Meera Sanyal, the ABN-Amro banker running as an independent candidate for Mumbai South that goes to the polls on Thursday, must know that she will not win the Lok Sabha seat—but she tells me, “I already have won”.
And so she has, in the sense that she has made a personal mark in politics, nationally as well as in Mumbai.
She has raised the profile of independent candidates and helped to give voice to a groundswell of exasperation with India’s often corrupt and ineffective politicians, as well as raising economic and other local and national issues that the main parties were virtually ignoring.
The exasperation has been expressed most graphically by the six or so slippers and shoes that have been thrown at politicians this month, as well as by a crop of initiatives devoted to improving the way politics operates—for example, the Public Interest Foundation’s Forum for Clean Politics, which is headed by Bimal Jalan, a former Reserve Bank of India governor and now a Rajya Sabha member.
The question now is whether these initiatives will continue to grow after the general election, and have a significant impact on future polls. Sanyal certainly seems to be planning to continue and sounds as if she is at the start of a new phase in her career.
The 47-year-old daughter of an admiral, she has been country head since the end of 2007 of ABN Amro (now part of Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc.) and is on a sabbatical till the polls are over, when she will return to work if she does not win. Her family says she has been talking about entering politics for a long time because of a wish to contribute to public life, but it was the 26 November Mumbai terror attacks that made her act. She says she felt directly involved, partly because her ABN Amro office is directly behind the Oberoi (where one of the attacks took place), and especially because Ashok Kapur, founder and chairman of Yes Bank Ltd who originally recruited her into ABN Amro, was among those killed in the hotel.
I walked with her earlier this week around Mumbai South’s Lower Parel area where mills and other factories have closed in recent years. This is a difficult constituency—both for Sanyal and for Milind Deora, the 33-year-old Congress party MP, who is defending his seat. The boundaries have been significantly redrawn beyond the well-off areas in the south of the city that elected Deora last time. There are now 1.9 million voters, 35% of whom come from slums and have been represented since 2004 by Deora’s main opponent, Mohan Rawle, a veteran MP for the Maharashtra-based chauvinist Shiv Sena party.
There’s a mood of almost naive euphoria among Sanyal’s small team of volunteers as they sing “we shall overcome”. “Being together is enough of an event,” said one of the helpers, who despaired of the quality of India’s governments. People came to the windows and balcony grills of their blocks of flats to look down as Sanyal called to them through a loud hailer. Some smiled and waved while others looked indifferent.
Known to be personally ambitious in her banking career as well as professionally competent and effective, Sanyal clearly has her eye on something bigger than tramping the streets canvassing for votes. She told me that if she loses, she will contest again in the next general election “and the next and the next and the next”. Some people have suggested to her that she should run for the Maharashtra legislative assembly later this year, but she says she will not do so, though she will encourage others.
Significantly, she does not rule out joining a political party—“of course not” she replied when I asked her. That answer puts many of the new-style professional independents’ initiatives in perspective: they would become party candidates if they could but, knowing that is unlikely, are making their mark as independents.
Murli Deora, a veteran Mumbai politician and a current Union minister who is Milind Deora’s father, gave me the establishment’s practical reply to such ambitions. He acknowledged that Sanyal is “a successful banker and has a lot to contribute to the country”, but added: “It would be a little difficult to give her a seat straight into Parliament—one would have to wait a little and do some work”. Deepak Parekh, chairman of HDFC Bank Ltd, who has publicly backed Milind Deora rather than Sanyal, said candidates should be backed by a party, adding, “We need strong national parties to give continuity and stability”.
Sanyal of course does not really disagree with that, but says that “if parties were to practise inner-party democracy, then people like me wouldn’t need to stand as independents”. Put another way, the dynastic and vested-interest links that dictate who is chosen by the main political parties block would-be new entrants such as Sanyal as well as Captain G.R. Gopinath, the airline entrepreneur who is a candidate in Bangalore, and dancer Mallika Sarabhai who is contesting against L.K. Advani, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader, in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Mumbai two weeks ago, he said that independent candidates were ‘spoilers’. Many of them probably are, but I wonder if he would like it to be any different. He must feel more in tune with people like Sanyal than many members of his cabinet, and would have made a perfect independent candidate himself if P.V. Narasimha Rao, the Congress prime minister, had not got to him first in 1991 and made him finance minister.
Formerly with the Financial Times, John Elliott is a Delhi-based contributor to Fortune magazine and writes a blog, Riding the Elephant, at http://ridingtheelephant. wordpress.com. This is the second in a four-part series offering an outsider’s view of the biggest democratic process the world has seen. Next week’s commentary will be on West Bengal. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org