An Interview with Madhukeshwar Desai, Vice-President of the Bharatiya Janata Party Youth Wing
The Politic: Could you start by taking us through a quick description of the BJP — which we understand you’re involved with — and perhaps tell us about what its political standpoints are or what its mission is?
Madhukeshwar Desai: Sure. The BJP stands for the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Party was formed in 1980, and in its earlier form it was the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (Jan Sangh), which was formed right after independence. We are the only party in India that values itself on the basis of its ideology. Our ideology is Hindutva, which is not the same as Hinduism, the religion. To explain it as simply as possible, Hindutva says that you value your country above anything else. It’s country first, then you put your party next, and then you put yourself last. That is the motto of the party, and that is the ideology behind which the party functions. The BJP is also the only party in the entire country that does not have one family that runs the entire party. So any other party in India is effectively a fiefdom for some family or another. Even the oldest party in India, the Congress Party, started off Jawaharlal Nehru (Prime Minister), followed by his daughter, followed by her son, followed by his wife — or widow, followed by her son. Everything is dynastic. We also have a lot of regional parties in India that follow a similar a principle. The structure is just the family. In the BJP, we are a cadre-based party, and we pride ourselves on the fact that we are a cadre. I, for example, am the Vice President for the Youth Wing of the Party. So the party started off in 1980, and the first elections we contested were in 1984, and we just won two parliamentary seats out of 543. In 2014, we won 282, a single majority all-across. As for the party itself, the party is very structured. We have a president, vice presidents, general secretaries, secretaries, and then the body of the party. And we pride ourselves in having an internal democracy. For example, as VP of the Youth Wing I sit together with the president of the Youth wing and the in charge of from the parent body every three months or so to discuss and deliberate within the ideology framework of the party what it is we must do to improve our out reach to young people So we discuss it, then create a plan, then implement it. It isn’t one person, from one family, that, on a whim, says, “You know what, let’s do this. This is going to make me look better individually, so let’s do this instead.” This is how the internal democracy of the party functions. So the same structure that exists centrally — we’re a very large country — with a president, vice president, general secretary, etc., also applies to the state, and then at each constituency. At every single level there’s a strong chain of command to make sure all decisions made are made with consideration to the entire party — right from the voting booth level and to the center of the Party. A lot of young people associate with the Party, because unlike other parties in India, you don’t have to be close to one person, or one family who is involved in the party. We have had so many instances where people have made it to the top — including our current Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who started as a simple party worker. As in, a party worker that would just go around sticking posters on the walls. From there, working up the ranks, to become Prime Minister of the counrty. This is impossible to imagine in any other context, in any other party in the country. Our home minister, Rajnath Singh, was formerly the Youth Wing president for a booth — as in one booth where you would go to vote. And he rose up the ranks from there to become President of the entire Party across the whole country, and now, of course, number two ranking cabinet minister. That really gets a lot of young people motivated to join the party, because merit matters and not your last name. They think, if I join the party, and I work hard in this party, I have a definitive path to get to the top. There isn’t an artificial glass ceiling imposed on them because of the background they come from. Our current Prime Minister comes from an extremely humble background — he used to sell tea, and make a living that way. From there he has worked his way through the party and come to the position he holds today.
TP: As Vice President of the Youth Wing, what is your role in the Party’s hierarchy, and what does the Youth Wing do as it relates to the larger BJP?
MD: So I joined the party while we were still in opposition — I got my first position in 2013. At that point in time, the role was primarily to highlight the defects of the then ruling party – the UPA, and to explain to people how we would do things differently if elected to power. In 2014, we were elected to power. The Youth Wing’s primary role during this time was to connect and hold programs for young people inside and outside colleges, and young working professionals – that strata. The coordination is pretty seamless from the Youth Wing to the main Party. There is no discord between what the two are doing. After we got into power, the role of the Party changes from highlighting the defects of the government to functioning as a conduit between what people want and communicating that message to the people in power — because it is our people who are in power. One of the exercises we went through after we won was to make the party the largest party in the entire world. This isn’t just some random statistic that has come up. [Let me explain how we counted:] When you go to a bank, you have to fill out forms, so what we did to make it easy as possible to become a primary member of the party was ask people to give a “missed call” — or to dial a number and quickly hang up to avoid service fees — so your mobile number is registered on our server. We then send the caller a message confirming you actually want to become a member of the party. That’s how we create a roster of all those who are actually there, as members. It isn’t a number we cooked up. In fact, these are people who have signed up physically to say, “I want to be associated with the party,” in some form or another. At last count, I think we have around 1.2 million and growing. The role of the Youth Wing now has been to, like I said earlier, be a conduit. We have so many members that the idea is for the Youth Wing to be a reflecting board for the Party. The Party does not believe in a distinction between leaders and party workers. Our party believes that everyone is a party worker. In the Indian context, there is this distinction, where one might think — I am a leader, so I will appeal to the masses and get the votes, while you are a worker, so you do the grunt work. That is not a concept within the BJP. We believe everyone is equal. One thing the Party has to consider is that once you are elected to power, you don’t want to become disconnected from what the average person wants. Every single week a different minister will come to the party head office and we will have interactions with people to voice their concerns that might otherwise be intimidated to go to some of the more difficult offices. This is the key — getting the ministers to come to them. Even at the lower levels, we are reaching out to state ministers or state leaders to reflect on smaller issues so they can be addressed correctly. The Youth Wing of the party helps to act as this conduit now that we’re in government.
