Bengaluru: Until the September 2017 murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh by members of a Hindu extremist group, actor Prakash Raj, 54, was mostly known for his versatility in portraying grey characters in Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi films. Since then, he has been increasingly vocal, especially on Twitter, in his condemnation of communal politics. Raj has often expressed a sense of moral “guilt” over the death of Lankesh.

On December 30, 2018, Raj announced his decision to contest the 2019 parliamentary elections as an independent candidate. His constituency is Bangalore Central, held by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2009, which will vote on April 18, 2019. Raj wants to introduce an alternative model of development that benefits marginalised communities, he told IndiaSpend in an interview.

Raj believes that once regional parties emerge, the structure of policies and governance, as defined by national parties, will change. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign, revolving increasingly around issues of India’s security in the wake of the Pulwama terror attacks and India’s retaliation, has left voters in his constituency unmoved, he said.

You did not wish to join politics but would campaign against the BJP, you had said in March 2018. A year later, you are in the fray as an independent candidate. Why did you change your mind?

I never intended to, or thought I would, join politics. My decision to stand as an independent candidate today is the outcome of an organic process. I was very disturbed by the politics of hate that was rampant and growing in the country. I was further unsettled when my dear friend Gauri Lankesh was assassinated by men connected to a right-wing organisation which shares the same ideology as the government in power. I wanted to do something about this state of affairs. I wanted to question those in power, those the assassins are connected to--what are they doing about it?

My questions were not just about Gauri's murder. I also questioned the education system and the state of government schools, among other things. But I soon realised that just asking questions was not enough. I discussed this with some of my close friends and colleagues. These led to my decision to contest the elections. So here I am today, an independent candidate hoping to work for the people of the country.

As a first-timer in Lok Sabha elections, what is your political vision?

In my view it is not just the standard of living but also the standard of life that must be enhanced. You see women in slums standing in long queues with pots waiting to fill water for their families. You are pushing people to desperation and this is not the standard of life we need. The aspirations of children are also affected when parents can’t afford an education. Pollution is so bad, people have to cover their faces to protect themselves when they step out of their homes.

There are more jobs-seekers than jobs. Often these jobs seekers are over-qualified for the jobs [they seek]. In a city like Bangalore, you can understand [political] priorities when you see that there are only 6,500 buses to serve the majority of the population while there are nearly 300,000 private taxis.

While the value of land seems to have gone up, the value and dignity of life has not. There was no vision before and now we are not in a position to complain. We need to understand the reasons and develop a vision to resolve many of the issues.

As an independent candidate, won’t your ability to influence policy be limited?

We should not get into this trap. The [existing] electoral process is like an advertisement, an event. The spirit of the Constitution did not have political parties. It is an individual who represents a constituency. The parliamentarians who represent various constituencies across the country must work together towards creating solutions and policies that must benefit the people, not their party. All elected representatives are strong enough and have a voice.

An independent can raise questions in parliament and its committees. An independent is not just an individual, but represents the constituency. If you think an independent cannot influence policy, well then, what have the parties with a majority done? In a party, especially in a majority party, we have seen parliamentarians without a conscience or a voice.

In 2014, 3,234 independents contested the general elections--an average of almost six per constituency. While independent participation has swelled, the candidates collectively managed to get less than 5% of the total votes per constituency. Does that worry you?

We need to look at the candidates. I am not an independent candidate who is not known. I have been voicing my opinion for a while. We need an alternative. One thing is clear that the national parties have failed. Neither of the two national parties can claim that they’ll form a government. They need support from other parties. Regional parties are also strong players and are coming together to survive.

I think regional parties have leaders who know it is their time now. They have realised that the only way to survive is to work together on issues. With the emergence of regional parties there will be a change in what is considered a national issue, which was not the case when national parties were in power. Agriculture, finance, education policies among others will be restructured when regional parties emerge.

So would you prefer to work with a regional party?

I would like to partner with or support a government or the opposition as long as I am working in the interest of the people I represent.

In the 15 years to 2015 in Karnataka, only three years--2005, 2007 and 2010--did not see a drought. Farm distress has grown since--2018 too was declared a drought year in Karnataka. How do you plan to influence policy-making on water, especially since Bengaluru is among the 21 Indian cities expected to run out of groundwater by 2020?

