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Hemakshi Meghani, Indian School of Democracy co-founder. 

Hemakshi Meghani, co-founder of the Indian School of Democracy (ISD), is a Harvard Kennedy School graduate, where she studied as a World Bank Graduate Scholar. She began her journey as a Teach for India Fellow before working with Boston Consulting Group and two startups in the education and sociopolitical consulting space. Hemakshi is passionate about politics, bottom-up social reform, and making democracy work for every citizen of the country, and she shared some insights into her experience building ISD.

Mittal Institute: Hemakshi, our first question is two-parts: Firstly, you co-founded the Indian School of Democracy in 2018. Did you always want to go into the field of politics? Likewise, how did your experience working for two startups and the Boston Consulting Group shape your path as co-founder of the Indian School of Democracy?

Hemakshi Meghani: Thank you for getting me started and diving right in. The answer to your first question – if I always wanted to be in politics – is mostly yes. When I was in fifth grade, I remember a dinner table conversation where I told my parents that I wanted to be a politician. And I didn’t want to be just any politician; I wanted to be the politician that solves poverty for India. And, of course, like in any normal middle-class family, there was silence. They thought my aspirations were going to change, and instead I would become a doctor or an engineer like the rest of my family. But I think the seed of wanting to be in public service – of wanting to be in politics, especially – was sown very early in my life.

Hemakshi Meghani.

The problem was that I didn’t have role models around me. If I wanted to be an IAS (Indian Administrative Services) officer, there were role models. If I wanted to be in business, there were role models. There were people I could relate to, talk to, and learn from. But if I wanted to be in politics, it was just one of those big black holes that people didn’t have access to. But I kept thinking about it. I got exposure to a lot of things while earning my undergraduate in liberal arts. And immediately afterwards, I jumped into Teach for India. My mentors said, “If you want to work on policymaking, you need to get your hands dirty! You need to know what’s happening on the ground.”

So, I joined Teach for India. And that, I think, really, really contributed to my understanding of the system. I saw multiple nodes of the system: what happens at various points; what an IS officer does versus a state-level bureaucrat, versus what happens in schools on the ground. Of course, all of this was in the context of primary education in the state of Maharashtra. But I kept reading to understand more and more. And so, my life choices or career choices definitely lined up.

After four or five years of working, I enrolled at the Harvard Kennedy School. And that really brought politics back into my life. In my five years of working, I got an understanding of policy – but politics itself is a different ball game.

Harvard Kennedy School has a very active ground for talking about politics. I had classmates who had worked with politicians across the world. And it just felt like politics was a lot more accessible to youth outside. At Harvard, there’s a program called ‘Harvard Square to Oval Office,’ which trains women to enter politics. So that’s where I learned the structure of what politicians can be trained to do. In some ways, these experiences contributed to me starting the Indian School of Democracy, along with my co-founder.

Mittal Institute: Could you tell us a bit about the role that you play at the organization?

Hemakshi Meghani: I think, like a lot of startups in any industry, nonprofits are not different in the sense that I ended up doing everything in those early two years. My co-founder was in the US completing his Master’s and building connections and partnerships there in academia, whereas here, I was on the ground.

I spent the first year just going around the country, meeting more than 400 people, trying to decode what politics is; speaking with young people to understand their aspirations and fears; meeting seasoned politicians who had been in the highest positions of power for 30 or 40 years; and meeting academics, who studied politics in detail.

In those early years, my role was just to understand the problem, figure out what it is that we want to do, and translate that to strategy. And then we started building the team in 2019. My role evolved a little bit: instead of keeping all that knowledge in my own head, I built a small team that does that as well. And now that my co-founder is back, and we have a team of 10 people, it seems a little more streamlined than the early years.

When I now look at research programs, we are choosing the center of the work that we do. We decide what the curriculum should be, how the trainings should be delivered, and what the space should be like – all of this so that ISD acts as the political incubator that we imagine it to be. Fundraising, as every entrepreneur must do, is a very important part of my role. And then communications, as well.

​Hemakshi leads a training session at ISD.

Mittal Institute: Could you tell us a bit more about your organization’s goals, especially the ambitious goal of having 25% of political leaders be principled by 2047 (correlating to India’s 100 years of independence). What does that mean exactly to have principled leaders?

Hemakshi Meghani: This is a heavy question, so I will try to break it down a bit.

I think our mission is to nurture principled political leaders who have the morals, courage, and imagination to work towards uplifting all. Because, currently, Indian democracy is working for few of us. I think as English speaking, educated people, we have access to services. Even if the government doesn’t deliver, that’s OK. The social fabric, of course, affects all of us. But we can control the amount of impact it has on our day-to-day lives.

But that’s not the case for more than 90% of the country. And this is not to say the quality of democracy doesn’t affect us. But I think that there’s more in control in our lives, because of the privileges that we carry than most of the country. I think our theory of change is very simple: that we want the right people in decision-making positions.

