Yogendra Yadav on Lokniti’s origins, the challenges of polling in India, and the alternative politics of Swaraj Abhiyan

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For many Indians, the name Yogendra Yadav is synonymous with polling and psephology. In nearly all my previous interviews, his name has been repeatedly mentioned as an unparalleled authority on polling in India. Well-recognized from his days of forecasting election results on CNN-IBN, he is a widely respected scholar of political science who has written countless articles and edited several volumes on Indian politics.

After eight years of teaching political science at Panjab University in Chandigarh from 1985 to 1993, Yadav joined the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi and brought the Centre back into the field of election studies after a two decade hiatus. In 1997, these studies were installed at the Lokniti Programme of Comparative Democracy, where they have continued ever since. The founder-convener of the Lokniti network of professors who fielded and analyzed these studies, Yadav was the director of Lokniti from 1997 to 2003. Since 2004, he has been a Senior Fellow with CSDS (full disclosure: CSDS is my primary research affiliate, and I am working with Lokniti on my research).

In 2012, amidst the India Against Corruption protests shaking Delhi, Yadav left psephology as he became gradually more involved in politics. He co-founded the fledgling Aam Adami Party (AAP) and contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections on an AAP ticket. Yadav was a senior leader in the National Executive when the party swept the Delhi assembly polls in February, winning sixty-seven of seventy seats in the Delhi Vidhan Sabha.

Shortly after this historic victory, Yadav and fellow AAP co-founder Prashant Bhushan wrote a joint letter to the National Executive questioning Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s unilateral decision-making approach and expressing concern about compromising the party’s core principles. This started a series of allegations and counter-allegations that ended in March with the expulsion of Yadav, Bhushan, and two other senior AAP leaders, Anand Kumar and Ajit Jha, all for “anti-party activities.”

Yadav and Bhushan continued their involvement in politics through Swaraj Abhiyan, a grassroots movement for an “alternative politics in India” that they started earlier this year. In June, Swaraj Abhiyan launched Jai Kisan Andolan, a movement focused on bringing the plight of Indians’ farmers into the national discourse. Swaraj Abhiyan has since conducted a number of protests and yatras, or marches, to focus on farmers’ issues.

Last Tuesday, I met with Yadav at his apartment in Patparganj to talk about what he terms his “previous life” in polling and his present life in politics. The transcript of the conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On public opinion research in India and starting Lokniti

Sam Solomon: You spent several decades doing public opinion research in India. I’d like to know how the methods of research changed during that time.

Yogendra Yadav: I spent two decades doing that. I was lucky to be at CSDS because I think the foundations were already laid there. While people remember the work that Lokniti team did, I did, my colleagues did, unfortunately not many people remember the foundational work done in the 1960s and 1970s. I think we really built on that. We were not doing something radical or innovative. In the 60s, people like Bashiruddin Ahmed, DL Sheth, and VB Singh, along with others, were involved in laying the foundations of political opinion, attitude, behavior research in India. And in many ways we simply built on that. There is an article which traces this entire journey which I had written a lot but is under a generic team name. It’s in the EPW of 2004, I guess? Which is “National Elections Study, An Introduction.” And this piece traces first generation, second generation, third generation of survey research in India. So I guess we made some innovations. We made some improvements. But much of what we did was by way of fine-tuning an already existing model from CSDS.

What we did was to expand it, expand it in terms of the sample, expand it in terms of reach, and expand it in terms of taking it to the public and making it more popular and visible. We made it more frequent. We made it more of an archive, a systematic archive rather than an episodic thing. And we tried to integrate that with an ongoing political commentary. I guess that’s what we did.

Unfortunately, much of that work is known for its forecasting, which is how we got the money to do whatever we wanted to do because we moved away from that foreign-funded research grant model. And naturally people remember the forecasting part of it, which wasn’t bad, which on balance I think was a satisfactory experience. But that’s not why we did it. That’s not really what we wanted to do.

