x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Sowing the seeds of democracy

Indian elections Out of a modest living room in Ranchi, a former Congress party official teaches villagers that all politics should be local.

RANCHI // Every Saturday, Raj Ranjan and his wife unstack a pile of red plastic chairs and arrange them into neat rows in the small living room of their house in Ranchi, in the east Indian state of Jharkhand. At about 12.30pm, the gate from the dusty lane swings open and men and women, some old, some young, begin to arrive. The room quickly fills up and latecomers must make do with old armchairs on the veranda outside.

At 1pm, Mr Ranjan starts to speak. The subject is always politics, but on this day he has chosen the topic of campaigning. "If you win one voter over, you have won over an entire family, maybe an entire village," he tells his students. "You shouldn't ever be complacent. Remember, one vote can swing it!" His pupils nod and some scribble in their notepads. They may not look much like the current politicians now criss-crossing India in their helicopters, election buses and bulletproof SUVs, but many of them hope to one day.

This is Netagiri Vidyalaya, an informal school set up by Mr Ranjan eight years ago to help local people learn the skills they need to enter politics, regardless of their social background. His greater goal is to breed a new class of politicians who are more responsive to the problems of the poor and underprivileged in a country where more than 800 million people live on less than US$2 (Dh7.34) a day.

"Politicians at the top are sitting there for their own benefit, not for the benefit of the country," Mr Ranjan said after his class. "We want effective government, one that's for the people by the people." It is easy to see why he might think that. Despite Jharkhand's vast mineral wealth, it has, according to the World Bank, one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in India and one of the lowest levels of rural electrification. Here, as in the rest of India, voters rely on their MPs to press the government to invest in infrastructure, education, health care and other basic public services - and to hold it to account for its actions, or lack of them.

Yet a recent report on the behaviour of India's MPs showed that during the last session of parliament, 75 per cent of legislators attended fewer than half of the debates and the lower chamber lost 22 per cent of its time to "unruly behaviour". Now, with the month-long national polls kicking off in Jharkhand and 16 other states today, Mr Ranjan is hopeful his school will get a chance to make a real difference.