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B Shantanu – Former IFS Officer and Political Activist

30 September 2012 2 Comments

Dear Readers,

Welcome to the show on Coffee With Sundar! Today we have a very special guest. Former IFS officer, now a political activist, Mr. B Shantanu is working on his vision of “Reclaiming India” – One Step at a Time. Please join me to welcome Mr. B Shantanu, who is a great role model for Indian Youth.


Me: Sundar Rajan G S
BS: B Shantanu, Former IFS officer and Political Activist

Me: Shantanu, Welcome to the show on Coffee With Sundar. You are a computer science engineer and an MBA from LBS. How did you get interested in political reforms of the country?

BS: I have had long-standing interest in the affairs of the country and politics, even during my college days. Although I did my undergraduate in Engineering, I chose History and Political Science as two of my subjects in the Civil Services main examination. During the 9 years I spent in the Indian Foreign Service, I got a chance to understand and learn about politics from a much closer distance than most people.

My interest in political reforms started in the early 2000s. In 2004, I started putting my thoughts together on a blog that I continue to maintain, eight years later. That blog was the starting point for a lot of thoughts about the situation in India and why large sections of our population remain so desperately poor.

Over the course of many discussions, readings and writings, I came to the realisation that India’s “fundamental problem” was poor governance and bad policies… and there was only one way to change that – the way of systemic reform and developing a political alternative. That was the start of this journey. For those of your readers who may be interested in learning more, here is a post I wrote on this journey – back in Oct ’08: “Coming Out of the Closet – Who is B Shantanu?” http://satyameva-jayate.org/2008/10/30/who-is-b-shantanu/

Me: What inspired you to take up civil services? How was your experience as an IFS Officer? Do you think IAS, IFS and IPS officers can really have the power to make a difference or are they hands tied. Why did you decided to leave IFS?

BS: The decision to explore a career in the Civil Services was actually made on a re-bound.
About half-way through the degree programme, I had come to realise that engineering was not something I really enjoyed. I therefore decided to explore the option of a post-graduate degree in management.

I prepared for CAT and applied to the IIMs in Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Calcutta while still in my pre-final year. I subsequently got selected for the interviews and received final admission offers from all three.

However, something entirely unexpected happened that changed the course of my life.
The final year exams that were due to be completed by June got postponed. And IIM Ahmedabad (where I had accepted the offer) refused to entertain the possibility of admitting me provisionally – citing the fact that at the beginning of the academic team at IIM-A, I would still not have appeared for my degree exam (thus technically being ineligible for a post-graduate course)

I was shattered and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to never again consider an MBA in India. That decision meant I had few choices left in terms of my professional career. I had not applied to any other post-graduate courses in India or abroad (to pursue an M.S.) unlike most of my classmates.

It was then that I started thinking of a career in the Civil Service.
However, I was very clear and very specific about what I wanted to do. I did not even consider IAS or IPS amongst my choices. My first choice was IFS, the second was IIS and third was Andaman and Nicobar Administrative Service.

Regarding your points about civil servants being able to bring change, I do not think so; I do not believe IFS, IAS or IPS offices can make a major difference to this state of affairs. For one, quite a significant number have been co-opted in the system or are too worried to raise their voice against blatant violations and flouting of rules or injustices.

And although there are quite a few who are clean, honest and determined to do something, they do need to report to the political masters and the nature of their work as well as the “system” makes them risk-averse. At best what you can expect are incremental, non-replicable changes.

The decision to quit was not sudden but it happened over the course of a few months. It was triggered by the realisation that there was a systemic flaw in bureaucracy which I could not accept. This “flaw” was the apparent disconnect between performance, capabilities and positions (or responsibilities). I would prefer not to go into specifics. But suffice to say that within a few weeks of coming back to New Delhi after my first posting, I got a taste of what the future might hold. It did not look good.

That and the accumulated frustration led to the decision to resign.
However, this was easier said than done. For one, I did not have much experience outside the government and I was not exactly young or single. But I did manage a successful transition by the grace of God and unstinted support from my family. My wife in particular was
a pillar of strength during that difficult period. She remains one. I was also very fortunate to receive a full-tuition scholarship from London Business School – and that is how I arrived in London in the autumn of 1998.

Me: A good number of us discuss the what the problems in the country are.. A few of us try to find solutions for it.. but only on paper.. Most people don’t take a leap of faith and plunge in to it.. How did you manage to do so?

BS: The “plunge” was not the result of an impulsive decision or spur-of-moment thinking. There were several triggers leading up to the summer of 2008. I have written about this in great detail on my blog http://satyameva-jayate.org/2008/10/30/who-is-b-shantanu/

All I would say regarding this is that the “plunge” could not have happened without the full emotional and moral support from the family – and our shared belief that we must try and give something back to our country. This as well as the realisation that real change will never come merely by writing or preaching. It would require action, albeit thoughtful action.