I think the part that we did somewhat better was the post-mortem of electoral verdicts. That was our forte, and I’m glad we managed to do that. And I think that is the part that CSDS has continued after I left. And I feel happy that they are doing it in many ways better than when I was there. I looked at this Bihar thing and the previous election coverage. I felt that this was much better than what we would have done if I was around.

SS: So what were you trying to do then?

YY: This was continuity of the CSDS tradition which is to understand public opinion, attitudes, and behavior.

When I turned to research on Indian politics, which was not my original area, I discovered that the field was shockingly bereft of any serious evidence. I was trained as a student of political philosophy and theory. After ten years of research on that, on intellectual history, on political theory, and such like, I shifted to making sense of Indian politics. And I thought, I came to CSDS in the hopes that much of the evidence lies there, and I just have to go, understand it, and try to out it. And then I discovered how not only did we have a dearth of evidence, but the overall temper, overall style, overall mood, and mode of doing research on Indian politics was something which looked down upon any evidence at all. So much of this was hearsay. Much of this was pure speculation, and I didn’t know how you could research on empirical questions without gathering systematic evidence.

So the entire effort in that decade or two was to create an archive of public opinion and political behavior. And I do think that now we have something of an archive to go back to. I feel bad that we didn’t use that archive as well as we could have used in terms of coming up with theory, in terms of coming up with an understanding which would be different, distinctive. So I think people like me are guilty of underutilizing the data that we created. But frankly the task of creating the data itself was so huge that we were just snowed under.

SS: And the archive is there for scholars who do want to do that.

YY: For future generations, who I hope would do a better job of it than we did.

SS: What were the greatest challenges that you encountered when you were with Lokniti in terms of accurately measuring public opinion?

YY: Let me say what the challenges were not. There is a misimpression that somehow Indians are particularly immune to being measured by survey research. I find that attitude silly. I have never encountered it. If anything, doing surveys in India is easier than doing it in other parts of the world. Especially in the First World, in one respect, that the refusal rate is very low. If you go, especially in rural areas, not only do people give you interviews, they actually welcome you with a cup of tea. Because the survey penetration is so low that actually you can conduct very high quality face-to-face surveys in India and the costs are reasonable, of doing face-to-face surveys. These are not impossible costs. So India is actually still one of the few places in the world where you have the conditions permit a face-to-face survey where the costs allow that, people welcome it, and there is a trained scientific manpower which can actually carry it out. There are very few places in the world where the combination of all these things exists.

So this is really not a problem. Unfortunately, whenever some survey goes wrong or some forecast goes wrong, people fall back to this stupid excuse, that they say, “It’s impossible to do that in India. Indians are very different. Indians are unique.” I don’t think there’s anything of that kind.

What is also not a challenge is sampling. Your piece indicates that there is a problem in India, which is, I mean, we don’t have that kind of stratified data available at the micro-level. But if you go by strict random sampling, you overcome all of that. And because strict random sampling is possible in India, given the census data and given the electoral rolls and so on and so forth, we have been able to circumvent it. And the quality of samples, especially in the polls done by CSDS, has been quite good. I think by international standards these are very high-quality surveys.

The difficulties, the challenges we faced were the following: Number one, the academic culture of Indian social science really looked down upon survey research. So if the theorists were the Brahmins of Indian social science, survey researchers were the coolies. No one thought this was worth respecting. And this occupied such a low position in the hierarchy of Indian social science that the business of gathering evidence, especially on politics, was simply so underdeveloped. Fortunately, in other disciplines like history, for example, you could get up and ask a question on sources, which is to say, “What is your evidence?” But in political science seminars it was rare twenty years ago for anyone to ever ask a question about evidence. What is the basis on which you are making these grand generalizations? No one ever asked this. So that was one problem, a lack of research culture.

