Meera Sanyal, born Meera Hiranandani, is 52 years old and has grown up in Delhi and Mumbai. She is the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP’s) candidate from Mumbai South, and is also working on the party’s economic manifesto. She has studied Business from INSEAD, France, and Harvard Business School, and worked as a banker all her life. She has also been involved with social initiatives for women and children. She first stood for Lok Sabha elections in 2009 as an independent candidate and lost. This year she is contesting for the same seat, and against the same opponent, Milind Deora. (Watch the video here).
What you were doing before you became involved in active politics?
I’ve been a banker for 30 years and my last role was as CEO and chairperson of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). And I’ve had a very happy, and I would say, enjoyable career. I had the opportunity to do a lot of things. In many ways, I have always admired entrepreneurs, and though I never became one, I was an entrepreneur in the bank I worked with. Of the 30 years, I worked with ABN-AMRO and RBS for 21 years, and they gave me a very free hand.
You also worked with the social sector. Are there any other posts you still hold?
I’m on the board of Pradaan, which is, I believe, one of the finest NGOs in this country doing fabulous work for empowerment of women. I’m also on the international board of an organisation called Right To Play, which believes in the transformative power of play for children across the world. So, these are the two NGOs that I’m on the boards of. I’m also on the boards of a couple of colleges and student organisations, all in the not-for-profit sector.
You’ve worked in the private sector, you’ve worked in the social sector. Tell me, why did you decide to enter politics?
I’ve been associated with policy matters for much of my life. Though I was a banker, I worked on White Papers with the government, the Planning Commission, and the Reserve Bank (of India). That’s a part of my life I enjoyed a lot. But after the 26/11 attacks (in Mumbai), I felt like a lot of us spent time criticising what was happening, analysing what was happening. We are great armchair critics. I just felt that, at least for me, the time had come to stop talking and criticising, and do something. That’s the reason I stood in 2009, and it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I lost the election, but I gained a lot. I learnt a lot. And at the time I knew that this is something I would want to do for the rest of my life.
I was actually going to ask you what made you want to do it again. And, also how is it different this time? How does it compare being an independent vis-a-vis being part of a party?
Why did I decide that I would like to do it for the rest of my life? Because I think it needs to be done and I think I would be good at it. I enjoy being with people. I enjoy solving problems. What is different? First, there is a lot that is different about India. We may not sense it, but in the last five years, India has really changed. When I stood in 2009, charitable people said, “Okay, she is idealistic.” Many uncharitable people said, “You are just crazy. Nobody does this.” But today, it’s very mainstream. People like us in the middle class are saying this is really something we should be doing. It’s become mainstream. A lot has to be attributed to Annaji’s India Against Corruption movement, and a lot has to be attributed to that very tragic incident of Nirbhaya.
An MP is somebody who is a politician, a leader, a representative of the people. If you had to do a self-evaluation, what qualities do you have which will help you play this role and what areas of your personality do you need to push more, work on more?
I think what an MP really needs to do is to represent his/her constituency in the national Parliament. Which means to act on the national stage, but yet have your feet very firmly grounded on the local issues. What I believe I bring to the national stage is 30 years of banking experience, and a lot of international experience as well. As you know, I was in Hilary Clinton’s council (the International Council on Women’s Business Leadership), and I think it is important because it is becoming a global world. India is a part of a very global world. I think what we also have, which runs through the DNA of every Indian, is real business. Having been a banker, having been an entrepreneur, whichever you describe it as, it runs in my veins as well. It is important that you have someone who is idealistic, and I’m very idealistic. And above all, I think we need more women in Parliament. We are much under-represented for what we stand for. I don’t think we need reservations. I think we can and will be there on merit. All we need is a fair chance.
Tell me why somebody should vote for you over Milind Deora.
Well, the first thing I would say is that he has been there for ten years. If anyone thinks they have been satisfied in his performance – and I’m not criticising him – vote for him. But, if you aren’t – and from what I’ve seen, there are lots of people who are not happy with it – then give me a chance. That would be a simple statement. I think we need something different. And the reason I say this is because I feel politics in India has become very personal, very vicious, and very polarised. I think we have to come back to the point where we can have civilised discourse on what we agree and what we disagree, and we can agree to disagree. I stand for a positive agenda. I think this country is a wonderful country. We suffer from very poor governance. And quite candidly, Milind unfortunately belongs to a party which has done very little, at least in these last five years.
