Kiran Bedi. Photograph: Seamus Murphy
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The NS Interview: Kiran Bedi, social activist and former police chief

“My policing was nothing but activism – it had to be”

“My policing was nothing but .activism – it had to be”

Why did you decide to join the police force? You were the first woman in India to do so.
When I was growing up, government was the agent of change: it was a developing country. What was important was to make a difference.

Did you encounter sexism?
Yes, I encountered it even as a child - when I was a tennis player, we would get lesser expenses. [Bedi first became a national tennis champion in 1966.] The ladies' finals would be on court four but the boys would be on centre court.

Did you see yourself moving into activism?
My policing was nothing but activism - it had to be.

Was that challenging? I read that you were put on postings considered "undesirable".
I had a clear vision: if I take up an assignment I'll do full justice to it, otherwise I'll walk away. A lot of my PhD work and my book-writing came from that - when I thought it was time not to take up an assignment that was not worth it. That's the reason I took early retirement. It's good to go batting rather than be bowled out.

You campaign on a wide range of issues. If you had to pick one as the main problem facing India today, what would it be?
Corruption. If that is handled, governance will improve. When governance improves, there will be less have-nots and more haves. The corruption creates a lot of have-nots because it's their money which is being stolen. If India has a major problem today it's corruption. It's not shortage of money, it's siphoning of money - money that was supposed to be for infrastructure which benefits everybody: roads, bridges, schools, dispensaries, hospitals, communications, railways, airports, policing.

What would be next?
After corruption would be electoral reform. If you did just these two things, India will be a developed country within ten years. It will be able to deal with its billion-plus population well. If we clean up our act before the 2014 elections, and we can vote in better people who would deliver better governance, India would have better policies and services and address the growing aspirations of its youth - India is going to be one of the youngest countries in the world.

You were arrested for your anti-corruption work. What was it like being on the other side of the law?
The police were very kind, very decent. They wanted to withdraw the case; they wanted me to take bail and I said no, then they discharged me! They didn't know what to do with me.

How is the position of women in India?
Somewhere [sexism] is blatant and somewhere it's not visible and somewhere it's gone. You have a mixture of all the three. Rape is still a serious crime in India, eve-teasing [street harassment] is still a major crime, domestic violence is still a very serious issue. So is dowry; that still exists but it's also being fought. Legal systems are being put in place to deal with them and media awareness is also very high.

What are the main barriers to reform?
Corrupt politicians - there are quite a few politicians who have criminal records and still make it to the elected assemblies. In our electoral system, unless the person is convicted, he can still fight for the elections. We want a change, saying that if you are charged, you are barred from fighting elections.

What do you think about dynastic politics?
People are fed up. People are rebelling against it. In the coming election, either you perform or you perish.

What do you do to relax?
I sleep very well. I keep my morning walks, but I enjoy doing whatever I do. I do only what I like, so it doesn't stress me.

What's next?
The next two years, we are on to a mass anti-corruption movement and electoral reforms. A lot of travelling round the country, making people aware every vote is their responsibility.

Was there a plan?
There was no plan. The focus is what is right be­fore you - to give it your best. It sows the seeds of tomorrow.

Is religion a part of your life?
Oh yes. I believe in prayer. I believe in gratitude and serving people.

Is there anything you would rather forget?
There are no conscious blunders. When you stay alert, why would you run into trouble?

Do you vote?
Yes, of course.

Are we all doomed?
No, the outlook is better - we're making today better than yesterday. We're addressing it; we're not sulking, we're not depressed. We are upbeat. We believe we can be the change.

Defining Moments

1949 Born in Amritsar, India
1968 Gets BA in English from Government College for Women, Amritsar
1972 Becomes first woman to join the Indian Police Service
1993 Inspector general of Tihar, Asia's largest jail; implements reforms such as drug rehabilitation. PhD in social sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi
1994 Wins Ramon Magsaysay Award, also known as the Asian Nobel prize
2007 Takes early retirement from police

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times