In conversation: Santhanagopalan Vasudev
So how does it feel to have performed impressively in your maiden election?
It is a good feeling. We are enthused by the response from the electorate in Mylapore. Of course, given that it was a spontaneous decision to contest these elections, and also that we had limited resources at our disposal, we have reason to feel satisfied at having made a decent start
There have been a few who have remarked that your party did not campaign enough...
(smiles) I don't think that is true. The fact is we went on a door-to-door campaign, but the response that you get from people during a door-to-door campaign may not be taken as a certain vote for you. People tend to vote according to allegiances.
You have had a lot of support from the media, especially the new media. Blogs, emails et al. But can they serve as alternatives to the traditional campaigning methods.
Yes, that is true. But we have left no medium untouched. Some bloggers did their bit, so did people who forwarded emails in support of our party. But the fact remains that unless people come out with us and campaign, things won't happen. The media is no alternative.
But with people in blogosphere, you have the problem of your ideology not being communicated properly. There are many we have come across who hold the view that every educated citizen should support you. They even call others 'morons'.
I have no control over such individuals. And that is not my view, nor is it the view of our party. However, in case anyone had questions about our party's ideology or our modus operandi, they could have called us instead. Our numbers are published everywhere. They can even come up and talk to one of us. With us, accessibility is not a problem at all. I have given you an audience.
And the TV and print media have given you some good publicity. They associate you with characters from Yuva and Ayutha Ezhuthu...
Well, the media has been calling us the IITian party, whereas we are a not a party only of IITians. None of the seven candidates who contested in Tamil Nadu are IITians. It does give us a name-tag, but just because our founder is an IITian doesn't mean the party should be identified with the IITs. As for the comparison with Yuva, we had a 56-year old housewife as a candidate. The media picks the easier bits and makes them big.
How do you break the perception of elitism? Your vote bank would be the educated class, and the forward classes. How do you garner votes from the slums?
I'm pretty sure that a good number of the votes I polled came from the slums. In fact, I came to know from various sources that people from one of the major parties went about telling the slum-dwellers that we had been formed by the other major party just to break their vote bank. If we weren't successful at wooing the slum votes, why would anyone indulge in such a cheap tactic? The truth is the parties know that they can buy votes from such people. Logic does not work with them. You and I can sit and think about national problems. But for someone whose next meal is a doubt, it is instant money which works.
Not just that. Let me give you an interesting statistic. The total electorate in Mylapore in 1996 was 2.1 lakhs. In 2001, it was 2.8 lakhs. Today, it is 2.33 lakhs. What does that mean? It simply means that there are things beyond our control, invisible forces. I personally know a person whose name is not in the electoral rolls. But both his neighbours have their names. The reason is this person belongs to one party, while the other two both belong to another party.
What would you have done, had won you won in Mylapore?
Mylapore, or any other constituency, has a few fundamental problems. I would have set out to address them. If you think about it, no one has any doubt what the problems are. And everyone is sure that they must be addressed. Yet the same problems remain. Our agenda clearly addresses these fundamental issues.
Take for example, the traffic problem. Everyone knows that the number of vehicles is increasing day after passing day. But which city does not have traffic problems? Even New York City is no exception. So what is the solution? The solution is that Chennai should grow. It is a small city, and it must grow. The solution is obvious, it doesn't need a scientist to figure it out. The most basic problems are all like that. You don't need to be intelligent to arrive at a solution. But putting that in action, that requires a lot more.
There is a criticism that your party follows the Hindutva agenda...
Well, I can only say what I know. As a Hindu, I have been exposed to the Vedas, so I can quote from them, and use the knowledge of the same. If one of us believes in a particular religion, what is wrong? We don't want to be pseudo-secularists. There are just too many such parties in India.
In any case, I do not think that this criticism is well-founded. Nowhere have I or any of our other partymen brought out the issue of caste or religion.
But Dravidian politics is caste-based. For example, the PMK always plays the Vanniyar card...
That is true. Caste is an identity. The strategy employed by parties has been to garner votes on some such identity. If the people are divided on casteist lines, they play the caste card. Else they play the religion card. We do not believe that we should be doing that; if we did so, what is the difference between us and them? That said, we cannot wish away identities. The idea is to reach out to everyone and not play isolation games.
Was your approach to the elections correct? Would you not have been better off with the bottom-up approach? Being a new player, why contest directly for the assembly?
We have spent considerable time thinking about the strategy to follow. Of course, there are a hundred different ways to do it. However those who proffer various ideas do not know the ways to implement it. You suggest a bottom-up approach. Do you know how long it would take us?
Yes, it takes time, I'm sure. But how do you build a cadre? Especially given that your party relies on college students for campaigns... That's not permanent, don't you think so?