Which brings me to my next question. Two parts to this. One is, how you have been assessing your constituency? How do you plan to reach out? And the other is, what do you see as its main concerns? It’s a very diverse constituency…
And that, really, to me is the million dollar question. Actually the Aam Aadmi Party concept or the Arvind Kejriwal concept of swarajis a very, very good one. And this is a secular trend across the world. You see, people across the planet are saying, we are fed up with the old, same-same political establishment. Whether it is the Tea Party, or what you see happening in Thailand, in Israel, in Singapore, Grillo in Italy, the UKIP in the UK.
Across the world people are saying, “We are fed up of the way you guys have been doing things so far.” What are they looking for? They are looking for what we call good governance, and they are also looking for empowerment. There is a lot you can do as a citizen in your building society, your Resident Welfare Association (RWA), in your Jan Sabha, in your Ram Sabha, in your mohalla sabha.
You get very frustrated by seeing someone very far decide your budget, decide how much should be spent on a nana-nani park, or on a municipal school. You’re seeing the deliverables not coming. Bad governance comes from this distance where one set doesn’t know what the other set means, and from the leakages that are taking place right through. So what swaraj talks about is empowered local self- governance, and this is actually enshrined in our Constitution in the 73rd and 74th amendment. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been implemented anywhere.
So what I’m doing in my constituency is two things – we’re having safai yatras (cleanliness movements) and swaraj baithaks. What is a safai yatra? We jump onto a train, we go to every train station, we clean it. We walk through the constituency and we actually sweep as we go along. You’re connecting with the people. It’s really putting into practice that we’re here to clean up the system. And what we call the swaraj baithaks is when I sit down and say, “Okay, form groups of about eight or 10 and tell us what do you think are the problems in this area.” Out of 18 groups, 15 issues appeared. We noted it down and I said, “Now regroup and see what solutions you as a citizen can influence.” People have ideas. The solutions to most of our problems are local. The message I’m sending in my constituency is, “Listen, the 2014 Lok Sabha elections are just the first step. The real aim, hamara sachcha lakshya swaraj hai (is self-governance).” Then, you will see local leaders arising. Not politicians, but true leaders, people who I hope will stand as corporators, people who I hope will stand in the Vidhan Sabha.
It is a powerful idea, but also one that can cause concerns, because India is a very complex country. Checks and balances need to be worked on, for instance, to protect against majority rule...
Absolutely. And there was this whole controversy which we talked about, in terms of the khaps (khap panchayats) etc. You saw the articulation and it was very clear. I mean, what are the issues that a local team decides on? It is issues which concern the local area, for instance, education, health, water, sanitation, local issues. You can’t decide whether there is going to be a highway which crosses a state boundary. We need a new model in our cities because our cities are not being governed properly. They were designed for a different time, a different number of people. Now these are megalopolises. There is no one in charge of Bombay. At least there is someone in charge of Delhi, even though he/she does not control the police. So, we need to start in a constructive way and it’s a work in progress. But, of course, you need checks and balances. There needs to be that ombudsman, let’s say the swaraj ombudsman, who turns around and says, the minority will be protected, the law will be protected, the constitutional framework will be protected. Of course, there should be all of that. But the way people are painting it is that it’s this way or the highway. There is such a lot of ground in the middle.
What would your agenda be for Bombay on the polls?
There are many, many issues that Bombay needs to deal with. I would say, of the top three for me, the first is affordable housing – starting from the poorest to the middle class. The builders’ lobbies and the cartels... just the stories make my ears burn... just the violations that are taking place. It’s extraordinary.
Then, it’s public transport, particularly our train system. I think Bombay is very lucky to have a very efficient suburban rail network. About eight or nine million people travel on the rail network every day. But the statistics are horrendous. 5000 people die every year on the trains. So, we need to invest in the public transport system.
And the third is what I would call open spaces, public spaces, the parks, playgrounds. Bombay has the smallest percentage of open spaces of any city, certainly in India, and one of the lowest in the world. We need to address that, and we particularly need to address it now because once again, the same builders’ lobbies and the political nexus have got their eye on every little playground space and want to appropriate it.
As an MP, how do you think you will be able to address these issues? What can you bring in from the Centre?
I think, in terms of the affordable housing, there is a fair amount happening under schemes like the JNNURM. So, the question is, from a legislative perspective, how do you incentivise the right kind of thing? I’m very sensitive to issues of CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone), and I really do believe in the environment. But if you look at the tip of Mumbai, it’s a very narrow island. So, practically every part of the island is within CRZ limitations.
