In a sharply polarizing election cam- paign there is one story of contrasts that is rich with more of the promise
than the peril of India’s future.
Meera Sanyal, formerly a senior executive
in a multinational bank, and Medha
Patkar, a veteran social activist, are both
contesting the Lok Sabha election as candidates of the Aam Aadmi Party from two
seats in Mumbai.
It we look beyond the obvious differences
in their professional and ideological background — we might see glimpses of India’s
role in redefining globalization.
Sanyal, the daughter of a naval officer,
holds a business administration degree
from a school in France and is a silk and
chiffon clad member of the South Mumbai
Patkar, the daughter of a socialist trade
union leader, studied political science in
Mumbai and is known for her aesthetic
Twenty years ago both women were on
opposite sides of a famous fight in the early
years of India’s shift towards globalization.
Sanyal worked for a multinational bank
that was handling one of the first foreign
direct investment projects — Enron’s
power plant at Dabhol in Ratnagiri district
in Maharashtra. Patkar led protests against
the environmental damage and livelihood
dislocation caused by the same project.
For much of the last two decades the
worlds that Sanyal and Patkar represent
have been perceived to be at war. Patkar’s
activism in favor of communities threatened by displacement has been seen in the
business community as an obstacle to
India’s rapid industrial growth.
In particular, Patkar has been pilloried by
people in Gujarat for her dogged opposition to the Sardar Sarovar project, a large
dam that Gujaratis have seen as the water
life line of that state.
Even during this election campaign
Patkar has been heckled in public and
denounced as a deshdrohi(betrayerofthe
country)because her activism is accused of
However, among beleaguered slum
dwellers, tribals and landless peasants
Patkar is a legend. It was the Patkar-led
Narmada Bachao Andolan, which, in the
early 1990s, brought together enough data
to compel the World Bank to institute the
first-ever independent review of one of its
When the review found that people were
indeed being displaced without the legally
mandated rehabilitation and compensation, the World Bank withdrew from the
Among those hurt by India’s push for
rapid growth and globalization private
international banks, like the one Sanyal
headed in India, who are denounced for
putting profits above people.
And yet, a slow and barely visible process
of change has been unfolding. It was due to
dogged resistance of activists like Patkar
across the world that some of the world’s
largest financial institutions signed a ‘Who
Cares Wins’ statement in 2004.
Such shifts, pushed as much by professionals within the mainstream, led to the
establishment of the United Nations
Principles of Responsible Investing, in
Similarly, the international mining industry has set standards for compliance with
human rights and acknowledged the rights
of indigenous communities to their lands
None of this impresses or impacts those
Indian business people and political leaders who view such higher human rights
standards as holding back expansion of
A vocal section of Indian business has
pinned its hopes on a new government at
the Center giving rapid clearances to projects and not being too much of a stickler on
human rights issues.
It is in this situation that Patkar and
Sanyal are poised to play a crucial and
While Patkar gives voice to the suffering
of people at the grassroots, Sanyal is articu-
lating the key principles that could build a
more just and equitable society or economy.
Most notably — equal opportunity, free-
dom for every citizen to develop her or his
potential through enterprise and hard
work, and be protected from discrimina-
tion on grounds of gender, religion, caste,
community, occupation, belief or political
Sanyal’s emphasis on individual liberty
may not quite match Patkar’s vision of society through the prism of community.
At first glance Patkar may also hesitate to
embrace Sanyal’s confidence in an economy
built on broad personal ownership.
But they have powerful common cause in
wanting, as Sanyal’s campaign statement
says: ‘A level playing field and a stable and
fair regulatory environment, that protects
the interests of customers, prevents
monopolistic practices, curtails crony capi-
talism and corruption.’
Patkar may be sceptical about the extent
of Sanyal’s faith in markets. In turn Sanyal
may have to make more room for non-mar-
ket relations that are still prized in many of
the communities where Patkar works.
But both seem to agree on some core val-
ues, as articulated in Sanyal’s campaign
statement: ‘The rules of play for the market
economy must be long-term and ought to
be formulated so that it is profitable to
recycle, use renewable sources of energy
and be economical with natural resources.’
Sanyal’s campaign statement also firmly
supports devolution of resources, power
and authority to local self-governing bod-
ies in order to empower citizens to effec-
tively participate in local administration.
That is precisely what Patkar and groups
she works with have demanded for over 25
As always the devil will be in the details
and these will not be easy to work out.
But whether or not both Sanyal and
Patkar become members of parliament
they are in a position to help shift the discourse on development, economic growth
and globalization.A fruitful dialogue
between them and their respective associates could help shift India from a location
where business is mired in social and
environmental conflicts to India as a
location for path breaking social-business
models that foster a globalization that
puts people above profits.
Rajni Bakshi is the Gandhi Peace Fellow at
Medha Patkar and Meera Sanyal, AAP candidates from Mumbai, are poised to play a
Gateway House: Indian Council on Global
Relations. She is also a Trustee of Citizens
crucial and complementary role, says Rajni Bakshi
A STUDY IN CONTRAST
Medha Patkar, center, and Meera Sanyal, right, with Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal during a campaign in Mumbai.