Now, as he looks to win from Bhagalpur, Bihar, in the summer General Election, Hussain is the only Muslim Lok Sabha member from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). “Always ask a man, especially a young politician, what his father did, or does,” Hussain says on the most important lesson he has learned as a young MP. Hussain is today stronger economically and his sons see something far different from what he did: they see Hussain converse with the powerful, ideate about India, and grapple with the ever-shifting contours of Indian politics.
At 41, however, the pace of idealism isn’t quite what it was and there’s a list of challenges that may not shorten as Hussain ages. There are worries for him within his party too. The BJP looks increasingly ready to accept Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its possible future leader, and that may not be too comfortable for Hussain, who, in the past, has said that the Gujarat 2002 riots impacted the way people respond to the BJP across the country.
Curiously, this is exactly the situation older politicians are in. The to do list is only barely trimmed and fresh political challenges crop up at SMS speed. If it weren’t for the chronological marker called age, the worries of, say, an LK Advani wouldn’t be very different from those of Hussain: consistency in ideation and execution of solutions to the challenges of the BJP and of India.
The gold standard for politicians still remains Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the Assamese student who used his anger brilliantly to lead a movement (against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants to Assam) and became chief minister in 1985 when he was 33. He did another stint at the helm when he was 44, but then quickly lost control. The Asom Gana Parishad expelled him and today Mahanta heads a rump faction of the party.
There are no Mahanta-like stories in the current crop of young politicians but there are 28 first-time Lok Sabha members heading into the 2009 election who were under 40 when they won the 2004 poll. Trouble is, we haven’t heard of them, or from them, when we really wanted to. For instance, the recall factor is with the sunset generation when direction was needed on Pakistan and terrorism. There were Manmohan Singh, 76; Advani, 81; Pranab Mukherjee, 73; or P Chidambaram, 63, in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attack.
Where, for instance, was Hussain? Where were Manvendra Singh, 44, (former NDA foreign minister Jaswant Singh’s son in the BJP); Kanimozhi, 40, (Tamil Nadu CM MK Karunanidhi’s daughter); Jyotiraditya Scindia, 38 (son of the late Congress leader Madhav Rao Scindia); Sandeep Dikshit, 44 (Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit’s son); or Priya Dutt, 42 (Sunil Dutt’s daughter)? There was Milind Deora, 32, (son of Petroleum Minister Murli Deora) because the attack happened in his constituency, but there’s no recall factor to what he said or did.
Deora says we need to save our cities on an urgent basis. He says people in cities must directly elect a mayor who will function as a sort of chief minister of a city. This, he thinks, will be a major factor in improving accountability and correcting problems in civic coordination that are pushing urban centres to the brink. The current law on homosexuality must go, he says, adding that if the Health Ministry and the Home Ministry (which have opposite views on homosexuality) can’t agree, the full cabinet must discuss and implement required changes.
Though he has a view on most issues, not much is in the public sphere. This anonymity is a curious trait among most young
MPS though they have a Young MPs Forum, which regularly deliberates on issues and challenges.
Part of the low profile is because the young politicians deal with a world vastly different from what their predecessors dealt with. Until the late 1980s, the streets were the favoured medium to express anger, and influence state policy. The pace of a pre-cell phone and pre-Internet world was different. There were fewer parties to keep track of. It enabled viewpoints to register, however small.
There are 36 parties in the outgoing Lok Sabha and all of them operate in the same political bandwidth. Consequently, the attention span has reduced drastically. For a young politician to be remembered, he or she needs a big marketing drive. Even if a young politician were to do that, there is the unfinished business of the older politicians. With so much still to do, the older generation is loath to cede space.
THIS CREATES a situation where the young politicians begin to mirror what they see. Their sense of time and accomplishment is thus shaped. Rajiv Pratap Rudy, 47, a minister in the Vajpayee government and now a spokesperson of the BJP, has interesting views but is too shy to make an impact. He says, “In a country like India, you need large experience and your awareness levels should be high. Your vision gets created over years of getting experience going around the country. So it would be very difficult to pin down a maximum age limit for politicians.” So Rudy is prepared to wait for his chance.
Another factor is the medium. Few people get onto the streets now. Opinions are shared and protests staged on television, the Internet and the cell phone. The SMS has emboldened the middle-class but it has weakened the politician. Somehow the idea of, say, Rahul Gandhi, 38, furiously texting his great message to the people is not the stuff of leadership. You’d want him out there, sweating it out among the rest.
Television and the Internet offer visibility for the urban classes but the backwaters are not making careers like they used to. Consequently, there’s less dust on the young politician but more reach. This may be softening most of them barring the really motivated like Mayawati, 53, who spent her 30s grinding it out. One result of this is that some want to make it faster, as opposed to those who wouldn’t mind the wait.
