do agree to all that you have mentioned in your blog but don’t you think its now time to take some steps and blogs alone are not going to be sufficient?

    Do you think you or we can trigger a movement?


  3. Satya says:

    What is your solution Basab? At the risk of sounding harsh, you also sound and write so as to be politically correct. Sorry for the strong words.

    If you say we need to be involved in politics and get our hands dirty in it, can you imagine how long it is going to take? The young generation born in seventies and eighties still consider politics in India to very very dirty and completely being abused. The solution you have proposed will take minimum 30 years to complete.

    India today stands at an inflection point. Either (1) we continue voting the way we are doing, (2) ask for reform in legislation/constitution or (3) ask completely new leaders to lead/inspire the nation.

    1st one (maintain status quo): Not a single political leader in India today has a clean image, I repeat – not even a single one. All have miserably failed us. And they will continue to abuse the power.

    2nd one (reform): Ask for minimum qualification, have record in defending the country, have made significant improvement in the life of Indians in whatever way etc. But that will take again a lot of time. And with the current crop of political parties (all of them are hell bent on dividing the nation on either caste or religion or region or language etc), it is still a pipedream.

    3rd one: Completely new generation of leaders. And I’ll stand for the 3rd one. After all, we are in a democracy, not “demon-o-crazy”.

    For that, my choices will be:

    1. Ratan Tata

    2. N.R.N Murthy

    3. K.M Birla

    There are many more. But the above three are in a band completely of their own and commands huge respect. I had great faith on Manmohan Singh, whose contribution to Indian economy is immense, but toughness is an issue.

    Today’s India needs a leader of clear/bold vision with an iron hand to execute. If anyone of the above stands up and float any party (yes, entirely new political party), I am with them in heart and spirit – if needed, to contribute and campaign. And I bet, millions of Indians will do the same also.

    But the question is will they accept? NRN has time and again have said no as he knows how many problems get created by political leaders on narrow and useless grounds. I am not sure of Ratan Tata and K.M. Birla though.


  4. Basab says:


    We cannot get the leaders we want until we actively participate in the political process. This is true anywhere but especially true in India with its Parliamentary democracy. For a respected civic or business leader to enter politics and succeed has a very high entry barrier. Because he cannot lead the country by just getting elected as an MP. He must form a party and get a majority. If he chooses to join one of the existing parties, he either won’t survive or will have to greatly compromise his values.

    The post-attacks zeitgeist in India seems to have this anger mixed with helplessness. There are a lot of constructive suggestions, a lot of ideas etc. etc. Some people will do that – they will protest, wear black bands, raise awareness – and that is important. But that is not enough to bring about change. Governance is changed through exercising the citizens’ power of vote. And because of the situation India is in now, where low information voters decide elections, it is necessary for the educated Indians to be far more politically active. Not by withdrawing from it like some are suggesting using the 49-O clause in the election rules.


  5. Basab says:


    Start a movement, or join one. But my point is that too many of us have abandoned the political process because we don’t like what we see. Instead of waiting for the ideal party or the ideal leader, can we start working to elect the better candidate or the better party? And that means not just voting, but also going out to canvass for them.


  6. Satya says:


    I do agree with your points on Parliamentary democracy and the high entry level barrier. Your solution might be the actual course as well. But then, if that happens it will be the “Hindu rate of reform” and in this lifetime, I do not have hope to see a change. (=next 30/40 years)

    Rather, I believe, if we can bring an economist as PM, many times multiple prime ministers for 1yr (sometimes even for 13/14 days), then can our leaders from the ruling party and the main opposition party be selfless enough to request the right person to lead this country?

    The president of the ruling party has already left the post of PM once and the opposition party leader knows that he is at fag end of his life itself (not career). Question is: can they make a decision to bring a better prime ministerial candidate to change the course of the nation and let him select his team?

    To see substantial change, we need a movement in that direction. I know it is pretty unlikely, but unfortunately that is what we need now, otherwise this nation is going towards civil war between states, attacks, blasts, apathy along with some reforms, progress which will take decades to see the light. It is like one step forward with two steps backward and vice versa, which gives an illusion of progress.


  7. Krishna says:

    Can we say we haven’t changed? We sure have. At least in terms of the rate of absorbing change that happens elsewhere so long as it’s utilitarian, affordable and not con. Cell phone adoption is a good example. Indians are tough and demanding customers to sell anything to, including politics. But that’s the seller’s fault. So go sell “change” to Indians, the way they’d like it. If the “Obama way” worked in. Go figure!

    Thanks Basab. It was a really balanced post – unlike the normal NRI stereotype India bashing that begins one hour after she lands in America 🙂


  8. Krishna says:

    The following sentence got truncated in my comment. Please allow me to resubmit –

    “If the *Obama way* worked in the US, it could be that or something else for India. Go figure!”

    Sorry for the snafu. Thanks.


  9. Pranav says:

    Basab – I totally agree with your views. However, I am thinking slightly more radically, and feel that what India needs is a dictatorship. We need consistency and practicality at all levels of government.

    Consistency, to ensure that the balance of power does not shift every couple of years, and to ensure that leaders do not adopt populist measures to please their vote bank. Practicality, to guarantee that leaders are not afraid to make tough decisions in the face of adversity.

    In my view, this can only be achieved by a dictatorship.


  10. charakan says:

    Why such negative view about India and its Politicians? Among the third world countries we are the shining example of democracy.Our Constituion is one of the best and the elections are becoming more and more fairer.Electrorate are maturing well throwing out non performing Governments.
    Why low-information voters? Because of poverty kids cant study. So aim for improving literacy,then electrote will become more mature.
    Industrialists have proved themselves to be good in their field.Let them be there.Being a good and winning politician is much more difficult than being a CEO.