TP: Right now, you’re the Vice President of the Youth Wing. There has been a pattern of former Youth Wing leaders going on to serve in high positions within the larger BJP. Is this something you see in your future?
MD: The Party considers itself a family. The family looks out for each other. It’s not like a job, where if I do something I demand a promotion or I quit and work somewhere else. Our party is the only one that has not have a vertical split since its founding. For example, the Congress Party has had many splits where people have split from the main party — taken leaders and workers and created other, smaller parties — but because our party considers itself a family, we do not have these splits, because you cannot function outside the family. When it comes to what’s next, it’s really the party leadership that decides based on where you are and how you function. If you do not continue in a formal role within the BJP, you’re always engaged in some form or another. For example, if somebody is General Secretary today and they’re not tomorrow, it doesn’t mean that they’re sent back home and are disengaged. Their skill set is still utilized, though it may be utilized in a different form, and they may be given a position at a later point as well. But, like I said, the party leadership really decides how this goes forward.
TP: Because of your involvement with politics, could you speak to some of the issues — perhaps the most challenging ones — that are facing India as a country?
MD: The biggest challenge that we’ve had to face is that the ten years of the previous government have effectively left a lot of the administration in a very bad condition. Reviving them, as most of these serve a public function, does not happen overnight. The previous government had huge corruption allegations against it. Almost every single day, you would have a new corruption allegation that was levied against the government. The challenge of that has two parts: one is to get the institutions that were corrupted to be corrected, the other is to build public faith in those institutions again. Our government, during the first two and a half years we’ve been in power, has not had a single allegation of corruption. Not even one. What that has done is built public faith in the fact that these institutions can function again. Bringing them up to speed is something that will take time — that is one of the greatest challenges.
TP: Could you elaborate more on some of these institutions you’re referring to?
MD: For example: India is the largest mobile market in the world. We had a scam on the issuing of the previous spectrum (see: 2g spectrum scam). Further spectrums need to be released, because new generations keep coming out. To make sure that the process is done in a free and fair manner — transparently — is a challenge. We need to reach a point where it is acceptable to both a financial and a public audit. I’m sure you’ll appreciate the different between the two. Another issue has been the coal scam. Coal mines would be allotted to companies, which were effectively shell companies, at a lower value, and were sold off at a huge premium for having done absolutely no value addition whatsoever. That created a lot of doubt in the mind of the average person regarding what was being done with these sorts of transactions. With any country, natural resources are something you must monetize continuously, so this was something we had to address. My government raised huge amounts of money from coal auctions that were done in a free, fair and transparent manner. We are building faith in our institutions again.
RB: Would you say your government is more focused on domestic issues India faces, or more on international issues and policy?
MD: That’s an interesting question, because one would certainly see our Prime Minister more as a world leader today, than just a domestic leader. I was here in America in 2014, and the only question people would ask me was, “Is there really so much corruption that exists in your country?” That was the only discourse that existed on India’s politics. Today, if you look at the discourse on India, you’ll see we are the fastest growing country of all the BRICS countries. We’re growing at 7.5%, as opposed to China, which is at around 5%. China has slowed down. The other countries are lower than that, of course. We are establishing ourselves as a leader among emerging markets, and putting ourselves in the position to say that India is a serious country, with a demographic and a democracy that are taken seriously. We are here to play at the big boy’s table, and we wont be pushed around. That is the perception that the honorable Prime Minister has taken up from the first day and has done very well in promoting. Domestic issues are issues that are ongoing, and will always take priority over anything else. Nonetheless, given the way globalization is today, I don’t think any country can afford to say it exists in isolation — besides maybe North Korea.