One of the things I think Mumbai should absolutely do something about, which I could influence as an MP, is that the large tract of land that is the Bombay Port Trust. When Indira Gandhi set up JNPT (Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust), the idea was to decongest Mumbai and move the Bombay Port out. This takes up some 1200 acres in the heart of Bombay. There is a very, very odd and bizarre proposal to put a container port terminal into Bombay Port Trust. That would increase vehicular traffic by 2000 times, pollution by another 2000-3000 times. All of this has to be stopped.
Let us say that you were to do that. It opens up a large tract of land which we need to deal with in an intelligent manner. We can’t afford another mill land story on it. To open up open spaces, you could do educational institutions, health institutions because we are short of all of that. That offers Bombay its last chance. And where does that sit? Squarely under the Ministry of Shipping, where my dear friend Milind (Deora) is of course the minister. Now I would have expected that as the MP and the minister, he would do something about it. If he’s not going to do it and he doesn’t show signs of doing it, then I certainly will.
What are some of the things you are looking forward to seeing on the AAP's national manifesto?
Empowering enterprise, absolutely number one. And the reason for that is, I don’t think we are going to be in a position to create 300 million jobs – which is the number we are targeting – at all. You know, people say we’re going to have this shift, and I have big arguments with friends in the Planning Commission. It’s not going to happen. Manufacturing today is not labour-intensive. So what we can do is certainly have 300 million entrepreneurs.
The second is education. Our educational system is really badly broken, there’s no question.
The third thing, which is key on my agenda, is the environment. I think we are nothing more than custodians for our future generations. And what our generation is doing is following a scorched earth policy. We need to think about this. A lot of people say it’s a growth versus environment compromise. I think that is all bunkum. We in India absolutely have to find that right balance.
You are on the committee for the economic manifesto. What are some of the things you have been working on? Your stand on good and bad subsidies, GST, state interference with business – anything else you can share while the manifesto is being readied?
I think, simply put, what we would say is we are pro-business, we are anti-dishonest business. We are pro-markets, but we are anti-crony capitalism. We want fewer rules, lesser red tape, but strong regulation that ensures a level playing field.
Simplified tax structure – very, very important. We’re becoming a very uncompetitive place to do business. The tax structure is so complex, so corrupt. I know a lot of people, a lot of ex-clients, who are simply saying, “We’re shutting shop and moving to countries like Dubai”, etc., because it’s just simply easier to do business there. People are saying, “We’re not able to cope with the onslaught of Chinese goods.” Our stuff is better, but there’s no way we can compete because you have all the taxes, you have all the corruption.
We talked about GST (Goods and Services Tax) – very much in favour of that. DTC (Direct Taxes Code), simplifying the tax code – very much in favour of that. In terms of subsidies, a lot of people talk about subsidies. I think what we can clearly say is that our party does believe in lifeline subsidies. If you don’t have enough water, absolutely, you should have water. Things like that… but something which is fiscally sustainable. So we are absolutely with fiscal prudence. This whole story about ‘we’ve gone away and given the whole Delhi government away’ is completely nonsense. In a budget of Rs 40,000 crores, the total subsidy was Rs 280 crores – less than 0.7%.
Corruption is the AAP’s biggest plank. As someone who’s seen the financial world so closely, how do you analyse corruption? Because it’s really not a very simple problem. While I don’t doubt the AAP’s commitment to the cause, I wonder if you guys are working on a more holistic policy against corruption?
Very much so. The cornerstone of how we want to tackle corruption has become embodied in the Jan Lokpal Bill. And I do believe it’s very, very important to have an ombudsman. But if you look at corruption, as you correctly point out, in many ways, it’s actually a design problem. Let’s look at the railway booking system, or the passport application system, or the income tax online system. All of these are departments where each of us has experienced some amount of corruption.
When you streamline the process, and more importantly, when you e-enable the process – make it paperless, make it online, make it transparent and reduce the amount of intervention that is taking place by human beings who may or may not have the best intention – a lot of that goes away. I think we’re really in an incredibly good position in India to do that. This is the IT capital of the world.
The second is the laws. You need an ombudsman. The third is, you need a credible deterrence. You need to see that actual action is being taken. Which is why the insistence, once again, on the Jan Lokpal Bill. You should know that if you get caught, you will 100% go to jail. If you know that – or that you’ll pay a fine – then that is credible deterrence. And linked with that credible deterrence are police reforms, judicial reforms. We need these things to be in place.