  11. Shefaly says:


    The change at the voting booth is probably already in the making. The voter turnout has been in the high 60s in percent terms. Which is great news. I do regret the alarming pace at which the 49-O was promoted to people, without always explanations/ caveats about the system of electing representatives.

    What you say about engaging in the political process is spot on. And this time, more than any other time, I have seen people willing to volunteer time to advance causes which may have the most impact. Some of us were already working on specific things but now the effort is being concerted, and united. More collective and collaborative consciousness than individual pursuits.

    I think these two developments together will address multiple facets of the problem.

    Sad as it has been, I have also never been more hopeful. The Indian ‘Yes We Can’ Are Us. 🙂


  12. Arby K says:

    @ Basab : I agree that India has a high entry barrier for entering politics, which is why we need to get rid of it. I do not suggest a dictatorship like If India is a Presidential democracy, the chances of someone with national relevance can actually come up in the system. The ppl r empowered to elect their leader and there can more effective governance and accountability.


  13. Arby K says:

    @ Basab : I agree that India has a high entry barrier for entering politics, which is why we need to get rid of it. I do not suggest a dictatorship like Pranav earlier, but still radical. If India is a Presidential democracy, the chances of someone with national relevance can actually come up in the system. The ppl r empowered to elect their leader and there can more effective governance and accountability. All that is needed is public support


  14. Basab says:


    That is an interesting thought. A Presidential election allows an untainted outsider to be elected directly by the people. But unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. A Presidential system will need to have a division of power between the executive (President) and the legislature (Parliament) which could make the President very ineffective. On the other hand, if a lion’s share of the power is handed to the President, we would be at risk of creating a dictator.

    I personally do not think our governance is poor because of the Parliamentary system. It is many other things, not that.


  15. Arby K says:

    @ Basab : Actually, the division of power is one thing that I consider as a positive. Because, in a Parliamentary democracy, there is no effective opposition to the bills presented by the executive. The executive gets a free hand. I am just suggesting the executive as it stands, be taken out of the legislature, and be elected by the people directly. So, there aren’t any chances of dictatorship any more than Parliamentary democracy.
    If the executive is capable, the legislature may stand along with them. And this to me is the only way for political newcomer to get into power, because of the entry barrier.
    I am not blaming the Parliamentary system for the current situation. But, I am saying it could be corrected by a Presidential system.
    PS : Sorry abt the double comment earlier


  16. I recently wrote a couple of articles in a similar vein.

    Uniting voices: http://mssnlayam.livejournal.com/16596.html
    and http://mssnlayam.livejournal.com/15177.html.

    I’d like you know your thoughts.


  17. ray says:


    I was reading ur blog posts and found some of them to be very good.. u write well.. Why don’t you popularize it more.. ur posts on ur blog ‘6 am pacific’ took my particular attention as some of them are interesting topics of mine too;

    BTW I help out some ex-IIMA guys who with another batch mate run http://www.rambhai.com where you can post links to your most loved blog-posts. Rambhai was the chaiwala at IIMA and it is a site where users can themselves share links to blog posts etc and other can find and vote on them. The best make it to the homepage!

    This way you can reach out to rambhai readers some of whom could become your ardent fans.. who knows.. 🙂



  18. Rahul says:

    Hi Basab, I am an Infoscion and costantly follow your blog .On the political process one things i wished could change ,most of which sounds like fantasy from a futuristic scifi movie on India :-
    1. Creation of voter database that could have a way for indians all over the world to authenticate themselves and then vote . The channels of voting should be internet/phone/Physical Ballot/mail/etc .Most of us dont vote becuase of the incovnience of voting .

    but then offcourse like every Indians wish it is another wish 😦 …



  19. Bharat Rao says:

    Basab – no doubt millions of us Indians echo your position. But extending your argument further, I would like to see the administrative services opened up to lateral entry. We have a few technocrats entering politics, but I doubt that we have bureaucrats with previous private sector experience. I am sure there will be people who will be willing to go to the villages and bring operational excellence at the grassroots level. Not saying that IAS is deficient, but surely, say, 15 years of private experience will bring a different perspective.

    Also, let us remember that the year was 1984. A young, educated prime minister took over amid a wave of enthusiasm, sympathy, goodwill and optimism in India. He also had a thumping parliamentary majority (close to 80%) and could have gotten anything done. Not a whole lot happened, however.

    The most common sensical (and terribly long overdue) large-scale project in India in recent memory – the highway building dubbed the “golden-quadrilateral” was launched by an “old” prime minister who headed a shaky coalition. If only this had been launched in 1984!


  20. Basab says:


    I agree with you. There are many reasons why a bureaucracy that takes in experienced people from the outside is healthy.


    ID cards, whether voter ID or any other form of it, are almost necessary to provide security.


  21. RD says:

    One should start from smaller things like what the tax payers and big corporates should roll their sleeves up and initiating it.

    Once the momentum is caught, it will take care of itself.

    People should initiate. If Dhirubhai takes initiative and he could provide one computer to each police station in both the Mumbai districts.

    One of our team member has written in similar thoughts here in our magazine.


    Cheers and happy new year..


  22. Hasnain says:

    Let’s make a difference from what we do at new year eve and new year day.

    Here are 3 things to do at the start of a new year:
    1. Make resolutions and forget them after a month.
    2. Send greetings over e-mail
    3. Send greeting cards that run down acres of forests.
    Instead, consider doing 3 simple things that we can do to benefit ourselves and others. Read this post on my blog: http://www.hasnainzaheer.com/2008/12/2009-is-this-the-year-of-opportunities-and-turnarounds-happy-new-year/


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