[Number two], there was lack of trained personnel in political science. India has a great tradition of statistics. India has a great economic traditions. But in politics, people who were trained in doing surveys and handling quantitative data, it was very, very rare. It still is unusual to find people who can handle data with some degree of sophistication in political science. Otherwise, Indians are spectacular when it comes to data and mathematics. This was the second challenge.

As a result of these two, we did not have a community where there would be a lively exchange of methodological and substantive issues in survey research. There was no methodological innovation and frankly no one actually understood. No one cared. Just as ordinary newspaper readers pick up the newspaper and say, “Oh, you got your forecast wrong. Your survey must be fraud.” Similarly political scientists picked up these things. Most political scientists could not even read bivariate tables in any sensible way, meaningful way, intelligent way. So methodological things, people simply didn’t understand.

While there has been a very intense culture of debate on politics in India, the culture of debate among political scientists was not careful on issues of middle-level generalizations. Most of the Indian debates have been at the very abstract level of generalization. So the lots and lots of generalizations that you need to build a hard theory of politics are simply unavailable. And unfortunately then much of these models came from a readymade repertoire of democratic theory in the West, which came largely from North America. And those theories simply don’t work. It’s a very different context, very different country, where you can learn a thing or two from constitutions. You can learn something in a very grand, general way. But middle-level generalizations about politics are so deeply anchored in the specifics of politics of that locality that to pick North American theories and to apply that to India was so weird.

So on the one hand, we felt we suffered from that complete deficit in our academic culture. On the other hand, we suffered from this excess export from North America. And it was a struggle for us to try and handle that situation there in Lokniti.

And I think we were very, very lucky in the mid-90s when we brought together that group which is called Lokniti today. It was an exceptional group in many ways because the quality of political scientists who agreed to join that, and the simple collegiality which you must have experienced, is rare. Academics don’t work with each other normally. Academics suffer from more envy than ordinary human beings do. But in Lokniti somehow we managed to create that collegiality and this is a group that has now worked for… more than twenty years? Twenty years, it’s just completing. So we were very lucky in terms of collegiality. We were very lucky in terms of intellectual integrity of many of the colleagues in [the] Lokniti group. We were lucky in having administrative and sheer hard work of many of the younger colleagues who we interacted with, who really laid the foundations of this work.

We were not so lucky in having leaders who could connect theory to empirics. And that’s where the limitations of people like me came into [the] fore. Some of us had to do that work. I don’t think we did it sufficiently well. So those were some of the issues and limitations.

The other big issue was lack of committed funding. Every time… I don’t know of any other research archive in the world which had to go through such financial stresses as we did and which had to do all kinds of things just in order to keep afloat. All kinds of things, exit polls, this poll, that poll, because we had no research grant. And it was astonishing that perhaps now Lokniti archives should be one of the biggest archives in the world on public opinion and attitudes and it is a shame that a large experiment of this kind did not have any sustained funding for what it was doing. And we approached everyone in the Indian establishment for that and no one was willing to support that.

What that did was we ended up investing… a great deal of our energy was exhausted in keeping the ship afloat than in steering it. That’s a challenge we had.

SS: Do you think that the existence of Lokniti effected any change in the culture of political science or among academics here?

YY: I dare say it did. Although it’s sort of for future generations to judge. For people like you to read and check and come to an independent conclusion.

I think it did, and in the following ways: Twenty years ago, you could comment on Indian elections, Indian political parties, Indian public opinion without bothering to dirty your hands with any evidence at all. Today it is far more embarrassing to do that than it was then. So we have made it embarrassing for people to do things without evidence. People do it grudgingly. People [do] it while pretending that they’re not doing it. People do it by way of taking potshots at us. But they do it. That’s important.