If we look at history, a lot of significant changes have happened because of politicians, whether it’s ending slavery, apartheid, or, when we talk about leadership, what’s happening in Ukraine and Russia right now. I think it’s all political. It’s not just the good things, but also a lot of bad things happen because of what politicians decide. Therefore, it’s important that the best hearts and minds of the country choose politicians…which is not happening right now. About 43% of our current parliamentarians have criminal records, and 29% of them have serious criminal records, like rape and murder. Additionally, 86% of people sitting in parliament are men, whereas 50% of the country is comprised of women. There’s a lot of disparity in how our democracy is functioning, delivering, and not delivering. We imagine people from different backgrounds representing the country, which is the spirit of the constitution as well. That is what we are aiming to do: We want politics to become an attractive option for the best hearts and minds of the country. We know Indian School of Democracy is not going to be able to do that alone. But just like there are law schools to train lawyers, and training for scientists or doctors, we wanted to create something that inspires people to enter politics. So that’s the role Indian School of Democracy wants to play.

To answer your question about our goal of 2047, there’s research that says that to shift the needle on any social issue, 3.5% of people in the system need to act differently. And research also shows that when these 3.5% act collectively, the system shifts. If we had to apply that to Indian politics, we would be able to say, let’s have 3.5% good, principled politicians, and then the system will shift. But we realize that Indian politics is murky; it’s very complicated. So why settle at 3.5%? Let’s have a vision of at least 25% of people in decision-making positions being principled leaders. And when I say politicians, I don’t mean just members of parliament. I mean all politicians, so even the local democracies come alive as well. That’s our big goal and vision.

We imagine these principled leaders who have their head, hearts, and hand aligned. People who have the skills to be politicians of future; those who can use technology, data, behavioral science, to make sure democracy is reaching the last dozen or every citizen. But we also want people who have their models in place, who have their value systems in place, who are self-aware, who have values like compassion and empathy. Because that’s what you need.

I’ll talk a little bit about what principled politics means to us. Firstly, we never say we want to train just politicians. We always say, we want to nurture principled political leaders or politicians. Because the country doesn’t have a dearth of intelligent people. With just our population having access to higher education and primary education, we have a lot of skilled people. But if the inner moral compass is not in place, it’s very unlikely that it’s going to translate for policies and a kind of politics that really unites and elevates the level of society.

We imagine these principled leaders who have their head, hearts, and hand aligned. People who have the skills to be politicians of future; those who can use technology, data, and behavioral science to make sure democracy is reaching the last dozen or every citizen. But we also want people who have their models in place, who have their value systems in place, who are self-aware, who have values like compassion and empathy. Because that’s what you need.

And the third pillar of our work is community. How can we have a vibrant community of these principled politicians who stand with each other and hold each other accountable to these values? Broadly, I think when we say ‘principled leader,’ we mean leaders who have their head, hearts, and hand aligned, and are working towards making democracy come alive for every citizen.

​Hemakshi, left, with ISD students.

Mittal Institute: There are three main programs under Indian School of Democracy. One is Good Politician, a nine-month program; She Represents, a one-week program; and Democracy Express, a nine-day program. What do participants tell you they have learned from these programs, and how does this training help them become better future political leaders?

Hemakshi Meghani: I think when we started, the idea was to just run a long program. But as I was going across the country meeting young people, I felt like we needed to prepare an ecosystem to prepare people for training in politics. So that’s how the shorter programs came to fruition. We set to reclaim the word ‘politics’ to ensure that people think of it as one of the highest forms of public service. To make it aspirational, we needed to expose young people to politics. And that’s how Democracy Express started. It’s a 10-day traveling journey, where we go to different parts of India to meet leaders (national leaders, state level leaders, local leaders, student politicians) to understand the person behind the politician. Because, often, our idea of politics and leadership is restricted to what we see on TV debates. And I really hope our generation is not growing up with that idea of politics, because when we meet these candidates in person, a new side of them comes out. They’re so much more candid. They talk about their struggles. They talk about the idealism.

I think Democracy Express essentially aims to do that: to broaden the horizon of politics, and to expose people to politics. All our cohorts have at least 50% women. Democracy Express is for beginners – people who are thinking of entering politics but want a bit more exposure first.

She Represents came about after Democracy Express. We realized that the conversations with women ran differently, because the challenges women face in politics are very different. We thought we would create a program that’s only for women who want to enter politics. But again, we focus on the three skills that I mentioned: hard skills in politics, inner work, and building a community. They also meet other women politicians who overcome a lot to be in politics, and they talk to them about the challenges and opportunities of being in politics.

