My experiments with youth

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The revolt in Kerala is proof of how difficult it is to usher in change. REVATI LAUL assesses Rahul Gandhi’s Operation New Blood

Illustration: Naorem Ashish

YOU HAVE to completely change the system,” says S Jothimani, a woman activist, writer and now Congress candidate from Karur Assembly constituency in Tamil Nadu. “The people who benefited from this system will automatically show resistance to change.”

Ask any Indian Youth Congress leader and they will tell you just what ‘resistance’ meant when an election was held for the first time ever for key posts in the Congress party’s youth wing. That was in 2008. Until then, Youth Congress leaders were nominated by senior party people at both the state and Central level.

Leaders who had favours to dish out to loyal hangers-on used Youth Congress tickets as a way of paying back and improving their support base at the local level. Introducing elections into this system meant an immediate threat: local leaders were no longer able to hand out goodies to prop up their support base. This directly jeopardised their authority and influence.

Ashok Tanwar, now an MP from Sirsa, Haryana, was the youngest Youth Congress president and was instrumental in ushering in the system of elections under Rahul Gandhi. He explains very matter-of-factly just what vested interests could do to scuttle the chances of an Youth Congress candidate if it wasn’t someone they had picked for the post.

“There was an incident when somebody’s name was cleared for the state president (of the Youth Congress) and the person in-charge of the state said, ‘No, this guy is not acceptable.’ He got the clearance from the top level, and then this guy intervened, the senior leader… And so, the post remained vacant for two-three years. It affects the organisation.”

If the mere appointment of a state-level Youth Congress leader can be this contentious, imagine what kind of obstacles Rahul and his team have to face to try and overhaul the entire system. Upsetting the state and district- level leaders could put the entire party’s prospects in jeopardy.

Tanwar cites another instance when someone was handpicked from the Centre to contest a Delhi municipal election against the wishes of the Pradesh Congress Committee four years ago. “One guy was given a ticket to contest directly by the Youth Congress at the Centre. Everyone at the state level said that he should be removed. So they ensured he lost.” He was careful to add the caveat. “Then, Rahulji was not in charge.”

“There is always resistance when you start work in a state,” says Jitendra Singh, Congress MP from Alwar, Rajasthan, and part of Rahul’s team of advisers. However, once elections happen at the Youth Congress level, it creates objective criteria for Rahul’s aides to base their choices on, to field candidates at the Assembly level.

MPs like Manicka Tagore, who defeated MDMK chief Vaiko in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, have added to the team’s case files of successful and competent Youth Congress candidates who can take on powerful political opponents.

And so, from the first attempt at change within the party in 2008, the team has had to learn how to handle state leaders and power lobbies. They have had to figure out a way for the old guard to make way for new entrants, but at the same time not antagonise them into a state of rebellion.

And so now, the story of 2011. In Kerala, the Congress is going into this election as part of the UDF combine, hoping to defeat the CPM-led LDF. For which seasoned leaders have to be kept happy if the party expects them to deliver.

Still, emboldened by a steady track record of fielding winning Youth Congress candidates, Rahul’s camp pitched for KT Benny. Considered the maverick choice, it’s a decision that upset many among the old guard, including former Youth Congress president T Siddiq, who was upstaged in favour of Benny.

“It is true that when my name was dropped from the list, I felt bad about it,” admits Siddiq. “But the next moment I remembered the thousands of workers who had given their lives to build the party. None of them got a chance to contest elections. So, why should I be disappointed?”

In choosing Benny, Rahul’s team is said to have upset former chief minister and current Leader of the Opposition Oommen Chandy as well.

HOWEVER, BENNY claims that it’s his performance that won him the ticket. “My hard work is the only asset I have,” he says. “I was born in a poor family. I’ve struggled all these years. I’ve been working with the students wing and Youth Congress since I was 14. I was involved in the Youth Congress election in Puducherry and Tamil Nadu and enrolled maximum number of youth during the past three years. When Rahul Gandhi selected the top six Youth Congress leaders at the all- India level, I came first.”

Upcomers Youth Congress’ Jothimani and Sushanto Borgohain will contest from Tamil Nadu & Assam respectively
Upcomers Youth Congress’ Jothimani and Sushanto Borgohain will contest from Tamil Nadu & Assam respectively

But Benny’s candidature was perhaps balanced out in Kerala by fielding noncontroversial and universally accepted candidates like Liju, Vishnunath and Jossy Sebastian. To put things in perspective, Rahul’s team managed to field 18 of the 85 candidates standing for elections in Kerala. The list includes plenty of past and present leaders from the Youth Congress.

Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu, Youth Congress state president M Yuvaraj, contesting from Erode, is quite open about the need for people like him to be supported by a powerful faction in the state in order to survive politically. “I’m from the GK Vasanji faction,” he admits candidly.

Yuvaraj explains how the leader supported him right from the start. His family has a long association with the Congress. His father was the district president for 10 years and his grandfather for 21. He could have ended up the same way, never getting a chance to contest an Assembly election. Even with Vasan’s support, the political arithmetic of the state would not automatically entitle him to a ticket. What went in his favour was his work in recent years with the Youth Congress.

“I undertook a 1,400-km padyatra from Kanyakumari to Chennai. It took me 54 days,” says Yuvaraj. Asked what the toughest part of this yatra was, he laughed and said, “Walking!” He lost 11 kg on that trip, but gained support across the state for the party at the grassroot level.

Yuvaraj’s advice to his Youth Congress colleagues is simple: Get the blessings of the senior leadership. “Otherwise they will play some politics behind your back,” he warns. The hard work, diplomacy and family history were all part of the package deal that finally led Yuvaraj to the coveted seat.

IN THE case of his colleague Jothimani, it was after working at the village and then district level for seven years that she joined the Youth Congress and got noticed by Rahul as part of his talent search.

Upcomer Youth Congress’ KT Benny will contest from Kerala
Upcomer Youth Congress’ KT Benny will contest from Kerala
Photo: Ajilal

“There was a drinking water issue in my village,” says Jothimani. “You know all villages are divided into two areas: Dalit, non-Dalit. So in my village there were some people who were not able to get drinking water.” This crusade took Jothimani into politics and there was no looking back.

At 36, she’s contesting the Karur Assembly seat in Tamil Nadu. And she’s leaving no stone unturned. That’s why TEHELKA got to interview her only at midnight. Even then, the chat ended abruptly as Jothimani, who begins her campaign at 5.30 am, still had people to attend to.

Meanwhile, Sushanto Borgohain, a Youth Congress leader contesting in the Assam election, explains that many of his colleagues have tried to get a ticket by visiting Rahul’s office but this does not work. “It’s all based on merit and performance now,” clarifies Borgohain.

Rubbing shoulders with the right people alone will not jump-start your political career. His own ticket, Borgohain explains, was being eyed by a former governor of Bihar. But since the candidate had lost in the last election by a massive margin, Rahul’s team decided that it was Borgohain’s turn to contest this time.

“It’s a miracle that I got the seat,” Borgohain says with some excitement. “Four months ago, in Dibrugarh, Rahulji was visiting the university and the All Assam Students Union protested.” That is when Borgohain displayed his political will and loyalty. “I took a strong stand and very democratically informed students of individual colleges about Rahul’s visit. They defied the ban and came to meet him.”

“For 17 years, I was with the Youth Congress. For the past 10 years, I have managed the elections. Senior leaders get angry if you come straight from Delhi. However, if you work at the grassroot, they don’t have the guts to oppose you,” he says.

Yuvaraj’s advice to his colleagues is simple: Get the blessings of the senior leadership

Like Jothimani, Borgohain manages to sleep for only two-three hours at night, campaigning furiously and relentlessly. “I’ve got a ticket from Rahulji,” he reminds us. “If I lose, I won’t be able to face him for the next 30-40 years.”

In Puducherry, Youth Congress leader S Muthukumarasamy says one needs 50 percent support each from the Centre and the state in order to get a ticket. He says he has been lucky to have both.

In West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, party insiders admit that tickets being given to so many — all of 44 — Youth Congress members has upset the applecart. Rahul’s aides point out that this is certainly not the intention. However, resistance to a new force is sometimes inevitable. Which is why the choices made in each case have involved so much political dexterity.

And now, lists drawn up, battlelines ready, Operation New Blood is well under way in the Congress. Victory for a good number of these candidates will mean a victory for Rahul’s new methods. And more ammunition with which he can combat dissidents from the old guard. Still to be shaken. Still to be subject to the new terms of reference. Merit. Elections. New blood. New alliances. It’s no magic trick, this.

With inputs from Jeemon Jacob

revati@tehelka.com

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