I must say it was partly facilitated by something which people don’t readily acknowledge, which is that our work gained acceptance in North American and European academica. Because academics working on India were desperately looking for some evidence. They at least knew that evidence matters. And there was none. So very early on in our work, people started appreciating the quality of data that we were generating. They were probably not into our perspective. But they understood the value of data. They started referring to it, and so did media. So Indian media and Western academia started respecting our data. Initially, Indian political scientists and Indian social scientists were indifferent and almost defensive and aggressive. But I think unfortunately given the unequal relationship between Western academia and Indian academia, Indian academics gave in. After, I think, the first five or ten years, it became very hard for them to ignore it because the people they cited cited us. Strangely, by this ironic twist, that is what gave us much greater acceptability. So I guess that has changed.

I also see now, wherever I go in the country, I see young teachers who come to me and say, “I was part of Lokniti workshop. I have done a National Election Study. I have been a researcher or trainer.” In the discipline of political science, there [were] so few opportunities of doing field connect that Lokniti and CSDS work came as a window of opportunity. And lots and lots of youngsters availed of that opportunity. And I guess that may have changed their orientation. There was very little research training available for political scientists. Basically, you read theoretical books and you picked up whatever impression you did from your rickshaw-wallah and from your taxi-wallah, and then you wrote books. But in this there was the first time an opportunity that people actually got seriously trained. So over the last twenty years, we must have trained a few thousand people. And that, I think, is an everlasting contribution which is not acknowledged because we are not seen as a teaching institution. But we actually have been a bigger teaching institution than many universities put together. So that, I think, has changed the culture. Insufficiently, but it has changed.

But, as I said, this is a biased opinion coming from the person who has every interest in overestimating the impact. It is for someone else to measure.

SS: My research is looking specifically at whether certain populations are, because of cultural or socioeconomic factors, more or less likely to be sampled or participate in a survey. I’d like to know over your career, throughout your experience, which populations you found to be … I’ll say, less likely to participate — I realize the question of whether groups are less likely to be sampled or participate is different — less likely to participate in a survey.

YY: Unfortunately, that’s exactly the kind of research I would have liked to see more in India which doesn’t exist. I should not be answering this question with reference to my impressions. Ideally, there should have been fifteen articles on this question. I should have been trying on those articles. But they don’t exist. That’s the problem. The research culture in Indian political science is so limited. So I speak with my impression.

My impression is that first of all it is a function of the method you choose: do you do face-to-face [or] do you do telephonic interview? Telephonic interviews are most exclusionary in India, and unfortunately many of the polls — not the election polls, but most other opinion polls that you see in the newspapers which are not in the time of elections and where there is no fear of being contradicted — most of those are simply telephonic polls. Worse, some of them are Internet polls. Now, that’s just plain unrepresentative. Even though we have telephone penetration which is substantial, even then, I think anything other than face-to-face interview is very unrepresentative. And it’s unrepresentative in simple class terms. It massively overrepresents the upper classes. That’s one.

It’s also a function of method in a different sense. Do you do an exit poll in the context of elections? Or do you do a post-poll survey, which is to say it’s a site? Do you do your survey in a public place? Or do you do it in the setting of their home? The surveys done in public places, especially exit polls, one of the most popular things — the trouble is as you picked up from that quotation… [my quotation of Yadav in The Hindu op-ed] although survey researchers like to believe that they have selected the sample, in reality the sample is selecting himself or herself. They walk to you. If you see the real life context of Indian elections, there is no way you can pick every nth person.

SS: I did see. I saw some exit polls for Bihar.

YY: You did? You went there?

SS: I went with CVoter and I saw some exit polls.

YY: It’s actually impossible. There is no way, if someone says, “Pick every thirteenth person,” how would you do that? There is just no way you can do it. We tried a few exit polls and we realized this is impossible. The bias of the researcher, and the attitude of the respondent, and the willingness of the respondent are far more important than any randomness or any method. So that is bound to overrepresent those who are more articulate, those who are more resourceful. And therefore, in terms of an Indian context, it is straight a function of your class and caste. In places like Bihar, I mean, almost all over the country, because there is a considerable overlap between class and caste, so every one of these things ends up oversampling the caste– the upper castes get oversampled.

