Birth of an idea

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For a change Akshay Verma (bearded, garlanded) flanked by his supporters
For a change Akshay Verma (bearded, garlanded) flanked by his supporters. Photo: Avalok Langer

The Facebook page of Akshay Verma, 28, is like any other young person’s. Like every other profile, it is a myriad of pictures and updates: a blur of friends, pictures of a trip to Bhutan, status updates like ‘Akshay Verma graduated from the University of Oxford’, life and work in London, ‘Akshay Verma left his job at UBS’, ‘Started School in Columbia’, again pictures of multiple weddings in Delhi, before going on to the big shift.

Slowly, the blitz of an upmarket Delhi life and the international cities is replaced by pictures of Verma sitting with a group of people in a rural setting. At first on the sidelines, but as the timeline progresses to two years, as if in a stop-block animation sequence, he finds his way to a microphone addressing the gathering.

Cut to the present. The date is 18 April 2014. Surrounded by thousands of supporters, Verma filed his nomination for the 2014 Lok Sabha election from his hometown Muzaffarpur, Bihar.

“I have always been politically inclined,” explains Verma, his voice hoarse from campaigning. “Every drawing room conversation inevitably leads to the same conclusion: we need change. But that’s where it ends.”

Son of a senior government official and a Delhi University professor, Verma today is trying for that change, and not surprisingly, he finds himself smack in the middle of the very real fracture that runs through the two Indias — Bharat and India. But, all this did not happen overnight.

A St Stephens graduate, Verma studied at the Oxford University in the UK and did his Masters in Public Administration from the Columbia University in the US, before returning to India in 2013. In between were stints with UBS, London. Back home, he started his NGO, Agratam India, but he had started work even earlier, in 2011. Verma says the state of the people in his hometown made him decide to first take up social work, and then, politics.

“I saw that people in Muzaffarpur were fighting for their basic rights,” he says. “I met the youth; they had big dreams, but were unemployed. Women, fishermen, farmers, they were all removed from the India I knew. It was then that I felt I had to do something; I had to get out of the drawing room and enter politics.”

Once out of the drawing room, Verma combined his experience in the financial sector with UBS and his stints in Oxford and Columbia to create a plan that delivered change locally. In less than two years, he facilitated loans of more than Rs 3.5 crore to over 1,200 fish farmers, life insurance to more than 2,400 people and helped bring in investment to set up a Rs 16 crore fish feed mill to ensure development of fish in the local fisheries. He worked closely with six panchayats in the regions to end open defecation. The effort has paid off; more than 2,000 toilets have already been built. Verma also worked to create self-help groups for women that were credit-linked to banks.

“When Akshay was working with UBS in London, we were all quite sure that he would settle there,” says Arushi, Akshay’s younger sister. “He had a good job, was enjoying life and it seemed to be what he wanted to do. But after he came back from Columbia, everything changed. It was a remarkable transformation; he focussed on social work. He went from London and New York to living in the village.”

Verma knows that so far, he has achieved his goals at a fair clip, but is also realistic enough to understand that politics is a different ball game. Despite the goodwill his father earned as a district magistrate in the region in 1989-91, Verma still does not possess certain things required of a politician, like for instance, a caste card that is such an important tool in these parts.

“I found that when you are outside the system, you could only do so much,” Verma defends his decision to join politics. “Many people ask me, ‘What is your caste? On what basis are you standing for elections?’ My simple reply is that I have a community of 8.5 lakh voters, the youth, and they are my strength.”

It is perhaps because of this confidence in the youth that Verma founded his own political party rather than join an established regional or national party. The Sarvajan Kalyan Loktantrik Party (SKLP) is just two weeks old and has fielded five candidates in the ongoing Lok Sabha polls. True to the youth-based approach, all five are below the age of 42 and have worked on the ground in their constituencies. In fact, youth is a recurring theme with him.

Cynics and realists alike can write off Verma as too idealistic and overenthusiastic, but he is quick to remind you that he has a plan. “Today, 50 percent of the MPs in India are above the age of 65. Their thought process is two generations old, so how can they understand the views of the youth?” he asks, going back to his pet theme, the importance of youth. “How can they connect with their hopes and give them what they need? People here haven’t had a choice; they have been forced to vote along caste lines or under duress or have simply sold their vote. I have been working here, I understand the local issues and I feel that I can help bring in development.”

While many would dismiss that as a hard-sell, on closer look, Verma’s multidimensional plan does seem doable. Muzaffarpur is home to the BR Ambedkar Bihar University. Verma plans to borrow from the Oxford and Columbia interdisciplinary approach to holistic education and try to bridge the gap between the youth’s aspirations and skillsets.

“Though there are many ITIs in the area, there aren’t enough jobs,” he says. “I want to tap into my network of friends who are well placed in different businesses and industries across the country and bring in a campus recruitment system that allows opportunities for the youth to come to their doorsteps.”

Having already brought in Bihar’s first fish feed mill, he wants to focus on bringing in modern farming methods to overhaul the outdated practices. “The key is women’s empowerment,” he explains. “I have tried my best to connect thousands of women to the banking sector, but there’s a lot more to be done.”

His party is a step in that direction. “While other minorities have found their political voice, fishermen, who are a big chunk of Bihar’s population, have not been represented politically,” says Verma. “This party is their political platform.”

The young man seems to have a plan for everything. On Sundays, as he goes from village to village, campaigning for the election, Verma is far removed from the man who would play gully cricket with his friends in Delhi. That seems almost like a different life now. His friends, now back in Delhi, seem quite impressed with what he has done in the past two years. They say the people feel he is a welcome change. But will that amount to votes? It’s hard to say.

Switching from Hindi to crisp English, the Oxford-Columbia grad-turned-debutant politician reflects on his clash of identities. “I feel that I belong to both Indias. While Delhi is rapidly developing, social media, cable TV and a young population has ensured that Muzaffarpur isn’t too far behind. It’s just about bridging the gap,” he says. “I hope to take my experience of the more developed world and apply the best practices here. In the long run, my hope is that young people, from good families, will start thinking about politics as a serious career choice and not something that is left to a particular group.” Though that could take some time to realise, it is refreshing to see a 28-year-old trying to break the grip of caste, money and muscle on Indian politics.

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