And the third program, Good Politician, is our flagship program. It’s a nine-month executive program. This is a program for people who are slightly more senior, who are very close to contesting elections, either at a city level or at the village level. In other words, this is not their first foray into politics, but they need a structure to contest elections to do something to prepare themselves for the long haul. So that’s what Good Politician does.

In all our programs, I think we are committed to at least five to 10 years of alumni support, because the gestation period in politics is long. Elections come about once in a while. You need to really build your image. You need to prepare resources. You need to connect with your constituency. So we stand with our alumni for a very long time as they figure out their journey in politics.

​A cohort of Indian School of Democracy trainees.

Mittal Institute: What sort of candidates do these programs tend to attract? Is it people who want to start their own political party, or members of currently established parties?

Hemakshi Meghani: I think a belief we had is that every single party needs good people. It’s about really changing the people who are entering the system, who will then change the system itself. The problem is not the parties themselves, so we don’t really focus on people who want to start new parties (though some of our alumni are starting a new party!). We are nonpartisan – we want to work with people across party lines. Our belief is the constitution of India. Whomever shares these same beliefs joins our programs. Right now we have people from 14 to 15 different parties. Our alumni come from overall 26 different states of India out of the 29 states. It is a pretty diverse cohort.

Our programs are not limited to people who speak English, and those who are from urban areas. We were very clear on that. Inclusion and representation are very core values of ISD. We build partnerships with grassroots organizations, who work with people of different castes, different religions, those who work with women and grassroots leaders.

The distinction I want to focus on is that we make a difference in policy and politics. There’s a lot of schools and courses for policy in India. It’s become a buzzword. But in India, the bridge between policy and politics is yet to be fully established. There needs to be more development of the political ecosystem, or giving structure to the political ecosystem. And we are very clearly working on politics. And our programs are not limited to people who speak English, and those who are from urban areas. We were very clear on that. Inclusion and representation are very core values of ISD. We spread our word through social media and digital channels. But we build partnerships with grassroots organizations, who work with people of different castes, different religions, those who work with women and grassroots leaders. And we partner with them to find the people we want to work with. We have people who come from six to seven different religions. We have people from many different castes. About 90% of our people come from economically disadvantaged families. Our belief is if they’ve really gone through the problem themselves, they’re more likely and equipped to address those challenges when they come to power.

About 60% of our audience is rural, 40% is urban. And 50% of all our programs are comprised of women. As I mentioned, we also do a special program for women. So that means 70% of the people we work with are women. The average age, I would say, is 35 in the longer program and 29 to 30 in the shorter programs that we do.

Mittal Institute: What do you enjoy most about your work? And did your time at Harvard contribute to how you work at ISD?

Hemakshi Meghani: I think I enjoy most of what I do because a lot of my time involves speaking with alumni. I’m on the road for 20 days traveling to remote parts of India, where alumni are getting ready to contest elections. I get to really understand the challenges they work with. And I learn so much about India, so much about young people, so much about the system that we are operating in.

A good part of my work also goes in organization-building, which is setting up processes, and working with the team to get them ready to orient them towards adult development and leadership. That is what I learned at Harvard, as well. I did specific courses on leadership and adult learning, which I bring to my role here as well.

Some part of my work goes to fundraising, as I mentioned. We believe that every day, Indians need to contribute to building the Indian School of Democracy. There is a price to our programs – but about 90% to 95% of attendees earn financial aid. Indians can donate to ISD, and that’s what builds it. If we have large fees or a degree a barrier, then we’re not going to be able to attract the audience that we work with. I make sure that my co-founder and I spend time fundraising, building partnerships.

I do think, overall, my approach towards public leadership is very heavily influenced by my time at Harvard Kennedy School. We attended forums and we learned from former presidents and politicians from different countries, so it demystified politics for me. I’m still in touch with many of my professors and friends, who are from all over the world. Even in India, I think the Harvard community is so strong. And a lot of them help in building ISD and giving the shape that it is taking right now.

Mittal Institute: Can you share some thoughts about India’s democracy and its future? 

Hemakshi Meghani: I think in our day-to-day experience, we can feel that the basic tenets of democracy are getting violated. And I think the one that strikes me the most is the inequality in the country that we live with. And what worries me is the apathy towards it.

I always said, of course, I work in politics. It is important to ensure that people in decision-making positions are people who are honest, skilled, and in it for the right reasons. I want to make politics an avenue that’s not dirty, and doesn’t force people to shy away from considering a political career.

I also encourage people to get involved in the local stuff in their day-to-day lives. If you live in an urban area, do you know when the board meetings happen? Are you in touch with your counselor or the MLA [member of the legislative assembly], and are you keeping them accountable? Do you provide your input there? Being a good citizen – an active, informed citizen – is something that all of us can do. Then, when the big stuff comes in about corruption or oppression, we are clued in and know what is being discussed, because we know the system well. I would urge people to get involved in the local issues, local structures, local systems to make democracy what it needs to be.