“Have provision for referendums on important issues”
BJ Panda, 45,or Baijayant Panda, came into politics because he was offended by the constant demands for money from a corrupt system. He is being groomed for bigger roles in the Biju Janata Dal and is a member of the Rajya Sabha.
Panda has a pilot’s licence and is often in the cockpit when he travels during election campaigns. He also likes skydiving and bungee jumping. At the moment, he is in charge of the BJD publicity for the 2009 election.
In this interview with Vijay Simha for the series Young MPs and Their Idea of India, Panda lays down a charter of modernisation for India. His education and professional backgrounds include engineering, management, financial restructuring and sales. Excerpts from the interview:
There’s a curious lethargy as we head into this General Election. Perhaps more voter participation could lend some urgency. Do you think voting must be mandatory in India for a more credible process?
No, I don’t believe there should be compulsion in a democracy. However, much needs to be done to encourage voting. There should be a sustained national campaign to overcome apathy and get citizens to appreciate better our free society, and democracy in general, and to vote in particular.
Every passing election is creating more confusion in the selection of the Prime Minister. Is this good? Or do you think direct election of the Prime Minister and the President is a better way?
We should not have direct election unless we change to a presidential system. Otherwise, it would create two power centres, which is not healthy. However, I am in favour of modifying our existing parliamentary system to provide for greater stability to the government and the Prime Minister. This will help them focus on important issues instead of firefighting on a daily basis.
|“We must offer citizens the right to recall MPs and MLAs for non-performance and venality”
We have seen the outgoing Lok Sabha have a distressing work ethic. MPs barely transacted serious business. Should we have the right to recall MPs and MLAs for non-performance?
Yes. Citizens should have the right to recall their MPs and MLAs for non-performance or other reasons like venality, etc. In fact, we should have provision for referendums on important national and regional issues, which will give citizens greater say in policy making than just voting once every few years.
Some minimum education standards seem to be necessary, though it’s debatable whether it really helps make better people. Do you think a minimum education qualification should be needed to make people eligible to contest?
We achieved universal adult franchise immediately upon becoming a Republic, whereas most other developed democracies achieved it gradually over centuries. This has sometimes been cited as problematic in the light of high rates of illiteracy. But, whether for voting or for contesting an election, although a minimum education sounds like a good criterion, we have to be very careful that this does not become discriminatory. This would be a very harsh point of exclusion for those citizens who did not get the basic opportunity for education. In my opinion, we may consider this only after we have achieved a level where every citizen has the economic opportunity for education. We still need to do a lot to ensure that.
Do we continue with the present form of election, or do we go for a presidential form of governance?
There are many attractive features of a presidential system. Apart from giving people the right to directly choose their leader, it also ensures stability and tenure of government. But, unfortunately there has never been broad consensus on this. I am in favour of it, provided adequate safeguards can be built into the Constitution as checks and balances to ensure that power is not misused. If at all this can be achieved, it must go hand in hand with reform of the judiciary and other constitutional bodies, like the Election Commission, to ensure fairness and transparency.
What other electoral reforms do you think we should implement?
Two evolutionary changes that we can easily implement and that would have immediate and lasting positive impact are: 1) state funding of elections, whereby candidates are funded or reimbursed depending on the votes they receive, this would make political funding far more transparent (though not entirely) and also provide an opportunity for the average citizen to get involved in the election process; and 2) a ‘German style’ vote of no-confidence which requires a simultaneous vote of confidence in an alternate leader. This would make it a far tougher proposition and ensure much more stability of government.
|“A Presidential system gives people right to elect leader directly, and makes governments more stable”
Core inefficiency is with our system of policing, which is often an object of ridicule. How can our police regain respect?
Our police set-up requires extensive revamping. It is still almost entirely a nineteenth century colonial organisation. There has to be, first of all, devolution of powers to the states, and even districts. A national police corps should only be for federal crimes. The recruitment process should be very different, rather than being based on the same examination as that for the civil services. Only when citizens see the police as someone they can hold accountable at a local level, rather than as a local representative of a remote power centre, can they be more confident about their rights. That will also make the police see themselves much more as a service organization, rather than as wielders of power against people that are to be controlled.
Now, a monster. How do we deal with corruption?