TP: On the global stage, what role do you see India playing in the future? Internationally, countries have been engaged in a war against terror — how has India involved itself with this?
MD: One of the biggest successes has been the BRICS summit which was held in India just a couple of weeks back. A definitive message went out from the BRICS countries that terrorism will not be tolerated and will be tackled strongly. Given that we’ve had cross-border terrorism (from Pakistan) for some time now, this government does not tolerate it like the last government. We have asserted ourselves in our own terrorism to say that we will not tolerate terrorism any longer. This has been communicated through the actions we’ve taken, especially with surgical strikes to eliminate terrorists within our own territory that they were occupying. This was done recently.
TP: We also understand that one of the biggest issues that the BJP working on is implementing uniform civil codes. Could you talk about what those are and why that is one of the issues that your party has focused on?
MD: Like I said, our party is really based on ideology. And if you look at the constitution they have directive principles of state policy. The directive principles of state policy effectively say that it is not part of the constitution now, but it is where the country aspires to be. And the uniform civil code is one of the directive principles of state policy. Another one is that internally we’ve got a lot of commentary on is cow slaughter and that is the banning of the slaughter of cows. Both of them are embedded in our ideology. What we are saying is don’t divide personal laws on the basis of religion. Having uniform law like you have in most countries without restricting religious freedoms so our constitution is broad enough and elastic enough whilst having uniform civil code in place. It is the party’s ideology to aspire to get there one day. But it would be incorrect to say that the government is working on it right now. The government has not taken a stance to say that we will rule out the uniform civil code by “x” date, but that there should be discussion around this important topic.
TP: So you kind of touched upon this a little bit earlier, but could you speak about the party’s stance on social issues, particularly gender equality or things of that nature? We had been reading about how religion can sometimes rule the social practices of women in particular regions, so can you tell us about how that has manifested in India?
MD: Sure. One of the biggest programs we have is called “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana” (Save Girl Child, Educate Girl Child). The reason that we have this program is that we have a skewed sex ration in India, with a preference towards the boy child as opposed to the girl child. The first thing that we want to do is to make sure that it’s no longer skewed. And that if you have a girl child, that they must be treated and educated in the same manner as a boy. And it’s one of the most ambitious programs of our government. And we want to make sure that it goes to every part of the country. To give you an idea, in Gujarat– the state that the Prime Minister is from– just before school starts, the entire administration goes to every village and town speaks to every family and encourages them to send their children, especially their girl child, to school and educate them. And that is the amount of commitment that we have on equality. It’s not just lip service to say that women should be treated on par with men, but making sure that right from the very beginning, that women are treated on par with men.
TP I also understand that you’re CEO of the Mumbai Center for International Arbitration (MCIA). Do you think you could talk about what inspired you to pursue this enterprise, and what role you hope to see it play in India’s economic sphere.
MD: So, I live in Mumbai, and Mumbai is the financial capital of the entire country. If you look at it objectively, every country has a financial capital. Whether it’s New York in America or Paris in France, or any other country for that matter. In 2007, we had a report in Mumbai that was published to take Mumbai to the next level and make it an international financial center. This report unfortunately got shot because of the 2008 meltdown, and it wasn’t taken up again. Then my party came into power in 2014 and the chief minister, shri Devendra Fadnavis is actually one of the youngest chief ministers in the entire country. He became chief minister when he was 44. He is a very forward-thinking chief minister and he said ‘Instead of coming up with new ideas, let’s look at what has been shared so far and let’s see what can be implemented before scrapping it and going to the chalkboard again.’ So we looked at that and on thing that kept coming up was that every successful financial center in the world had built a successful arbitration center as well. It was something that was missing in India. To put it as simply as possible, the chief minister actually came to America and was speaking to investors and the investors said ‘Look, it’s a great place to invest. We’re willing to take a business risk, but if something were to go wrong, then we don’t want to be stuck in your courts for a very long time.’ The court system in India is very well-respected, but it takes a lot of time. Especially with commercial matters, time is money and it becomes very difficult to justify that. So most countries across the world have really moved toward arbitration, about ten to fiteen years ago. So this is something that was required to be done. I’m was given this opportunity by the Honorable Chief Minister .He allowed me to set it up as an independent body from the government. We looked at what other jurisdictions had done, and set it up in the same way that would be palatable to international arbitration practitioners. And so we’ve got a fair number of international arbitration practitioners on the governing council of the arbitration center and we built it in less than a year and half.
TP: So have you seen that having an impact on foreign investment in India?