The question about how can one take the plunge comes up so many times that I have actually taken workshops on this subject in the past. Here is the link to the most recent one: “The Leadership Workshop for Political Activists” http://udbhavassociates.com/2011/05/political-workshop/

I am sure your readers would find this of interest.

Me: What does mean to be a political activist? Do you think you can transform the country without taking part in the elections? What are some of the initiatives which you are working on?

I use the word political activist to sharply differentiate my activities from social activists and people who are active in various NGOs. I do that to make people aware that my causes are purely political – as are my aims.

I also use this “label” to try and remove (in my own little way) the “stigma” associated with anyone involved in politics or active politically. I believe changing this perception is important.

As regards taking part in elections, I agree but only partly. There are numerous ways to influence “politics” – outside of contesting elections (think IAC and Jaago Re!)

I also believe the transition from being an “activist” into electoral politics is not a sharp, linear process (after all candidates fighting at elections are activists too). Standing for an election should be a carefully thought-through move and the culmination of a process that necessarily includes developing at least a basic understanding of the issues that plague us, developing an ideological paradigm to frame the issues and having some thoughts on how to confront the major challenges that face our nation.

Most of my current work and activities are focused on two things: raising the level of “political consciousness” and awareness amongst youngsters and professionals (this involves speaking to groups across India) and (ii) working with other groups & organisations focused on political reform to help build what I call COW – a “Coalition of the Willing” – that can, at some point in the near future, contest elections and offer a real, credible alternative to voters.

A vast part of what I do is not necessarily “visible” (although the blog and facebook page are the most “visible” part of my activism) but that is the nature of this work. The group that I am most closely associated with is the Freedom Team of India; In addition, I maintain close contact with numerous other reform-minded organisations such as LokSatta party, Professionals Party of India, Jago Party, Nav-Bharat etc.

I also conduct periodic Skype conference calls and “live” text chats on matters of national interest and policies. A lot of activities happen offline too but almost all of them find a mention on the Facebook page http://facebook.com/SatyamevaJayate.BShantanu

Separately, I am working on an offline initiative that should help us get more active on the ground and increase our sphere of activities. Please stay tuned.

Me: What do you think are the fundamental problems in our country. Why is such a rich country struggling with poverty?

BS: I think there at broadly four serious problems.

First (and most importantly), ineffective and incapable political leadership, second, poor choices in terms of policies, third strategic failure and last but not least, an almost dysfunctional middle class. Thankfully, the last bit is changing (the latest manifestation being the IAC movement).

The middle class needs to be at the forefront of this process of change and reform…and once that happens, change will follow. I can see some signs of that happening around me. I am optimistic, and I remain hopeful.

We do not have enough time or space to go into details of the first three problems – but I have written extensively about them on my blog and referred to them in my talks http://www.youtube.com/JaiDharma

Me: Why do think middle class should lead the reforms? I can understand that the rich would be happy with the status quo, but would not the poor, who form the vote banks, actually demand what they want from the leaders?

BS: As you mention, the rich have got no stake in changing the status quo. But it is very important to understand that this “mental revolution”, change in awareness and informed political participation is hard to come from those who are struggling to make a living. I find it unreasonable to expect empty stomachs to start this kind of a “revolution”

The poor are too busy with their basic wants & focused on their immediate needs (and understandably so) to demand the kind of changes we need to see in the system (e.g. electoral funding reform; less bureaucracy, more freedoms). It is therefore down to the 25%-30% of the population whose stomachs are full – and who have the luxury of thought – to lead this process of change. I am afraid we really have no other choice.

Me: Do you really believe from the bottom of your heart that there will be change in this country without bloodshed?
Yes, I do and I sincerely hope I am not wrong.

Me: What is your message for Indian Youngsters?

May I encourage you and your readers to watch this brief (4-min) clip where I actually talk about this – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q76rhfK0R14&feature=plcp

The road we are on is not for the faint-hearted. This is going to be a long war.
In the words of Shri Chandra Prakash Dwivedi (Director of Chanakya, the serial):

..ध्यान रहे, 

स्वतंत्रता का यह यज्ञ यौवन का बलिदान मांगेगा, स्वार्थ का बलिदान मांगेगा…

और तो और,  जागृत हो रही रण-चंडिका जीवन का बलिदान मांगेगी | 

…Bear in mind

 The “yagya” of independence will demand sacrifices, it will demand the sacrifice of our selfish desires…

And the fierce “Ran-Chandi” that is being aroused will demand we sacrifice our lives.
(loose translation)

But we need to believe we can win…And I firmly believe, we can. Jai Hind, Jai Bharat!

Readers, hope you enjoyed this edition of Coffee With Experts.

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