If we look from north to south Karnataka, we see the cultivation of crops like sugarcane which are water intensive. Often these [farms] are owned by politicians. Political parties have not foreseen the loss of lakes and water bodies. There are government properties that lie unused which can be used to create lung space for the city.

We need to think about storing rainwater and recharging groundwater. We seem to develop apartments but cannot figure out what needs to be done with the sewage water. This has to be the priority to improve the standard of life.

Although the number of farmer suicides in India declined 21% in 2016 compared to 2015, Karnataka recorded the second-highest number after Maharashtra. How do you assess existing government policies on farm distress and what are your plans?

We need to have a scientific approach. Farm loan waivers are not a solution. Is this sustainable year after year? We must discourage water-intensive crops and provide incentive to farmers to move away from cash crops, and develop cold-storages for produce. We also need to look at the issues relating to the fringes of our forests, ensure their survival and the people dependent on them. The [Madhav] Gadgil report was a good report, but there too we saw political interference. If there is no intent, nothing can happen.

Six of Karnataka’s 30 districts have 1,720 manual scavengers, and the numbers may rise to “over 10,000” if all the districts are counted. These numbers are higher than the Centre’s estimate. How would you highlight the problem if elected?

This is the case with manual scavengers, contract labourers and contract teachers. They are not given proper equipment because you do not understand their work, do not respect them and their concerns with job security, do not empower their children with education and health. There is no intent. The government is not providing charity but it has a responsibility to empower. It has to be sustainable and governance has to be inclusive.

You are getting support from activists and political parties such as Swaraj India, Aam Aadmi Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), among others. What do you have in common with their agendas?

I respect them for their agenda. They are not egoistic. They want someone who is secular and makes sense. I am happy because people and organisations including auto-rickshaw unions are politically active and backing me as they think I will be their voice. When I began I knew there was disillusionment and a voice was needed.

Prime Minister Modi has often talked about India’s “high” GDP growth during his tenure. How do you assess this perceived link between right-wing politics and development?

In 2014, one of the first things that the BJP government did was to redefine the calculation of GDP. This made it seem like there was a sudden increase in the country's GDP. During the Manmohan Singh government, if the Modi government criteria is applied, GDP increased by only 2%. Though NDA-II [National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP, which came to power for the second time after the 2014 general elections] projected a higher rate of GDP growth, in actual fact, the country's economy was not doing well.

Implementing demonetisation when he did, Modi further weakened the economy by increasing taxes. Unemployment rose. His bombastic rhetoric of ridding the country of black money had the nation cheering the process until the impact of demonetisation was felt and economically weaker sections of the cities started their exodus from cities.

Modi's attitude towards jobs was one factor in the discrepancy between projected and actual unemployment. Making pakoras [fritters] is also a form of self-employment, he said in an interview. Unless there is a recognised process for (how we define) jobs, a government cannot claim this or that is self-employment. Most of the schemes he offered and tried to implement were merely to appease the people. They were not thought through and had no vision. This became apparent with Swachh Bharat when he talked about the dignity of women. Just making toilets across the country is not enough if you don’t take into consideration the people using them, their requirements, the mechanisms in use, sustainability issues, what it will take to run them and so on--70% of the toilets built have become godowns now.

When we assess and analyse what he has done, [we find] most of the work is half-hearted and not properly implemented. We need to understand this is just rhetoric. As conscious citizens, we need to analyse what the intentions behind these schemes and promises are. Do they really have the kind of compassion or love [Mahatma] Gandhi did? Do they have the thought process to create a constitution where the mobs doesn’t take over, real democracy and equality among citizens can be ensured? That is what we need.

All through history we see that the ideology and rhetoric of every right-wing government was built on lies to fool the public. They created false paradigms of development and sold it to the people, with no intention of it ever serving the public. That is what is happening today as well.

A recent survey revealed that the popularity of the BJP has revived in the wake of recent events and developments: the Balkot airstrikes, the Centre’s Rs 6,000 fund transfer to small and marginal farmers, and the 10% reservation for economically weaker sections. Your comments?

In my constituency, I did not hear the word ‘Balakot’, or anything about the 10% reservation. Hindutva was not an issue with those I have spoken to. Their issues included water, jobs development, and self respect.

(Paliath is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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