The party came under a lot of fire because of that one incident in Khirki Village which was seen to be misogynist and racist. As a woman, did you need to seek reassurance that your party was sensitized to gender issues?
Well you know, certainly. I won’t go into the Khirki issue because there are many pluses and minuses…
Sure, sure. Also that’s not what this interview is about.
… But what I will say is that this is an ongoing debate. There is a very open discussion, whichis a very, very good thing.
This is within the party.
Within the party. It’s a very democratic thing. And of course, not everyone agrees with a lot of things that happen. But I would much rather be in a party where there’s open debate and open dialogue and it’s all out in the open, than dance to the tune of a party high command.
On the one hand, the AAP is not a party made up of career politicians. People from very diverse backgrounds are brining in their own political philosophies. Are all these differences eventually reconcilable?
This is a country which is so diverse. The more people you have around the table, the better your decisions will be.
But can it make working together difficult? For instance, Medha Patkar had opposed the ENRON project which you had helped finance. Can differences between members lead to stalemates?
Let me squarely answer the question of Medha Patkar. I’m delighted you’ve asked it because I’ve actually never said this on record. Within the bank – and I can say this because I’m no longer with the bank – I steadfastly opposed the Enron project. It was done against my vehement opposition.
Medha was opposing it on ideals. My opposition was as a banker. If a project is being opposed on either ethical grounds – which Enron was, there were big allegations of corruption, or social – and there was a very great amount of unrest in the Dabhol area, or environmental – there were things about turtles, etc., it is a risky project.
I’m very sorry for the bank, and I’m very glad for myself, that I was proven right. We lost a lot of money on that project. I feel, and I think this is something that people should really realize – ideals are also very sensible politics, because they are based on what is really good, and what is bad.
What might be some of the women’s issues that you might want to bring up as an MP?
I think, three things. Safety. Now it’s becoming an issue everywhere. In a city we love a lot, Kolkata. In a city we’ve grown up in: Delhi, Bombay. I mean, these have become issues across the country. We need to tackle it on a societal basis, we need to tackle it as a law and order situation. It needs to be tackled.
The second is women’s empowerment, and I think there is a troika. It’s social empowerment, it’s economic empowerment, and it’s political empowerment. It doesn’t really matter where it starts from. If a woman is socially empowered, she will become economically empowered and politically empowered, and so on.
And then the third is protection from exploitation. There are issues like human trafficking, which we must address. There’s female infanticide, which is going on. There are things which I feel, as a modern nation state, we as women absolutely have to stand up and stop it.
In a recent interview, you said the Aam Aadmi Party is open to corporate funding. What sort of understanding would you seek to have with corporates who wish to get associated with the AAP so that the party does not end up becoming as answerable to corporates as one knows a lot of other parties have become?
The problem with corporate funding is if it is not transparent. So if any party wants to take money from a corporate, all you need to do is to disclose it. If it is transparently disclosed, and then you are in power, and you give that corporate either due or undue advantage, it’s very transparent as to what you had received, and whether there is a quid pro quo in terms of what you have given.
The guidelines of the party are very straightforward. All donations, whether it is one rupee or Rs 10 lakh, are on the website. Any donation above Rs 10 lakh goes to the PAC, who then decides whether they are going to accept it or not. Whether that’s an individual donation, or a corporate donation. And I think that is the filter to say, “Alright, is someone giving a donation which is too much, too little… what is behind it?” I think these filters are really important.
We are asking our volunteers to go door to door and collect money. And the other day, in one of the volunteer meetings, a gentleman – he must have been around 65 years old, from a very modest background – came up to me and said, “Meera, aap keh rahe ho ki paise ikattha karne hai. Tum paise ke saath kya karne wali ho (Meera, you’re saying we need to collect money. What are you going to do with the money?)? You need to tell me ki aap kis cheez pe kharch kar rahe ho (You need to tell me what you’re spending the money on).”
I said, that’s a very, very good question. We will account for every rupee we collect, and we will account for every rupee we spend. And we are actually planning to disclose it on a quarterly basis ki hum kis pe kharcha kar rahe hai (what we are spending money on). One is that we have to be accountable to the Election Commission, but I think it is a fiduciary duty to also be accountable to the people who have funded you.