The fact is that we are gradually getting better. Organisations like Transparency International have documented India’s evolution, although slow, towards reducing corruption. However, our media must play a role in highlighting this instead of pandering to sensationalisation in the short-term interests of circulation or viewership. Of course, we still have a long way to go. But, democratic steps like the Right to Information Act are beginning to play a role. The Internet is forcing a more open society. So, we should have more of such things to deal with corruption.
I have seen families burn up their energies over their children’s admissions and jobs when confronted with quotas. So, do we continue with reservation?
This is a difficult and very sensitive issue. Our founding fathers saw this as only a temporary measure. Reservations have now been taken to such a level that even what were formerly considered ‘forward classes’ are now eligible for it in some states. Such an extension of an originally noble idea is a travesty of the principle that every citizen deserves basic minimum opportunities. There is an increasing consensus that economic criteria should be the only requirement for reservations, but I’m not sure that it has yet received a broad enough support to justify statute changes.
Barack Obama has triggered tension in India with his stance against outsourcing by American companies. Should Indian firms be allowed to outsource? Is that good?
After several decades of diffidence, when we saw economic openness as vulnerability, we have come a long way as a country since the 1990s. Most of the economic steps taken since then have had broad national consensus and have led to ever more openness. Outsourcing is just another such step. It will enable far more efficiency in the economy. It is a critical priority that we convert our high cost economy to a far more productive one. However, this can only happen equitably if implementation of related laws are firm and transparent, in order to prevent exploitation of semi and unskilled labour.
|“The recruitment for police should be separated from the civil services exam”
You come from Orissa, a state that was racked by anti-Christian attacks last year on the issue of religious conversion? How do we handle religious conversion?
Our Constitution is generally regarded as one of the best anywhere in the world, and all we have to do is faithfully stand by it. Every citizen should have the freedom to make his or her choice regarding religion, and our Constitution guarantees that. We also need to take steps to ensure that denigration of religions is not allowed in the name of religious freedom.
The US is discouraging capital punishment partly because of the high economic costs involved. Should India discontinue the death penalty?
Yes. Most developed democracies have done away with it. Even those who have committed the most heinous crimes are locked up for life rather than killed. But we do need to simultaneously take steps to reform our jails system. Security is pathetic in many jails, with incarcerated criminals operating freely from inside, with cell phones and other gadgets.
How do we deal with homegrown terrorism?
We have recently taken some steps by amending legislation and creating a federal agency. More such steps need to be taken. Many different agencies exist in cocoons; they need to be made to work together with a common command structure. There also needs to be a campaign to carry sections of the public along that every terrorist, irrespective of background, must be treated with the same approach.
Are tough laws on terrorism enough? Do we really need these laws, considering they don’t seem to scare anyone?
Often, laws are brazenly flouted. But that does not justify not having them in the first place. Just because criminals continue to rob and kill does not mean that we discard laws against robbing and killing. Our emphasis must be on systemic improvement so that flouting laws become harder and less rewarding.
|“Reservation, if at all, must be only on economic basis”
Our neighbourhood is fast becoming the most dangerous spot on the planet. How do we deal with neighbours?
We must approach them with consideration and understanding, but also with firmness. We have sometimes seesawed between abject hand wringing and belligerence. Neither is correct. We need to be firm in our resolve that we will not tolerate cross-border terrorism. And besides just talking the talk, we must walk the walk. That should include making policy that is based on ground realities instead of rhetoric. I am not sure about our covert counter-terrorism capabilities, but recent attacks indicate that these need to be bolstered. On the economic front, we have been taking the right steps in seeking more trade and openness with our neighbours. We should continue to do more of the same. Only when there is much economic co-dependence, will it act as a deterrent to hostilities.
What is your take on our borders? Do we seal them?
The issue of sealing has been going on for several years and, to the best of my knowledge, we’ve had mixed success on some of the borders. Our endeavour should be to have as much openness with the neighbours as possible, but if we have illegal immigration one of the things would be to have fencing.
What about the illegal immigrants already in India? There’s a suggestion to put them in transit camps and eventually send them back.
The bigger issue is to establish who these people are. There are fundamental difficulties in establishing who is an Indian and who is not, because many people who have immigrated over the years have ration cards and other documents. We need to tackle the fundamental issue and not put the cart before the horse. We still have limitations for issuing ID cards to registered voters. Identity cards have to be the first priority when it comes to illegal residents who have ration cards and other forms of identity.