First is the question of face-to-face versus telephonic or otherwise, second is exit poll versus this, and third, of course, is random versus any non-random technique. I think given the fact that we do not have sociodemographic information at the precinct level, I normally don’t trust anything other than a strictly random sample. Random sample with a reasonably large size gets you everything. But anything other than random sample almost invariably oversamples again the more articulate, the more well-to-do, men, urban. The slope of privileges is such that sampling tends to flow in the direction of socioeconomically more powerful groups: rich, men, urban, upper caste, media-exposed, educated. And since of these, except the gender, has a significant correlation with each other upon another, there is a very substantial overrepresentation of one section of society.

These three things put together account for the bias in sampling. And therefore over the years we went by the route, which I should say was established by the first generation in CSDS, which is only face-to-face interview, only at home, and strict random selection. Otherwise, you don’t get it.

SS: Something that I’ve seen in your writings, and this is something other researchers have also called for, is greater transparency of pollsters. So the people who are consuming this information can have a better idea of how this research is being done. Who do you think needs to take the lead in making those kinds of changes? Does it have to be the pollsters themselves? Or does it need to be media sponsors, the people who are actually paying for this research?

YY: Ideally, the pollsters themselves. If not, the media. If not, the officials, which is to say the Election Commission. And if not, the government.

Someone has to step in. This cannot go on infinitely because the industry has flourished without any regulatory framework. Now this is not an industry where regulation should come from outside. So yes, ideally, a council of pollsters or something should come into existence.

The only problem is that in India the record of such professional agencies to self-govern has been exceedingly poor. Whether it is the Medical Council, or it is the Media Council, the Editors’ Guild, and so on. Their willingness and capacity to defend the profession against outside onslaught in never matched by their capacity to reform within, and that’s why I remain skeptical that the pollsters themselves would be able to do [this].

The trouble is that the thing called the pollsters has two very different animals: there are places like CSDS, these are non-profit places; and there are these crass commercial operators who would not like to bind themselves down to very serious, rigorous protocols of transparency.

So sometimes I feel maybe the media and those who pay for it should come into it. Their problem is that they are ignorant. They simply don’t know what they are paying for. I rarely come across editors who understand even the basics of what they’re dealing with. So they are like [those] customers in the market who judges things by its package weight. Can the Election Commission do it? Don’t know. They have shown very limited appetite for regulating the media and they usually like very ham-handed methods like bans rather than any sophisticated regulation. And the government… God save us. That’s the last thing I would want to happen. So I don’t know, realistically speaking.

But yes, I continue to believe what you could do is have an agency which has representatives from pollsters and media advertisers which is sanctioned by the Election Commission to do this. And what you need is not a ban. I have repeated it, so much so that I now get tired of saying the same things over and over again. A ban would be a very silly way; it would actually push the industry under the carpet. It would actually complicate the matters even further. What you need are very strict disclosure protocols. I have written [in] several places about what needs to be disclosed, and everyone in the world knows what needs to be disclosed. I don’t have a particularly innovative solution to that.

The only thing I have added to that list is to say in the Indian context you must also disclose the social composition of your sample. You cannot tell me you have a sample of 1,900 and it was picked up from so many cities, so many this, it has this many men and women. Do tell me how does it correlate with or fail to correlate with the known social demographics of the area that we are talking about. That should be a mandatory thing in India. I need to know how many upper castes you have in your Bihar sample, and how many OBCs, and how many SCs, and how many STs. Unless I know that, how do I begin to trust your sample?

The second thing that I have added to that is to say the disclosure should be a three-tiered disclosure structure. One, certain basics should be self-declared, proactive self-declaration. Second, if someone asks you for some cross-tabulations, that should be made available on demand. Probably for a price, but it should be made available in principle. And third, if someone challenges the veracity of the survey itself, someone says, “The whole thing is a fake, you didn’t do it,” there must be a place where the raw data is stored and made available for a group of experts to come and check. It is not impossible to tell fake data from real [data]. If you have any experience of survey research, you should be able to make it out. And the data needs to be stored, and yes, a committee should be able to get access to your raw data, to go into allegations of fake data.

