Young Guns
The BJP and Congress have blooded a select group of aggressive and articulate young leaders to drive their party agenda ahead of the big face-off in 2019. Who are they? Gautam Datt reports

The wheel of Indian politics is spinning perhaps faster than at anytime in history. Every era of India’s political journey has thrown up Young Turks but the current crop of leaders of tomorrow has arrived in the multi-dimensional arena that blurred the distinction between the virtual and real worlds.

The new-age politician, like a new-age cricketer, has to be an expert in all formats of the game. The young politicians need to have feet on the ground as well as the ability to crack social behaviour of by analysing digitial presence and using it to mould the minds for electoral gain.

A ‘young country’ ruled by the old

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor once famously quoted former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as saying that a politician in India is born at the age of 50, becomes a teenager at the age of 60 and is a youth icon at 70. The current Lok Sabha has the lowest number of MPs in the age-group of 25 and 40.

Going by this standard, a young Indian politician is a misnomer despite all the political parties claiming to be the voice of the young, the largest segment of population. The last general elections saw the highest participation ever of young voters and 2019 is in line to better that record.

As the political situation stands today, the battle lines are clearly drawn between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, one of the principal prime ministerial aspirants in the crowded opposition camp. Modi will be 68 next year and Gandhi will be two years short of 50. Going by Indian standards, both the leaders are within the norms of representing Indian youth.

Modi brought in a modest age cap when he picked up his ministers. Those above 75 were not considered for the job in a marked departure from the earlier absence of age restrictions for occupying ministerial berths. He has largely adhered to this unwritten age bar. When he started his term in 2014, the average age of his ministers was 55. Compared with his immediate predecessors Manmohan Singh (with an average age of the cabinet at 67-years-old) and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (with the average age of the cabinet at 61-years-old), Modi’s cabinet is the youngest. 

Generational shift

But in the last four years, Indian politics has been hit by a generational shift. The older, recognised personalities have slowly faded and new fresh faces have begun to dominate the public space. The transition has been subtle in the ruling BJP and abrupt in the Congress. All other political parties are in the middle of this transition.

The ruling BJP has seen the rise of many young charismatic leaders who have thrived under the aegis of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah. The young guns of Team Modi like Information and Broadcasting minister Smriti Irani, petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan, junior ministers Kiren Rijiju and Mansukhbai Mandaviya — all below the age of 50 — are the torch-bearers of the young brigade. Even among the BJP allies, junior minister Anupriya Patel at 36 is the youngest member of the Prime Minister’s team.

A shift from the old guard to the new has been more evident in the Congress after Rahul Gandhi took over as the party president. In his address before the highly charged party workers at the 84th plenary session, Gandhi emphasised that the new Congress will be a blend of youth and experience. The manner in which he set about his task, shows that the Congress party GenNext is ready to take charge. The Congress has discounted criticism that its second line of leadership is soaked deep in dynasty politics. That is expected. Many of the new crop of leaders are children of well known Congress leaders.

Talent hunt

Gandhi picked up his team of new faces through a talent hunt. The youngsters were encouraged to join politics and given a free hand to express themselves. Even regional parties are experiencing transition. After Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad was jailed over corruption charges, his son Tejasvi took firm control of the party and is calling the shots. Uttar Pradesh has already seen transformation in the Samajwadi Party where the power centre has shifted from Mulayam Singh Yadav to his son Akhilesh who is preparing for a second shot in office after last year’s setback in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.

In Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah stepped into his father’s shoes a long ago and so did Mehbooba Mufti who filled the void after her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death. In Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal’s son, Sukhbir, is firmly in the saddle. The politics in Himachal Pradesh and Haryana is also witnessing a generational shift with a new line of leadership waiting in the wings.

JAIVEER SHERGILL
Congress spokesperson and advocate

Age: 34 years

Family background in politics:

First generation politician

The beginning

I am a first generation politician. I started in 2011, I used to look after the legal cell where I gave the idea to the Punjab Pradesh Congress that I will provide 24x7 toll free helpline number where I will provide free legal aid to all the Congress workers day and night. I was president of the students’ union in West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. But it was an apolitical organisation. It was unique to be a Punjabi from Jallandhar to be a president of a students’ union in Bengal.

Why the Congress?

For me, the reason is ideological. Since my university days my basic fulcrum or the fix with the Congress as ideology was the flexibilty and diversity it reflects. For me as an outsider I believed that the Congress allowed the space to think on your own. They allowed us to think freely, since I wanted to join the Congress I found an opportunity  for a person from a non political family an easy viable bridge to enter politics.

How easy or difficult was it to enter politics despite not being from a political family?

I always found that the Congress displayed an appetite for merit-oriented ideas. If you had that merit-oriented idea there was always an opportunity to put it on the table. There was always an appetite to accept that idea and be allowed the freedom to implement it. So my idea of launching toll-free helpline was welcomed and I was given the opportunity to execute it and finally I was absorbed into the Congress at the state level. That cemented my belief in the party more as a youngster getting the opportunity.

The absorption in the Congress

In 2013, Mr Rahul Gandhi launched a talent hunt all over India. My name was recommended by the then Pradesh Congress chief Pratap Singh Bajwa. We had a bench strength of 1,500 people all across the country predominantly those who are from an apolitical background. We were given 6,000 pages to read on pure policy, infrastructure, terrorism. It was like a test. It started with a group discussion. From the 1,500, it filtered down to 100 candidates who went through a re-test spread over five days where you had to debate among yourself,  there was mock TV studio you played anchor and discussed issues from infrastructure, social security to terrorism. Out of those 100, 40 were picked up to become spokespersons.  Also, we used to be sent to not so prominent channels to test our skills. We were not thrown into the fire from the word go. For six months we were watched. The helm of affairs of this exercise was Ajay Maken.