MD: Yes. So, there are two things now that we have. We have the governing law which is the Arbitration and Conciliation Act which was amended to make it more attractive to arbitrate in India. And the government of Maharashtra, the state government, passed a policy recently where government contracts will impliment institutional arbitration clauses. So what that effectively means is, besides Singapore, the government of Maharashtra is the only state in all of South Asia that has said that if you enter a contract with the government that is valued highly, then you will adhere to a fixed time and a fixed fee to make sure that if a dispute were to arise, you would resolve that dispute as fast as possible. That is the commitment that we’ve made and we’ve received praise for that.
TP: We know that you’ve been involved with the BJP and that you have a pretty big role in the MCIA, how do you balance these things? How do you prioritize or have time to sleep?
MD: (laughs) I’m going bald at 29. I guess that’s the only answer there is.
TP: So do you think that this is sustainable? Do you see yourself taking one direction further than the other?
MD: I’ll tell you very honestly about the MCIA. What we want to do is create an institution. It’s not so much what the individual does as it is how the institution progresses. And we’ve got a huge amount of support from domestic and international practitioners to really push it forward. It’s a team effort that’s going to make it work and not just me individually making sure that it happens. Yes, leadership and vision are required for any institution and that is something that I do, but beyond that it’s a group of people that manage it and make sure that it continues to grow and exceed expectations.
TP: So ultimately, you hope it will sustain itself?
MD: Not hope, I will ensure that it sustains itself.
TP: When it comes to corruption in India, how do you feel the past instances of corruption in India has shaped your party’s approach to governance? Do you have to be especially transparent to help alleviate people’s fears of corruption? Have you put new laws in place that hold the government accountable should the issues arise again?
MD: So, we’ve put very strict laws in place. We have this system in India where effectively, if I know a person, and I’ve made a lot of illicit money, and I can’t show it on my name obviously because I can’t justify it, so I pass it on to that person and she hold on to it on my behalf. So what we’ve done is pass an act that will monitor and make this illegal to make sure that this cannot be done. The other thing we’ve done is, we have the Black Money Act now. “Black Money” is effectively cash money. So we have an economy in which illicit cash is used more than official funds. And what we’ve done to curb this is two things. The first is for people who have taken their money and gone outside the country. It’s not a situation that’s unique to India, it’s across the world including America where a lot of people will take their money and store it in safe havens. So we give everyone in India a deadline to say that if you have illicit money abroad, declare it to the government with fine and tax and bring it back to India. And we got a billion dollars worth of taxes. The second is the cash money within the economy in India. We had a timeline which ended September 30. So you declare your illicit money, pay 30% tax and a 15% fine which is a total of 45%, and you effectively convert your illicit money to legal money by paying tax and fine to the government and not having a profit in the future. So we have given evaders a window to comply and from now on, if people are found with illicit money, you have to pay 200% of the money found as well as a term in jail– a very strict penalty. So what we’ve done is, we’ve not made it unfair. The system has existed for so long, so what we’ve said is here is a compliance window; now comply. If you don’t comply, then you’ll have to face the music. So, from a legislative perspective, that is what we’ve done. And to bring about faith in the people, like I said, we’ve not had a single allegation in the past two years.
TP: Going off of that, you’ve spoken a lot about the laws you’ve enacted. What would you say is the most successful law or policy that you think has made the biggest difference in India?
MD: The Jan Dhan Yojana Law (Prime Minister’s People Money Scheme), which effectively means that you can open a bank account and just put one rupee in it. What our Prime Minister is trying to do is move our country from a cash-based economy to one where it comes into the banking system. So what that does is open up a whole new market and builds confidence in giving to the banking system. In addition to that, ,we opened over 200 million accounts in less than a year and a half. We’ve got an entire section of society that would otherwise not use the banking system integrated in the banking system. We’re trying to sway people away from using cash and move towards a cashless economy. In addition to that what we’ve done is– and I’ve seen this personally, it’s very sad– when the primary breadwinner of the family passes away, it effectively puts the rest of the family in a circle of debt. Even if they didn’t have debt. If you are the primary breadwinner of the family, and you die all of a sudden, then your family has to fend for themselves and they’re not used to making as much. It’s a vicious cycle that exists. So what we have is the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bhima Yojna which is a life insurance policy where for a small amount of Rs. 330 a year, [in your bank account] and you’re insured. You get a life insurance policy. So it’s not just a bank account that you open. You get the benefit of upto Rs. 2, 00, 000 of insurance. So it’s incentivizing people and bringing them into formal social systems.