It’s not merely disclosure and transparency. It’s also regulation of quality. If you can set up something like this, then it’s all right.

SS: Have you heard out about the Indian Polling Council that’s being proposed? There was an article in The Hindu about it.

YY: I’ve just heard about it. If it comes about, it will be a good idea. And if everyone agrees to abide by it.

As I said, the record of professional self-regulation in India cutting across professions have been very, very poor: medical profession, legal profession. The only exception to that is auditors. Chartered accountants, for some reason, have managed to hold their bar reasonably high and they have not allowed it to fall. They actually give degrees and they have ensured that the degree does not fall below the quality standard. But otherwise it’s not been a great experience.

On entering politics and Swaraj Abhiyan

SS: I don’t really know, aside from you, of any psephologists or political analysts — I can’t think of any in the American context, I wouldn’t know as well about the Indian context — who decided to enter politics, after spending many years or decades of doing psephology. I’m curious to know what motivated your decision to enter politics.

YY: One exception. There was someone called Biplab Dasgupta. If you recall, one of the first books on Indian elections, voting trends, etc. was written by Biplab Dasgupta and Morris-Jones. I think it’s Trends and Patterns in Indian Politics. Something of that kind, it’s called. Biplab Dasgupta went on to become a member of parliament from the Congress party. Not that there was any relationship between his research and his politics. But he did. So I’m not really the first one.

In my case, it got much more noticed. I do think that [there are] many social scientists who went for active public or political life in India. In my case, it just happened to be more noticed, partly because I was somewhat known on television and partly because of the dramatic context in which I entered. I don’t think I was doing something else exceptional, but the notice that I got was exceptional.

Also, in my life, actually it’s not much of a transition, as colleagues in Lokniti will tell you. All those years when I was in Lokniti, when I was at CSDS, a full-time academic, I wasn’t there in the sense that I was actually quite torn. I used to spend quite a lot of time even then traveling in different parts of the country, meeting social movements. I was with a very small political group even then called Samajwadi Jan Parishad, which was led by my political guru, Kishen Pattanayak. So that was very much a significant slice of my life even then. It’s just that it was below the radar. No one quite noticed it. Not that it was anything secret. Everyone knew about it. But that politics was so spectacularly unsuccessful that no one cared to know more about it. But I was very much involved in a certain form of social and political action all these years of being in Lokniti.

And, as some of the colleagues would tell you, I was always very, very uneasy. I never wanted to be a psephologist in my life. I was, if anything, awkward and embarrassed about it. It wasn’t my life. All this might sound odd because I am known to be a somewhat successful one. But this is what I never wanted to be in my life. And I used to say to my colleagues… initially, they thought this was all pretension; academics have all kinds of pretensions. I used to say, “I am a political animal who has strayed into political science. And I want to get out.” People didn’t believe me because they thought this is posturing. I also used to say that I shall not retire as a professor. This is my nightmare. My nightmare was to retire as a professor at the ripe age of sixty-five or something. I never wanted to do that.

What I had not planned was, of course, the Anna movement and all the developments that happened. But, in fact, my very entry to CSDS in ‘93 was a bit of an accident. Because that is the moment when I had made up my mind to quit academia. I had done political theory. I had done intellectual history. And I was so unhappy with academia that I wanted to quit and go to my village. So in my journey from Panjab University, Chandigarh to my village, I got stuck in Delhi. I got stuck for twenty years. But I saw it as a diversion. So strange though it might sound, psephology was never, never number one priority one in my life. It was always number three or number four. Even in my intellectual pursuits, psephology was number two for me. Number two or number three. In my life pursuit, it was number four or number five. It so happened that it took substantial time and, in terms of public perception, this was the only thing I was known for. But I never associated myself with that.

