The following interview with Bhesetti Apparao Babji, Vice President of the Lok Satta Party and Constituency Incharge for Visakhapatnam (North) was conducted in a phased-fashion by Sundeep Pattem and Raghuveer Mukkamalla. Readers are strongly encouraged to read through to the end to understand Babji’s grasp on ground-level issues and for a fairly comprehensive view on the challenges for the party’s penetration at grassroots level. Many interesting anecdotes are within!
Raghuveer: Babji garu, you are the party’s most visible presence in Vizag North. What is the biggest change since you took over in 2012?
Babji: I involved all the local leaders of Lok Satta and took the lead in organizing the supporters of the constituency and assigned responsible people for the key party positions. We are also seeing an influx of new members.
We are a legitimate presence in the constituency now and this is borne by the fact that we are a mandated presence for any all-party meeting in the district. If any issue of the district is in the news, all TV channels and print media ask us for our take on it.
Our party office in Akkayapalem is a beehive of activity and is functioning better than units of any major political party.
(Note: For concrete achievements in Vizag North, please see the Success Stories section.)
Raghuveer: Before you took up Vizag North, you did significant work in Vizianagaram and also contested there as an MLA in 2009. Can you talk about your experience?
Babji: Yes, I was a contestant and bagged 3424 votes without giving out a single paisa. It was definitely a big number considering that we were so new and were lacking organization.
After the elections, we realized our main shortcoming – lack of organizational strength. In Vizianagaram, 17,000 people had taken membership. But we could not consolidate their support in the form of votes due to lack of organization. They took membership but did not think that since I am a member, I should vote for this party. We need to maintain an office, people should be able to reach us, we should be available among them to help solve problems. This is leadership. Having learnt from this, I have been focusing especially on building organizational strength.
Sundeep: Let us step back for a bit. How did you get interested in politics/public service?
Babji: Looking at the situation in our society, it was clear that only a particular section of it was developing. I had been following JP’s articles in the newspapers with great interest. He was speaking with clarity and insight on the problems faced by our society. Inspired by this, I joined the Lok Satta movement in 2001. As part of it, I worked extensively on the issue of electoral reforms. Subsequently, he emphasized that to bring change, we would have to be directly involved in politics. At that juncture, I resigned from my job and joined the party, and politics, full time.
Sundeep: What about before joining Lok Satta? Were you involved in your student days in some way? Did you have other role models?
Babji: My grandfather, Bhesetti Apparao gaaru, who I am named after, was a freedom fighter who served two terms as MLA from the Swatantra party. His influence is naturally there on me. He was an associate of Tanguturi Prakasam gaaru, whose life and example I greatly adore. Also, from the leaders of that time, Gouthu Lachanna and N. G. Ranga. From the next generation, I admire P.V.G. Raju and V. V. Ramana.
Sundeep: You have been with the Lok Satta party since its inception. In these years as a political party, what kind of impact has it made? What are its primary achievements?
Babji: I will list out 10 major points:
1. The party has raised a serious and continuing debate on the rampant liquor problem and achieved success in curbing it in some areas.
2. We have brought about a discussion on corruption and ways of fighting it, especially among the youth.
3. We have put pressure on the government to curb land grabbing.
4. The party has reached a level where other parties consider it a serious threat that needs to be countered.
5. We have gained the trust of people, with respect to the party’s positions on key issues and commitment to honesty.
6. In 60 years of independence, JP is first leader to win elections without doling out money.
7. Even as a solitary MLA of the party, with his superb oratory, JP has been able to make an impact in the State assembly, and grab the attention of observers.
8. The party has initiated a state-wide focus on youth employment.
9. The credit for achieving G.O. 59, which permits the sale of rice freely in any part of the country, goes to Lok Satta.
10. It is the only party in the state working to propagate its ideology and highlight society’s problems among the public via electronic and print media.
Sundeep: Excellent. On the other hand, what are the main challenges faced by the party?
1. Party funds – state-wide the financial support for party organization and activities is quite limited. Given the weak social and financial background of our cadre, this is a big limitation.
2. People consider it a very good party, but expect that it should gain strength and deliver spectacular results immediately.
3. We need some people coming into the party to take up politics full time. We are not getting enough people who are ready for this. The leaders need to take ownership – be committed to growing the party and winning. The contrast with other parties is that they spend a lot of money; they have cash, beer, biryani schemes. When people come for those things, then the leaders do their leadership. We don’t do such things, so we need to work harder, to go out and look for people who will work for us.