What would you do if you had the powers to amend the Constitution?
I would go for a presidential form of government. I would provide for an alternate leader of the House to be elected at the same that a government were to fall by means of a no-confidence motion. I would streamline elections because we have round-the-year elections now. I would endorse simultaneous election to the States and the Centre.
We seem to be paying too heavy an economic cost for some our traditions, which may be outdated. For instance, the Republic Day parade costs too much, our Padma awards are never entirely convincing, the way we present our Budget is too expensive, and we are likely to spend Rs 10,000 crore on just an election. Should we change all this?
When you talk of outdated things, there are even bigger issues like outdated laws that we need to worry about. We inherited the British Raj system of governance when we became a Republic. There are many laws that were enacted by the British Raj in the nineteenth century, which are no longer relevant to our democracy today. We need to first of all get rid of them.
In terms of election, you called it ‘just an election’. I don’t think we should demean it that way. This is the one tool by which 750 million people have the power to teach a lesson to those representatives who have let them down. And to give a chance to those whom they think can deliver. Any expenditure that is incurred to ensure a free and fair election should not be undermined.
Some streamlining can be done about the Republic Day and the Padma awards, but the symbolism of the Republic Day parade is the unity of the country and that needs to be kept in mind. Perhaps we can bring more transparency in our Padma awards.
|“We must take security agencies out of their cocoon and put them under a common command structure”
What laws do you have in mind when you refer to outdated ones?
For instance, the simple thing of land registration. The cumbersome procedures when a citizen buys land relate to the nineteenth century. It is possible to computerise the registry and keep things extremely simple so that fraud is minimised, and people don’t have to run around for years to simply register the land they already own. There are hundreds of such examples of outdated law.
Would you want changes in our federal structure, especially in Centre-State relations?
Yes. The Centre continues to have too much of an overbearing hand in many issues that should really be delegated to the states. There is case to be made that the Centre needs to concentrate on fundamental areas like defence and foreign affairs. It should not go into micro-managing the economies of states. I’ll give you an example from my state. Orissa has mineral deposits, like seven or eight other states. For centuries, the state got nothing for these deposits. The royalties are very low and without any processing fee, the minerals used to be exported from here. These states have got together and begun to make laws to favour local development of the minerals, so that investment will happen in the states, factories will come up and employment will go up. Revenue to the states will increase. The union government is resisting these moves because it wants to keep control. These are areas where the union government can get out of the way.
Should we improve the way India is structured? Are you for more states, for instance?
This subject requires greater study. It may be the case in some places; it may not be in others. There is an argument that some states are too large to govern. Equally, there is cohesiveness. For example, many people had opposed it when the decision was made nearly 50 years ago on the creation of states on linguistic basis. But, it provides a degree of cohesion. So, this has to be taken on a case-by-case basis.
Are you in favour of continuing with the office of the Governor?
I am in favour of at least streamlining the office of the Governor because there is a degree of discretion that is of concern. The discretion of the Governor is now curtailed after various court judgements, but there is still a great deal of discretion. There is also the argument for doing away with the office of the Governor. I have an open mind on this issue.
Do we repeal Article 356?
Yes. All regional parties have experienced many atrocities of the Centre, of taking politically motivated decisions to dismiss state governments. Obviously, we have great deal of reservation about Article 356. It could be done away with, or limited to extreme cases when there is breakdown of law and order. It absolutely needs review.
Moving to foreign policy, should India be strategically aligned with the US? Should we be close to Israel? Should we move away from them? What about Pakistan?
We should be friends with every country that wants to be friends with us. We should not be locked into groups. Just because we are friends with the US doesn’t mean we cannot have relations with Iran, for instance. Just because we stand up for the rights of certain nations doesn’t mean we don’t support the rights of other nations. We are on the right track. For several decades, we have been identified with one bloc or the other. For the first time, over the last 10 years, India’s stand has been that we will take decisions in India’s interest first. That can mean we ally with a variety of countries. I support normalcy and openness with Pakistan on trade, which Pakistan has been resisting. We have given MFN status (Most Favoured Nation) to Pakistan, but Pakistan has not reciprocated. This acts as a barrier to trade, which is now routed through a third nation like Dubai. However, openness must not mean flatness when it comes to cross-border terrorism. We should not be lax on the border.
|“An SEZ compensation package must include alternate housing, funds, retraining and job assurance”
SEZs have been the cause of conflict, with people being killed and governments paying politically. What is your take on this?
