A resident doctor at GM Hospital in Dibrugarh, Assam, Bhaskar Papukon Gogoi drives-a Chevrolet Beat-to the tea gardens in and around the district at least twice a month. At the gardens, he offers and organises free medical assistance for workers. It’s a habit he developed in 1999, when, as an MBBS student at Dibrugarh Medical College, Gogoi worked briefly for the UNICEF. When he cannot offer an instant solution, the 31-year-old BJP member uses his political connections to make things move for the poor.
His trips are less frequent these days. Being a core team member of the state BJP’s “Assam Nirman (development of Assam)” dialogue series, Gogoi is busy mobilising support across the state through social media platforms. “My day has three compartments: from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. I read-both political and medical books-then work at the hospital from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. From 2 in the afternoon till I go to bed at night, I devote myself to party work,” says Gogoi, a first-generation politician who feels politics is a force multiplier for the kind of work he wants to do for the underprivileged.
He epitomises a new breed of professionals and qualified young Indians. Despite the opportunity to shine in another career path, these young women and men have chosen politics as their profession. From police sub-inspector P. Rajeev, 37, who, tired of corrupt politicians, quit his job to join politics and became an MLA from Kudachi in Karnataka to MBA student Ritu Panchal, 21, the sarpanch of Bhidhavad in Madhya Pradesh, these people do not believe in merely making noise from the sidelines as spectators. They want to be part of the system and push for changes, and at the micro level, to begin with. “The condition of villages, especially the women, is terrible. I decided to enter politics as it is extremely important to address the problems of rural areas,” says Nupur Malav, 30, member of Bundi Zila Parishad, Rajasthan. Malav, an engineer who also holds an MBA degree, quit her job at Instrumentation Limited in Kota to contest the civic polls.
In Assam, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was only 32 when he created history in 1985, moving from a hostel room in Gauhati University to the chief minister’s residence after leading the six-year-long Assam agitation. And as recently as in the last couple of years, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) took the intersection between youth and politics to a new level. Take Sarita Singh, 28. Inspired by Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption crusade in 2011, she decided to enter the political arena to be an agent of change herself. Armed with post-graduate degrees in Political Science and Sociology from Delhi University, she defied pressure from her non-political family, joined AAP and today is the MLA from Rohtas Nagar constituency in Delhi.
“Incidents like the mass protests seeking justice for the December 16 gang-rape victim in Delhi and the Anna Hazare movement provided a platform for youngsters to be active,” says Sanjay Kumar, Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi, and author of Youth and Electoral Politics: An Emerging Engagement. “That is why votes cast by the young are rising in recent elections.”
The success of AAP and its novel approach to politics-based more on service delivery than visionary ideologies-have, in fact, heralded a silent inflow of young and educated people to politics. For them, politics is not about philosophy, it’s a tool of efficient governance. They do not discuss Karl Marx or free market economy; they want to root out corruption from local offices, ensure that government services reach the underprivileged faster and elections are won on a single parameter-performance. They do not want a political theory to articulate their agenda; they prefer to use technology to make things happen. “The first beginning was perhaps made by the introduction of the RTI Act, which empowered citizens with information,” says Sudha Pai, rector and professor at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi. In fact, this fight for right to information eventually culminated in the formation of AAP, the political party.
Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, attributes the origin of this trend to the awareness spread by social media. Pai looks at it from another angle. Drawing a parallel with the increasing number of start-ups, she says youngsters are increasingly willing to take risks, and they feel there is a career in politics. “If this trend continues, it will bring young, honest and committed people to politics,” she adds. Kumar says the hesitation in the minds of the young is dissolving: “There are several examples of people who have left lucrative careers, tried their fate in politics, and succeeded.”
Hailing the arrival of the youth in the political arena, Union Petroleum Minister and senior BJP leader Dharmendra Pradhan says India today requires novel and unconventional ideas, coupled with technological solutions such as social media platforms, to unleash the true potential of the country’s resources. And who better than the educated youth to travel this path, he adds.
But the most significant differentiator between earlier generations of young politicians and the current breed is the scale of political platform. The new generation is ready to wait for the big picture to evolve, and many want to make an impact where it’s the most direct and personal-at the grassroots. The emergence of this trend was most visible in the rural and urban civic bodies elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan this year. Those polls saw an unprecedented number of educated and professionally qualified youngsters in fray-and a majority of them from families with no political background. Although Parliament has failed to pass the law to reserve 33 per cent seats for women, states such as MP and Rajasthan have reserved 50 per cent seats for women in municipal and gram panchayat elections. “In MP, women hold almost 52 per cent positions as newly elected public representatives,” says H. M. Mishra, Director, Bhopal National Institute of Urban Governance and Management (NIUGM).