True, but a bottom-up approach does not necessarily mean we can build a cadre. Maybe we should go to villages and start from there, that's what you imply. But how many villages, and how can we ensure a presence everywhere? The point about a floating cadre is correct. But that also ensures that we have people who would be willing to work with us. If one batch passes out, we have the next batch coming in. Moreover, it is not just about having a permanent vote bank. It is about creating an awareness.
But college students tend to be romantics. How do you get work done?
Yes, the idea of being part of a change is very appealing to a romantic. But there are also many who would like to work with us. It is not about those sitting at home and cribbing about things not being right. If things are not right, they have to be set right -- you have to set them right.
Instead of waiting for elections, isn't it a good idea to involve yourself in social work?
The point where social work differs from politics is that the former evokes a spontaneous emotional response, whereas the latter need not. If I said, "Come, let's go clean up the slums" a hundred people would join me immediately. However, if I wish to convert the same into vote bank, that is not service, that is exploitation, and I don't want to be party to that.
In India, social activism in on one side, with numerous activists; politicians are on the other side dealing with macro problems. There is a divide between the two, with social activists being outside the system. beyond a point its policy which matters. It is also important to consider the scope of the work. When you get down to doing social work, you are attempting to solve micro problems, say the problems of one person, or a small group of persons.
A case in point is Medha Patkar. She is able to win hearts, but the problem she is trying to address is limited in scope. Moreover, she is not able to turn her tireless work to fruition. In active politics, you get the chance to tackle macro issues, and also the power to solve them. We are a national party, and I believe that we should ready ourselves for addressing social problems with political activism.
Do you have plans to contest the local body elections?
We are discussing about that.
And what about Gujarat and Delhi?
(emphatically) Yes. We will contest many more seats in Gujarat. In fact, that is one wrong thing we did in Tamil Nadu. When people saw that we were contesting only 7, they obviously thought that we couldn't do much, so why vote? The problems in Delhi are of a different nature, and so is the electorate. We will give both these our best shot.
And if your focus shifts to these two states, what are your plans for Tamil Nadu or Chennai?
Of course, we have plans for Tamil Nadu. Our focus on Gujarat or Delhi will not lessen our commitment to this state. Presently, our constraint is the number of volunteers we have. In Tamil Nadu, that is about 90 now. We will seek to expand that. As I have mentioned previously, our decision to contest the just-concluded elections was spontaneous. Our future decisions will be calculated and well-planned.
For a political party, especially a new one, staying in the limelight after the elections is a huge task. How are you going manage that?
We are a national party. Hence we will always be able to stay in the limelight. In fact, we already have a large number of people in Bangalore and Hyderabad asking us when we will come over there. I'm sure the response there will be just as good. And as we progress, it will become better. Our ideology is one, but the strategy we choose will depend on the place and the circumstances. A single strategy will not work everywhere. However, the problems in many areas are essentially the same.
Any comments on freebie politics?
That's on its way out.
Reservations in education?
That is a classic case of the solution creating more problems than the problem itself. I'm sure there is a lack of equilibrium, and in order to establish equilibrium, some sections of society need to be given a push. However, I'm very doubtful about introducing reservations in medical education. After all, it is a question of life and death. Why would I want anyone who is incompetent to be handling such a situation? Should we open up reservations in niche areas? I will not favour it.
What is on your economic agenda? How are you going to set right India's economy?
Frankly, I don't have any concrete agenda. The fact is we are a new party. We know that there are plans now, and that they don't work. The existing policies are flawed. So, we need to do a lot of research on those lines and come up with policies that will work.
How do you fund your party's activities?
People like you have to share with us your resources.
You can dip into NRI pockets...
Sure, that is an idea. But the requisite infrastructure for that has to be put in place. We have a small team working with us. And we need more people to implement all these ideas. Even setting up a Paypal account and a Donate page takes some effort. The effort may be very little, but it still requires someone to do it.
What change do you think you can bring about?
We know for sure, all of us, that the current political setup is not correct, and it has contributed negatively to our country's growth. You and I are in the same mess. I think it is time to clean up the mess, and I seek your support. It is all too easy to pass comments about politicians and the state of our country. We think it takes courage to stand up, and we think we have ideas to make things happen.
I am not saying only I can do it. We feel that anyone interested in this country should stand up and be counted. I have no problems if you join the DMK or the ADMK, so long as you do good work. I'm not saying only Lok Paritran can give good governance. If you can clean up the mess, I'm fine with it. I have other things to do, and I would be happy and supportive if you can do it.
As I have always maintained, it is not about political power, but about political activism. Why stay away when you know you can be an agent of change?