“Things have changed since the time of my father. They used to say we are doing things, we are fighting poverty, and that things will take time. Now, I must be seen as doing things fast. We want quick results,” says Bhavana Gawali, 35, a Shiv Sena member of the Lok Sabha. Gawali is a rare woman MP of the conservative Shiv Sena.
SHE’S DONE two stints in the Lok Sabha and says India is best served by staying a secular nation and not the Hindu rashtra that her party speaks of. “See, anyway the Hindus are a majority in India. That makes it a Hindu nation. But we can’t overlook the Muslims and other religions. India must remain a secular nation,” she says. Her emphasis on speed as a factor is because of the falling attention spans in public life. There are too many people in the public sphere and so the rush is on to grab the available minute before someone else does it.
Those who don’t fit the bill fall. AP Abdullakutty, 41, is a CPM member of the Lok Sabha from Kerala. In mid-January, the CPM suspended Abdullakutty for a year from its membership because he praised Narendra Modi for taking the initiative to bring investment to Gujarat. Abdullakutty has his own take on how India must go forward, which is often not the Marxist drill that many CPM politicians deliver. For instance, Abdullakutty says Nehruvism, as different from capitalism and socialism, is the best ideology for India.
He thinks paper must be banned as a means of election propaganda, and that all campaigning must be on audiovisual media. This, he says, will cut election expenses drastically. Abdullakutty also says India must move to plastic money by 2020. He says everybody must have ATM cards, which will make transactions transparent. Paper money must only be used for petty transactions he adds. But, he has no sanction from the CPM. Abdullakutty will serve his suspension sentence but it may be a while before the CPM allows him the freedom he needs. By then, he would have joined the ranks of the 50s and 60s.
THEN, THERE are younger MPs without formal political backing who are trying in their own way. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, 44, returned from Silicon Valley after a meeting with then Congress senior Rajesh Pilot inspired him to. Chandrasekhar is an Independent member of the Rajya Sabha and bristling with ideas on India. He works with the Karnataka Government on improving Bengaluru and has a stance on virtually anything. On Chandrasekhar’s to do list is fixed tenures for governments and legislatures, and simultaneous elections at the Centre and the state levels.
Sachin Pilot, 31, is a Congress MP who at times finds it difficult to match his views with those of his party. His stance on Afzal Guru is an example. Pilot says someone so symbolic as Afzal Guru must be hanged so that the message is sent. Even on the issue of Bangladeshi migrants, Pilot has a stance of his own. “I know that the Congress benefits (by being soft on Bangladeshi migrants) but in the national interest, our borders must be sealed,” he says. For his efforts, Pilot has been under suspicion at times for apparently being closer to the BJP than the Congress.
Agatha Sangma, 28, is a Lok Sabha member from Meghalaya representing the constituency her father, former Speaker PA Sangma, did. She thinks the money spent on the northeast is not helping because the youth are frustrated. They return home after studies and can’t get jobs. So they are recruited by militant organisations. Priya Dutt, 42, a Congress MP from Mumbai, thinks that reforming the police is top priority because they are the first line of protection.
The most high-profile of the young MPs is Rahul Gandhi whose focus on correcting Congress processes has made the seniors feel less threatened. Thus preoccupied, Rahul Gandhi hasn’t taken the prime ministerial bait yet and has spoken of Manmohan Singh as the Congress choice for the top post. Anything that Rahul Gandhi does is seen in exaggerated terms, and this may be driving him inward. For instance, there was a case after the Mumbai attack for Rahul Gandhi to lead a group of young Indian MPs in engaging with young MPs from Pakistan. But he did nothing of the sort.
ONE SENIOR Congress politician who has bristled when asked about the relevance of younger politicians is Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, 71. At a function in Indore in mid-February, Dikshit said experience is very important and useful in politics and the issue of upper age limit for politicians should be left to the people. Dikshit said she got maximum votes from girl students of Delhi though she wasn’t a youth anymore. While there is thus a fair amount of jostling among the older and the younger politicians, there are also other complexities.
In a meeting of the BJP central election committee some weeks ago, the younger politicians had an intense debate. There were two groups, one led by MPs who had parents in powerful positions in the party and the other led by those who made it without a famous parent to help them. The anti-feudal group said the BJP was beginning to ape the Congress in promoting children of senior politicians. By this token the BJP had no right to criticise the Congress for its dynastic tendencies, this group said. Days later, Narendra Modi criticised the Congress at the Nagpur BJP national executive meeting for risking the country to please the Nehru-Gandhis.
Evidently, it isn’t enough merely to be young. A whole lot of things need to work. For perspective, Bhagat Singh was 23 when the British executed him.