4. We need people who know ground level practical realities to enter politics. You cannot take a white collar approach to problems or be scared of the rough and tumble aspects. When you talk ideology and idealism, people will just nod and give compliments. The reality is that people want actions in the here and now – “What can you do for us? Will you come to the police station when we need? Will you come to the MRO office for us? Will you come to our MDO office? Will you come if we get into trouble? Can you give Rs. 1000 when we desperately need it?” To deliver in this situation, we need leaders to take full responsibility on their shoulders, to make a full time commitment and be among the people.
Sundeep: How do you plan to strengthen the party?
Babji: Only when we solve people’s problems will they come to us. These people have urgent needs. We should be able to address those needs. If someone is facing a problem, we have to be there and help them out. They have to believe that if they come to us, we will take it up.
Recently, I went to a hospital to see someone. There I met a rickshaw driver, Satyam, whose daughter was bitten by a dog that day. On inquiring, he told me that they were refusing his daughter the vaccine. I was furious. Went to question the RMO and told him that if they were short of vaccines, I will call Collector to ask why. Within 2 minutes, the vaccine was given. To show his gratitude, Satyam brought apples to our party office. Do you see what I’m saying? If I sit in the office and give lectures, who will come to us? We need to work at ground level. We need to be among the people, 24 hours.
Another instance – when the Urban Bank was liquidated, is our party big enough here to do justice to 21,700 people? Why did the other big parties not take it up? We had to build up an agitation for it. We spent 10,000 rupees and held two public meetings and formed a committee of investors. Got a letter written by JP to Duvvuri Subba Rao. Only with this could we get noticed by people. People have urgent needs. If I only tell them about a rosy future, they will look elsewhere for help. They have no choice.
In Nellimarla mandalam, there is a 80 year old woman, who was not being given pension. I asked our party worker, Lakshmi Naidu, to go to the MDO office to ask about it. The MDO categorically stated that it was impossible to grant the pension. I called up Dr JP and he spoke to the relevant people. She received the pension by evening. She is from a community of fruit sellers. The reason I am telling you all this is that the incident influenced their whole community, they talked about it, “Lakshmi Naidu from Lok Satta did this, he responds if we take our issues to him!”. This is how you go into the public. When I was contesting the MLA election, the coconut seller in front of our office gave 50 rupees for the campaign.
In Gurazada Apparao’s play Kanyasulkam written 120 years ago, there is a scene where the Gireesham character asks a jutka driver for matches to light his tobacco and lectures him on independence. The jutka driver asks Gireesham if the local head constable will be removed if we get independence. The sad thing is that we are still in the same position.
The common man’s problems are urgent, everyday. If you lecture them about change in the future, on what basis can they trust you? When will you come to power and when will you help them? They naturally look to the already powerful for help, even if they have absolutely no respect for them. If you want to win them over, words are not enough. You have to understand their problems, talk in their language, be ready to help them with the problems that are bothering them in the here and now.
Sundeep: What are the challenges faced by your team?
Babji: Definitely Lok Satta is in the minds of people at most places. We are ahead of all the other parties as far as integrity is concerned. The challenge for us is that we are lacking in terms of financial resources to hold cadre. Even in terms of strategy, our primary requirement is to appoint some full time cadre. Several poor, BPL (Below Poverty Line) youngsters are ready to work for us, but we should be able to pay them minimally – 2,000 to 3,000 rupees per month. If you see, even CPI and CPI(M) have about 80-90 full time paid employees in each district. Their job is to scout for and bring people to join in their party and encourage them as leaders. This is the basic requirement in politics. The change is not going to come because of JP or Babji. If we invest in one youngster and support full time, he will bring 10 others. This is how the party will grow. So we need to be able to support that first guy.
Most people coming into our party are white collar workers. Actually, it is the poor, hardworking people who know the situation on the ground. To put it bluntly, professionals are not going to make it happen for us. Will they climb a tree and tie flags? Put up posters on walls? Arrange the mike, put up a tent? We need such people to work for us. We need to be able to support them.
Another challenge is that many of our admirers only want to talk about corruption and degradation, they won’t even come out to vote! It is unfortunate. They want their kids to become doctors, actors, software engineers, go off to America. They are not thinking that improving politics will lead to a better future for our children. They do not want to come out in the open and protest, due to fear of MLAs, MPs, powerful people. There is a great fear of politics.
Sundeep: How do you think this can be changed?