In neigbouring Rajasthan, 17 of 32 members of the district council of Ajmer are women. Of these, 11 are graduates, two post-graduates and one holds a doctorate degree.
In MP, the NIUGM has done a study on social, economic and political situation of the newly elected representatives of local bodies. The study says only one of 778 municipal corporation councillors in the state is above 65 and 317 are between 36 and 45. The youngest, municipal councillor of Khandwa Sagar Anil Artani, is only 21. Only two of the 14 municipal corporation mayors are above 56. The study also finds that of the 778 elected municipal councillors, 77 are graduates, 38 post-graduates, 18 lawyers and three engineers. Only nine councillors are illiterate. The trend is visible in gram panchayat elections, too.
So why are the young stepping into an arena with so little visibility? Panchal explains: “There are no roads in the village, and girls are not sent to school. These grim realities kept haunting me and I thought I must do something. So I chose this path.” The narrative will not be different for most other newly elected young netas. In Rajasthan’s Alwar district, nursing student Santosh Kumari, 22, had to fight a long, lonely battle to get young women in the village registered as voters before she got elected sarpanch of Bichpuri gram panchayat in Neemrana. “I succeeded in changing the mindset of the villagers,” Santosh says. Like her, Anjana Meghwal, 32, the new district chief of Jaisalmer, plans to work for empowerment of women through education. Meghwal has done MA and B.Ed, and also cleared the Rajasthan Civil Services examination.
Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor, says part of the credit for this positive development must go to the electorate, which is becoming more educated and professional. Alongside, the growth of the economy in the last 25 years has expanded the middle class section, which is no more a tiny section of the electorate. “The expectations from politics have changed, as people look for governance and performance,” Tharoor says. “They want politicians to talk knowledgeably about issues. This calls for a different type of politician.”
While many see this as a healthy trend of political parties posing faith in the youth, critics are not convinced yet. A Congress MP, who is also a general secretary of the party, says, “Only elections at the grassroots level are open to individuals without a political background. Can we imagine Digvijaya Singh’s son contesting the municipal polls? Did Jyotiraditya Scindia or Sachin Pilot ever contest municipal polls?” The argument is not without merit. As against the civic polls in MP and Rajasthan, only 69 of 543 Lok Sabha MPs are between 25 and 40 years; as many as 346 are above 50. Only 12 per cent BJP candidates who fought the Lok Sabha polls were aged between 25 and 40. The Congress fared slightly better at 14 per cent. For AAP, the figure was 31 per cent.
Political analysts blame this on the organisational decay of political parties across the country. “Which political party can claim to have functionaries at every village, block and district of the constituencies it represents? Let there be internal democracy first; participation will increase,” says Amit Prakash of the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU.
But the biggest deterrent to educated young professionals joining politics still remains the financial implication, and no one seems to have cracked the code yet. Pai finds support to her idea of state-funded and regulated election campaign from Prakash, who believes that if the taxpayer’s money can be used to give corporate subsidy to the tune of Rs 5 lakh crore in the last three budgets, the government can well spend Rs 1 lakh crore annually to fund political parties. Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh says one has no place in politics if he or she doesn’t already have a substantial source of income. “You must be capable enough to take care of yourself and your family before you decide to join politics to serve society. If you don’t have that ability and still want to join politics, go to RSS,” he says.
BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav, however, believes political parties need a support system to sustain talent by taking care of their minimum functional needs. “The BJP,” he says, “has an elaborate support system for such people.” There is a view that recent laws passed by Rajasthan and Haryana governments, mandating minimum educational qualification as a prerequisite for contesting panchayat elections, are likely to give a further fillip to this nascent yet encouraging trend. Although the Supreme Court has upheld the Haryana government decision, political scientists warn against such an “exclusionist” trend in a democracy. “When you start distrusting demos (the common people), you are no more a democracy,” says Amit Prakash.
The debate may go on, but there is a distinct change in the approach towards politics, mostly propelled by disillusionment with the current political leadership. It’s the growing impatience with the slow process of deliverance, eagerness to be a part of the decision-making process and take responsibility that is driving this change. According to Tharoor, there may be one generation to go before we truly see a critical mass of politicians of this kind. But what cannot be denied is that a beginning has been made.
-with Manasi Sharma Maheswari
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