Last month, I mentioned that I was going to check out one of the few systemically hopeful signs that I can see for India: the Adarsh Rashtra Vikas Party (ARVP).
In Lucknow, off a side road, next to a “marriage lawn”, I arrived at a typical Indian building: run-down though it can’t have been very old.
I found the entrance draped with a temporary banner proclaiming in Hindi the equivalent of “Not to rule, but to serve”.
Such a sentiment emblazoned on the masthead (so to speak) of an Indian political party, raises in an Indian either a skeptical guffaw or a moment of epiphany.
In my case, I confess, it was a mixture. I wanted it to be an epiphany, and I wasn’t sure how skeptical I should be. I decided that all I could do was to keep an open mind.
I was slightly late, as my train had been delayed. The meeting had started with lunch and it was now a short while after proceedings should have started.
Discovering that the ground floor is used as a dormitory and that the meetings are held on the first floor, I trudged up the stairs – the building has no elevator. The entrance area was relatively clean and well maintained, at least for an Indian structure. Coming on to the first floor, I found in front of me over a hundred people (the exact head count, I was told later, was 120) in small groups, seated Indian fashion on a carpet on the floor, in intense discussion.
Mr Mohan Philip, the President of the Party, came to greet me, and walked around to the back of the hall with me, inviting me to take a seat on one of the chairs that were lined up at the back for observers, guests, and so on. Apparently, there are enough chairs to seat all the participants, and they bring the chairs in for speeches, but the room is too small to have chairs if they wish to have small group discussions, so they take the chairs out for those.
Mr Mohan explained to me that the ethical training programme takes place every month, and all the leaders are expected to spend their own money to come. The Party has provided at least some minimal training to some 3000 people. Giving me a copy of the programme for that day as well as the next, he showed me what was in progress.
Soon, it was time for that group discussion to close. Mr Mohan went forward, took the mike and said in his soft voice “Shaant ho jaayen” (“let’s bring the discussion to a close”) a couple of times, and the discussion swiftly stopped. Then he asked the participants to sit in lines, and they did so comfortably but quickly. I was impressed. In most Indian gatherings, few people respond to any instructions ….
I was also astonished to see how punctually everything ran, in spite of the fact that most of the time was spent in small group discussions. All the speeches too, though they all seemed spontaneous, were delivered with a sense of time – again, astonishing in an Indian context.
The training uses stories (excellent for grassroots people) which pose ethical dilemmas and have questions for group discussion. The stories seemed quite realistic to me – and, I suppose, to the participants, or they would not keep coming month after month at their own expense. However, the ethical dimension is not confined simply to the “story-discussion”, which actually took up only one session. Rather, the ethical dimension imbues all aspects of the event, as the Party seems to want to structure that into its very DNA.
I later asked how leaders are chosen. Mr Mohan drew my attention to a large poster-type display in the front of the hall, and explained that the Party worked systematically through all the administrative districts of the State of Uttar Pradesh, visiting key officials and community leaders in order to identify people who had a reputation for ethics and social responsibility. They approached these people to challenge them to join the Party on the basis that if good people do nothing, then the less good will end up dominating the political process, and that all the good that NGOs and civil society organisations may do is as nothing compared to the power and reach of government for good as well as for ill.
Everyone who joins (as well as observers and guests) are taken through the Party’s strategy - which is to reject the use of the four bases on which politics is at present conducted in the country (money, muscle, religion and caste) and to stand instead for a secular, anti-caste and clean government, working on the basis of financial transparency, and the good of the people.
At the next elections (in 2012), the Party intends to field candidates for 160 or more seats, and to appeal to the electorate on the basis of the Party’s track record of relationship-building and service to the community.
Each leader is asked to identify 10 men, 10 women, 10 young people, and 10 people with an ethical reputation in each village in “their” territory, and to visit these individuals in order to explain the Party’s vision and strategy, and to invite them to join the Party. The membership fee of Rs 2 a month is so low as to be laughable. Mr Mohan explains that it is set low so as to be affordable even by the poorest in the country - and the fee is meant to be only a token of the commitment. Each month, the leader visits these members in order to collect the membership fee, to communicate new developments, and to explain and encourage the implementation of the Local Self-Government System (“panchayat” system) which has been subverted and “captured” by unethical people in most parts of the State. Local members of the Party work to improve the functioning of the Panchayat System and to make the Party better known, using the 40 members in each village as the core. The membership fees that are collected are properly receipted and used to defray expenses for activities approved by the local membership. Mr Mohan explained that it was not normal for people at this level to keep accounts, and to be accountable for the use of money, and that this is part of the training that is essential to inculcating the right habits in the Party.
At the monthly meetings, all the local leaders report to the next level's leaders what activities they have organized during the last month, show the receipt books and account books, and share what issues they have discovered or they are facing in “their” area. This is then consolidated and reported up, till the top group has a monthly face-to-face report and discussion with Mr Mohan. I was interested to see that, at each level, the “reportees” were challenged if their books were not properly maintained, or showed evidence of the work not being done properly. Laggards were introduced to best-practice leaders, if necessary from other groups within the Party, so that performance could improve. The Party appears to be trying to create a culture of performance that is entirely alien to every other Party that I am aware of in our country.
It was also interesting to note the sense of urgency that the Party is inculcating. Right in front, on a board was the number 375 written in large letters. That’s how many days are left to the next State elections… On the 2nd day of the training, the number was adjusted to 374, with a powerful emotional appeal to the participants, reminding them that if they did not work hard enough to succeed in the next election, the State would continue to go down the wrong path for another five years, damaging even further the health and prospects of their family and neighbours.
The Party’s openness to outsiders is fascinating. Everyone who is new to the gathering is asked to introduce themselves. I (a non-member) was asked to share a bit about myself. My nephew, who happened to be there along with a family friend only to see me, was asked to read an inspiring poem that the family friend took the occasion to show Mr Mohan. Outside speakers, well known for having paid a cost for ethical actions, are invited to share their experience, even if they are determined not to be supporters of the Party. For example, on the second day, a top executive of one of India’s largest companies, having explained that the company never supports any political party, presented the company’s position, structure and activities in the field of ethics as a demonstration of the fact that no individual or business is forced to pay bribes and that it is perfectly possible to be successful and honest, provided one is prepared to be patient.
Party members were thus encouraged in their quest for ethics and justice. People who have retired from senior levels in the administration, law, police and the professions, are also invited to share their experiences and wisdom, even though they too may never become members or support the Party in any other way.
I can’t pretend that everything went well or that there are no deficiencies in the Party. I happened to speak to a Deputy Superintendent of Police in the city, and he had no idea that the Party existed. Not surprising, given that the Party’s real base is in the rural areas at least at present. And the Party does not even have a proper website. Nor does it have anyone able to issue Press Releases, so it can’t communicate its existence via the print and broadcast media either. At one point, the programme had a film, but the technology did not co-operate, even though everything had been “checked twice”, and everyone ended up wasting perhaps as much as 30 minutes.
The programme lasted till 11.30 at night, and started again at 6.30 a.m. In the 27 hours or so that they are together, they pack in a lot. It is clear that the event is no picnic. Their low-decibel passion to see things improve is impressive. Their strategy is right, their planning is incredibly detailed, their implementation is thorough, and their view is that, if they keep their focus on the main task, then others with the right skills and abilities will be motivated to support them.
I have certainly become an admirer.
And I am thinking about what sort of support I can best offer.