Babji: Politics has become like that. But it needs to be fought against. That is what leadership is about. A PFL member was shocked to see how I am functioning in the current scenario. He was worried about attacks on me because of my blatant questioning and confrontation of the ruling party and its MLA. Only with politics like this will the party gain the support of common people.
People ask me how I am able to succeed in places where people are terrified of leaders like Botsa Satyanarayana. I don’t have any businesses. I don’t have any concerns. We have our party principles, our agenda. We have integrity. I have the ability to speak on what I want to, write what I want when needed. So I challenge them on real issues. Even about the problem of money, I am telling you, but not my cadre. They want to do something and it needs, say Rs. 3000, I ask them to go ahead and worry about raising the money myself. Otherwise, why will they work for us?
Sundeep: Do district and mandal level offices get financial support from the central party?
Babji: Right from the beginning, Lok Satta provides funds for each mandal only for restricted and important activities. In other parties, all activities from top to bottom are financed and the party president has overarching decision making powers. Our party is not like that – we are a party of workers and leaders. For instance, what happens in Vizag North cannot be decided by JP, we will plan and decide for ourselves. But our workers are overwhelmed by this, they think “How can we do all this? Can we carry the burden on our own?” We cannot blame them either, since our party cadre is drawn mostly from socially, economically, politically backward families.
So you see the problem. For instance, forget about activities, it takes 17-18 thousand rupees per month just to run the party office – we need the space for meetings, a mike, pamphlets etc. Also, we have committed party workers assisting in the office. They are very poor and we need to support them financially, give bare minimum, say 2-3 thousand per month. Otherwise, how can they come? They are too poor and need to work to feed themselves.
I have to spend time on raising money. This time could be better utilized in attending to people’s problems and growing the party.
Sundeep: This is very important indeed. Please tell us about your responsibilities as Lok Satta Vice President.
Babji: As the Vice President, I participate in some high level decision making activities and respond appropriately to state level issues as and when they arise. However, I focus mostly on 3 districts (Srikakulam, Vizianagaram, Vishakapatnam), and now am concentrating more on Vizag North.
Sundeep: How does your understanding of what the common public needs translate into political strategy?
Babji: People have a certain image of a politician. Our leaders need to understand it. We might want to change the political culture, but we have to balance it with pragmatism. Only when you dress a certain way, appear a certain way, do the public think of you as a politician. If you get off an RTC bus, wearing a neatly tucked shirt and a cloth bag, they think you are a silly fellow of no consequence.
To grab people’s attention, some level of confrontational politics is unavoidable. Sometime ago, a local MLA did a round of review of traffic and municipal services. We questioned him about this ‘only-for-show’ activity, asked where he was at the time of crisis. Was this out of love of people or since local elections were coming up? Doing bold things like this is leadership. People acknowledge this. They say who other than Babji can openly question like this? This is the kind of political discussion needed. When we can show this, people will own us, tomorrow or the day after. If you cannot get into this, cannot attack the enemy of the people, how can you stand as a political party?
This is the kind of politics needed. This is what leadership is about. Otherwise, we will remain where we are. Something more than a NGO and something less than a political party. You cannot shy away from these things.
People have got used to a certain type of politics. If you look back at the time of elections, newspapers and channels did not give us any coverage. They only want JP when there is nothing else going on. For instance, when JP toured 10-12 districts for 40 days during elections, they gave single line coverage on the 6th page. By contrast, when Chandrababu Naidu launched a fierce attack on Congress, the media created a 10 day hoopla around it. We need to counter this, figure out how to get attention in this atmosphere.
We have a number of intellectuals. We have good material for the educated sections. But what about the material for the common man? Why did they respond to NTR’s 2 rupee rice scheme or YSR’s Indiramma Illu scheme? Not that we should do similar things. But we should understand why those things work. These people are in a desperate situation. If they had a comfortable life, why would they run after 2 rupee rice? Be there for them, do something for them in the now and here, then they will listen to your vision for the future.
Sundeep: Great insights, thank you! How can Lok Satta supporters help you and your team continue and expand the excellent work?
Babji: Constituency-wide, we currently have people working for free for us. But when we want people in each ward, we need money. According to your ability and belief, if you can help us support at least one worker per ward, that will be great. Of course, it is not like I am wanting to depend on that. I will continue to work in any case. That is my duty, my dharma. I am quite happy with this kind of opportunity to exchange views with and take suggestions from friends and well-wishers like you. I want to convey my heartfelt thanks.
Sundeep: It was a great pleasure speaking with you, Babji garu. Talking to you gives substance to our belief that change will come, that the people who can make it happen are out there.