My Brother’s Keeper

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Uniquely placed Brothers Tehseen and Shehzad Poonawalla regularly take flak on behalf of the Grand Old Party of Indian politics
Uniquely placed Brothers Tehseen and Shehzad Poonawalla regularly take flak on behalf of the Grand Old Party of Indian politics, Photo: Arun Sehrawat

To know your sibling inside out is a good thing. To know your sibling inside out when both of you are in public life is an advantage without parallel. On meeting brothers Shehzad and Tehseen Poonawalla, the first and lasting impression you get is the extraordinary compatibility between the two. Reading one another’s minds, pausing just when the other is about to speak, completing each other’s sentences – the two brothers with the famous surname do all this with remarkable ease. So, it’s no surprise that in a short span, they have made a combined success of their stint in public life. Together, they might just be the Indian counterparts of Britain’s Milliband brothers – David and Edward, but for reasons entirely dissimilar.

Shehzad, a lawyer by profession, is the face of the Congress on TV channels, in debates heavily lopsided against the Grand Old Party of Indian politics, holding fort amid a barrage of opposition assault, media scrutiny and activist condemnation. Tehseen is the entrepreneurial genius, moving from Pune to Delhi to expand business interests and sphere of influence. Together, they pitch in for the oldest political force in India with disarming earnestness. “Our motivation is to espouse a cause higher than ourselves. While Tehseen’s work with the party is at the policy level, I am closely involved with it on the ideological level,” says Shehzad.

Nearly a year after the Congress was trounced and reduced to the ignominious tally of 44 seats in the 2014 General Elections, the Poonawalla Brothers’ work is causing ripples and raising the hackles of status quoi-sts. When its most ardent loyalists have jettisoned the party’s baggage, this duo is carrying on stoically. While some attribute their steady rise on the political firmament to their Pune roots, the obvious solemnity with which they defend and support the Congress is a story that needs telling.

“I had joined active politics in Pune itself. The major motivation for joining the Congress and being a part of the Congress was the Gujarat riots of 2002. Later, after completing law school in 2011, I was a volunteer with the AICC, Media Cell,” says Shehzad, even as Tehseen, the older of the two, joins the conversation by saying, “Since 2004, I’ve seen how India has transformed and all the credit for this goes to the Congress. Although I am not a member of the party, I became more involved with it at the policy level post-2010.”

Last year, as the Brand Modi juggernaut rolled down the boulevard of Indian media coverage, lined by tall poplars of corporate sponsorship, with seasoned policy mandarins out in their Sunday best, the unenviable task of defending the indefensible fell on the Brothers Poonawalla. Admittedly, their efforts came to nought. “We failed to win the perception/communication battle. In fact, we failed miserably at it. This was because of a concerted campaign since 2010, in which leaders of the party were discredited and once they were discredited, no matter what we said or did, nothing stuck. So, that’s the problem of the Congress. The media has changed and the way youngsters are consuming news has changed. It’s a part of the larger communications failure that they do not understand new age media and do not proactively set the agenda. This leads to the creation of a vacuum, then (the opposition) attacks you, then you are slow in reacting and you are also not aware of the impact new age media has. And all of it has contributed to a communications catastrophe,” says Shehzad.

He adds that the saffron party played a decisive role in making secularism – the cornerstone of Congress politics, that has traditionally helped it reap a rich national harvest — a bad word. “Secularism is no longer an attractive word, even though a majority of Indians are secular and have been instrumental, in the past, in keeping the bjp out of power. Whenever the Cong comes to power, communalism (and communal incidents) has been found to be on the decline. This is the party that can deliver to the nation, provided it pulls up its socks first. The only thing the party is lacking in, is the ability to convey its ideas to the vast majority of Indians,” he says. In Tehseen’s view, too, the blame for making secularism anathema lies at the bjp’s doorstep. “Secularism has been made a bad word by the bjp. Liberalism is a more acceptable term for the same now. The BJP RSS and Bajrang Dal pick up an issue and attach it to identity and community and make secular sound bad. (Yet) the Prime Minster takes orders from Nagpur (RSS Headquarters),” he says.

Stressing on the hypocrisy of the ruling dispensation at the Centre by not coming good on their election promises, especially those made to the business community, Tehseen says, “I genuinely believe that the growth story of India has been scripted by the UPA (in the last decade). (But) The current government gets elected by lying to businessmen. It seems their policy is — use them, lie to them (and) come to power. Whereas, the Congress’ legacy is timeless, for it has been instrumental in the creation of the middle class in India.” The divisive agenda of the BJPrankles the younger of the two, equally, and he says that it’s impossible for communal strife and growth to go together. “You cannot have strife and have growth too. The idea of social cohesion has been the legacy of the Congress. The need of the hour is a robust agenda on social welfare,” says Shehzad.

Both brothers are ardent supporters of the causes Rahul Gandhi espouses and give strength to the belief that the purpose of the campaign against the Congress vice-president had been to demotivate party workers and volunteers. “It’s a falsehood that the Congress is carrying Rahul Gandhi’s weight. We believe it is Rahul who is carrying the Congress’ weight,” says Shehzad. Tehseen goes a step further by saying if the Congress had paid heed to Rahul Gandhi, they would have won the election. “The only way you can bring people out of poverty is through growth. I hope the ideas of Rahul are implemented. The Congress represents India in every single way. If the Congress will not exist, India will not survive.” Promising that by April, the party will come out with a clearer roadmap for its revival, Shehzad says, with a smile, “It’s time to work towards a Congress-yukt India.”

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The Brotherhood of Man

Bobby, Teddy and John F Kennedy
The iconic political dynasty of America, that rises from its ashes like a phoenix, over and over again, had as its strength these three brothers, who were as different as chalk and cheese, yet inseparable in their politics and invincible as a team.

George and Jeb Bush
The heirs to the Bush mantle both found their niche as governors of states in southern United States. Although they had four more siblings, including a sister, Robin, none of the other Bush siblings ventured into politics.

Rahul and Varun Gandhi
Converging only on issues of deep personal significance, and that too, on rare occasions, Rahul and Varun – in their politics and in their personalities – make it hard to believe that they belong to the same genetic pool.

Raj and Uddhav Thackeray
The quintessential confrontationists, these Shiv Sena politicos are rumoured to keep a closely-guarded soft corner for each other and that’s why their open altercations and attention-grabbing showdowns are regular grist to the rumour mills.

Asaduddin and Akbaruddin Owaisi
Asaduddin, the older brother, is a three-time Member of Parliament while Akbaruddin holds fort as an MLA in the Telangana Legislative Assembly. Both belong to the All India Majlis-e Ittihad al-Muslimin and engage in highly-vitriolic politics.

MK Stalin and MK Alagiri
Scions of the DMK political dynasty, the two brothers seem destined to forever wait in the wings, as their father M Karunanidhi dominates the headlines and eclipses their long-held ambitions.

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