We cannot use the eminent domain legislation to take over land for commercial purposes. People are then driven off their land and have no retraining to take advantage of the jobs that will come to the area. Merely compensating people with money is not enough. Even when a public purpose is being served, people have to be compensated for their land with money and other things have to be done as well. These things have to be ahead of time, meaning front-ended rather than afterward. There are examples where people have been left fending for themselves 20 years after a project has begun. SEZs must provide for alternate housing to people, funds, retraining, and job assurance. Compensation has to be in place before the project proceeds.
As a modern politician, what is your view on liberalisation? How far can we go?
After centuries of being ruled by imperial powers and others, we had a sense of diffidence when we achieved Independence. We thought we could not face the world and we closed ourselves. We have now rediscovered our confidence. With liberalisation, we have seen great economic growth and development. There is a bad aspect of liberalisation also, which is that we have to ensure that the benefits of liberalisation are not limited to a small percentage of people at the top. If the benefits do not go down to every citizen, people will not tolerate liberalisation and won’t allow it to continue. We need to give this aspect far more importance.
Judiciary is a core area of reform. What do you think should be done to lend more efficiency and integrity?
India has a low ratio of judges to population among the democratic nations. Most countries have between 50 and 100 judges per million population, while we have 13. We need to increase the number of judges dramatically. We also need to improve infrastructure. On the qualitative front, Parliament has been discussing a judicial commission to vet judges and lay down a code of conduct and rules of work. This commission will have the President’s representative, as well as representatives from the government and the opposition.
How can we normalise the Kashmir issue?
First, we have to ensure that the roots of democracy are not shaken. We lost credibility in the past because of the impression that we were holding on to Kashmir by military means. We were held responsible for not allowing people’s participation to flourish. But today, there is a large acceptance that the election has been free and fair. This is critical for us to maintain our legitimacy in Kashmir. Second, we must not allow cross-border terrorism to continue.
How has life changed for you after you became an MP?
I am an accidental politician. I got into politics because I was frustrated by the corruption I was faced with and the consequent difficulties. Getting inside the system meant that I lost control over my schedule. I have to be accessible to the people, unlike in my earlier career. Politics is the best way to bring positive change in the system, despite the presence of some bad elements. You can impact life directly. But, change is not happening as quickly as it should. In the coming years, with more and more younger members coming into Parliament and Assemblies, change will happen faster.
The BJ Panda Agenda
- Sustained national campaign to trigger voter interest in elections
- Have a Presidential form of government
- Give citizens right to recall MPs and MLAs
- Simultaneous election to states and Centre
- Provide for referendums on important issues
- In the long-term, set minimum education qualification to contest elections
- State must fund or reimburse candidates on the number of votes they receive
- No-confidence vote must have simultaneous vote of confidence in alternate leader
- Give police recruitment powers to districts
- Have national police corps only for federal crimes
- Separate police recruitment from civil services exams
- Use Right to Information liberally to curb corruption
- Encourage media to look at public interest, and not just circulation or viewership
- Spread the use of Internet for more transparency
- No caste-based reservation in perpetuity
- Only economic criteria for future reservation
- Allow outsourcing but ensure that labour is not exploited
- Implement freedom to choose religion
- No denigration of religions in name of religious freedom
- Do away with death penalty
- Reform jails system
- Make internal security agencies work under common command structure
- Treat terrorists equally, irrespective of religion
- Make it less rewarding to flout laws
- Zero tolerance for cross-border terrorism
- Boost covert counter-terrorism capacity
- Seek more trade with neighbours
- Fence borders to prevent illegal immigration
- Issue proper ID cards to Indian citizens
- Do away with outdated laws from British Raj
- Make Padma awards more transparent
- Simplify and computerise land registry
- No micro-managing of states by union government
- Centre to handle only core areas like defence and foreign affairs
- Reduce discretionary powers of Governors
- Do away with Article 356
- Put India’s interests first in foreign policy
- Compensate people with money before an SEZ begins
- Offer alternate housing, retraining, job assurance in land compensation package
- Take benefits of liberalisation to common people
- Recruit more judges
- Set up judicial commission for recruitment, code of conduct and rules of work
- Maintain electoral legitimacy in Kashmir
- Make change happen faster, with more young MPs