So when I finally stepped out, I felt relieved. And actually I had said six months before joining politics, I had said, “No more forecasts ever for me in life.” This Uttar Pradesh assembly election in 2012, which we fortunately got right. And that evening on television, I said, “Thank you very much. End of my election forecasting. Never again.”

This business of election forecasting is something which attracted me and it did not attract me. It attracted me because it’s a kind of an itch. There’s a mountain and you want to climb it because it’s there. So election forecasting was like this. This is a technical riddle. Someone needs to solve it. And I knew at least two-thirds of it, of how to solve it. The remaining one-third never came. And I thought, if it’s actually possible to do it, why not do it? So there was a sort of technical riddle-solving part in me, a bit of mathematical curiosity, and a bit of political common sense, which I wanted to use.

The only thing I regret is that ideally, I would have liked to spend five years on this, solve it, and move beyond it. I spent fifteen, and didn’t manage to solve it fully, because there wasn’t any… I wish there was a group of model-builders that I could work with and a lot of background research on survey methodology. I think we were really one or two years away from having solved it properly. But we couldn’t do it fully. We did somewhat better. It wasn’t a record to feel ashamed of. But I think we were on the verge of a technical breakthrough which never happened. That’s the only thing I regret. But I don’t regret moving beyond that at all.

I was a political animal. My principal identity is that of a political animal. And what I’m doing now is what I really always wanted to do with my life. So no regrets.

SS: Was there a moment in 2011 or 2012 where you said, “This is my opportunity to get back to my original calling and step away from psephology?”

YY: Yeah. I mean, in a sense, 2011, the Aam Adami movement and thereafter was… as I said, I was very much in politics theoretically, I mean, notionally, because I was with a political group. I was very much writing. All those years of being in Lokniti, I ran an activist magazine in Hindi. I was the editor of a political magazine, which was read by very few, but it was an ideological magazine. I ran that.

I always wanted to be 24/7. Something in that context told me that yes, this is the moment to do it 24/7. So that’s the difference.

SS: I read a little bit about Swaraj Abhiyan online. I was talking to some of your assistants about it and trying to understand it. Why try to change India’s politics through a grassroots organization like Swaraj Abhiyan as opposed to through a political party?

YY: There’s no opposition between Swaraj Abhiyan and a political party because Swaraj Abhiyan is a political movement. It is not an NGO. It is not simply a social movement. It is a movement which very much aims at creating and being a political alternative, doing alternative politics. It’s just that at this stage of our evolution we are in no position to offer that alternative. We have neither the experience nor the critical mass nor the carefully-developed policy perspective. And that assurance that we would be able to create a democratic organization. There are several prerequisites which we are unable to fulfill.

But in principle I see no reason why we should shy away from doing party politics. Doing party politics is extremely important work. And although I would say that it’s important to do things other than party politics as well, party politics needs to be supplemented.

I keep saying there are five elements of politics: there is electoral politics, about forming governments; there is politics of struggles, movements, agitations; there is politics of constructive work, social, constructive, positive, good work; there is politics of ideas; and there is politics of the inner self. All these five need to be done. And the best politics is something that combines all these five. Unfortunately, we have reduced politics to parties, parties to elections, elections to government. We need to move beyond that. We need to think of politics in a more comprehensive way. And that’s what we would like to do through Swaraj Abhiyan.

So it’s not in opposition to a political party, but, in my ideal universe, Swaraj Abhiyan would do a politics that does not shun but subsumes electoral politics.

SS: When you talk about a “new politics” — this is something that’s all over the website and your assistants were talking about it as well. An “alternative style of politics.” What kind of politics are you talking about?

YY: As I said, a politics which is multidimensional, which subsumes what political parties, what NGOs do, what universities do, what agitations do, and what spiritual gurus do. All of that should be subsumed in politics. The best of politics has always subsumed all these. Mahatma Gandhi’s politics subsumed all these five elements. Which is what we need to do. Politics has to be a much bigger activity of transformation, including transformation of the self.

SS: I don’t know if you’re comfortable speaking about it, but why is Swaraj Abhiyan not working with AAP? I know a little bit about your history with–

YY: With AAP?

SS: Yes. Another way of–

YY: What went wrong? Why are we not with AAP?

SS: Yeah. Exactly. It seems like you–

YY: That’s too well-known a story for me to recount again. Not because I don’t want to talk about it. It’s just that I’ve spoken hundreds of times about it. And the story is so much out in the public domain. All I can say is that there’s nothing which is hidden from [the] public. There’s no hidden story here. Every single thing is in the public domain. When it started, why it started, where it reached. I mean, it’s so much there that it’s a waste of time to talk about it.

SS: I’d like to know how Jai Kisan Andolan fits into the broader vision that Swaraj Abhiyan has of a new politics.

YY: As I said, new politics has to have not just electoral politics in it. It has to have movements and constructive politics. And politics of idea. In all these three respects, the question of the farmer, the land question is the biggest question in India today. Land understood not merely as the land, the piece of land, but land as in the original economic sense of the land, which is to say all natural resources. That is the biggest political question, and farmers are the most neglected social group in our country. Neglected by governments. Neglected and despised by intellectuals. By social scientists and academics as well. There is a deep, deep apathy, if not hostility vis-a-vis farmers in the ruling establishment and among the academics as well.

So in terms of generating ideas, in terms of creating constructive work, and creating political movement, [the] farmers’ question is the biggest question. So we thought we must pick it up. Whether it is electorally viable or not, doesn’t matter. So it is a beginning of a very long-term engagement.

And for me particularly, I come from a village. As I said, twenty years ago, I wanted to go back to my village and be a farmer. That’s what I wanted some twenty-five years ago. So it is now, in terms of my life trajectory and life mission, it is invigorating to connect to that mission and to be able to articulate [it]. The trouble is that farmers cannot articulate farmers’ voice. You have to some middle class connect and some middle class articulation to be able to articulate farmers’ voice. And I happen to have that. And I thought that’s the best use of my time.

SS: [In] your article in The Hindu yesterday, you urged caution about celebrating too much the victory of the mahagathbandhan [in] Bihar. You say, “Much abused anti-Congressism is replaced by a vacuous anti-BJPism.” You describe this in this final line of the editorial as a “call to action.” I’d like to know what kind of action, specifically, you mean.

YY: That’s what Swaraj Abhiyan is all about: creating an alternative politics.

Anti-BJPism is dreadful. It is vacuous. It is poor politics. It is dangerous ideational activity. It is laziness. [The] BJP and Mr. Modi represent a very serious danger to the very idea of India, but that cannot be met by anti-BJPism. We have to understand why Modi came where he did. And we have to overcome that. Going back to the very same forces which are responsible for Modi’s ride in the first place is not a solution to that. You have to create an alternative. Alternative in terms of ideas, alternative in terms of political energy, alternative in terms of organizational protocols and principles. Which is what we want to do in Swaraj Abhiyan. So that’s the long-term solution.

And these short-term ways of trying to combat [the] BJP are suicide. So yeah, you read me right. I think this is suicidal politics. Not just poor, it’s suicidal politics of the Indian seculars. This is an admission of defeat, an admission of their incapacity that they are doing what they’re doing. This is certainly no way to respond to the very significant challenge posed by Mr. Modi. This complacent belief that somehow he will self-destruct and make way for the same old forces to come back is a lazy belief. It’s a dangerous belief. And even if this were to come about, it would do no good to India. That’s exactly what Swaraj Abhiyan is about.

SS: Thank you very much.

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2 thoughts on “Yogendra Yadav on Lokniti’s origins, the challenges of polling in India, and the alternative politics of Swaraj Abhiyan

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