My first appointment was media panelist on state issues. After Randeep Surjewala took over, I became a national panelist. That has been my journey from my non political background. I said it in one of my sessions also that I saw Rahul Gandhi sitting in Jallandhar on television. Today he has made me sit in that same television studio to talk about the Congress party.

The contributions

I have been very fortunate I was selected as star campaigner for Himachal Pradesh. They have trained me, tested me and applied me. As a youngster I definitely want to test the waters of electoral politics. That's the real test and keeping the boots on till 2019 and break the narrative of the BJP and equally pitch the Congress as a dominant force. My journey so far has cemented my strong belief that now Rahul Gandhi is making a conscious effort to give a prominent place to people with apolitical background. When I first stepped into the world of media, people asked me what I will do being from a non political family. But here I am sitting today. After the plenary, every youth is confident that if he or she has it as ground presence and can give the results, he or she can be confident and comfortable to seek a ticket.

Rahul Gandhi has sent a strong message, he vacated the stage for the youngsters at the plenary to give a level playing field. If there is merit, you can be on that field. If there is no merit, you can be on the bench.

Image, perception is one. Second there is a strong vision of Rahul Gandhi to place merit over everything else. The merit whichever field you are serving the party, if you are a spokesperson, you have to be good with facts and figures. Rahul Gandhi is making the perception that if you are strong in your work, you will get the opportunity.

Congress workers look up to Rahul Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi in today’s time is fully involved in the length and breadth and the depth of  the party right from identifying the talent to ground assessment and also the campaign as we saw in Gujarat and now Karnataka, it is a living testimony of the fact that he is a 24x7 politician. He doesn’t believe in centralisation of power. He also has given lot of responsibility and delegation of power to a lot of old and young leaders.

He has a vision for the Congress to go in a new direction. The party is solely focusing on diversity plus is attached to people’s issues on the ground, deliverability and implementation and less of sloganeering so he wants us to work in that direction. Today he does meetings right from the unorganised sector to fishermen to real estate to farmers to people from the backward classes, he has also launched the All India professional Congress.

So I think he is working very hard and results are showing and the cadre is charged up. After the humiliating defeat in 2014 there are few parameters to judge the party. One is the state elections of course the BJP has surpassed us, but if you see 11 bypolls, Congress has won 4 and the BJP has won zero. If we see bypoll indication especially Gorakhpur, though, Congress was not a player and it is a worry. It is signal that the BJP’s graph is falling, the Congress’ graph is showing improvement.

We have to cover a long distance. Right now the target is two-fold. One, Congress making a bigger dining table for itself. We are stitching together a bigger alliance. Second is to go beyond BJP's criticism and provide a definite implimentable agenda from jobs to foreign policy. The UPA will come to power in 2019. We will honour and respect any permutation and combination which has any acceptable ideology. Going by the sheer cadre presence and strength and organisational presence on the ground, the Congress will be the main glue on the axis on which the opposition unity will rest.

There were 17 opposition parties that came to the dinner. Every Congress worker wants to see Rahul Gandhi as prime minister of India. But Rahul Gandhi’s priority is not the seat of power but governance.

No member of the Gandhi family held a constitutional post after Rajiv Gandhi. He was more focused on organisational strength and has done wonders. He is the first guy to bring election system to the youth congress. Today youth congress president is a person who is an orphan, Raja Barar. President of NSUI does not belong to a political family. All these opportunities are created because he worked and created a path for all of us.

Brute majority cannot guarantee good governance

In the end, people test the deliverability of the government. The BJP is the biggest testimony that brute majority does not guarantee good governance. The people are witnessing how NDA wasted the brute majority on non issues. Mark Twain had said it very nicely that don’t trust the eyes when your imagination is out of focus. The government is not focused on the real issues and it busy in headline management rather than real issues. Strong personality, good oratory doesn't guarantee good governance. Like 2003, December BJP won all four states now BJP is heading for India Shining part II. A coalition led by Congress will guarantee good governance.

We have learnt from our mistakes. UPA-II was the victim of our inability to communicate, our inability of dispel propaganda. Today, if we are coming back to power there will be a conscious effort to communicate with the people and translate our achievement beyond slogans.

Congress comeback plan

We have put the ball in the people’s court. We have emerged victorious. We will be very aggressive in our communication. We will be very aggressive to counter propaganda and we will be very aggressive to tell the people to give us a chance again. There is a course correction. There is a reason we were reduced to 44 (Lok Sabha seats in 2014). We have our ear to the ground. We have worked on mistakes within the party and outside, regained our composure. We have given importance to ground level worker. Outside, we have made conscious effort to counter every propaganda.

BJP’s Rahul phobia

Rahul Gandhi is asking the right questions at the right time. That is why he is focusing on people and the BJP is talking about him. He is talking about jobs, they talk about Rahul Gandhi’s religion. He is talking about farmers, they will talk about his religion. So Gandhi's attack on the BJP is issue-based but the BJP’s response is personality based. That shows cracks in the BJP. Ultimately if you see the environment, every section of the society is protesting. We will become voice and medium of the society. People will vote for the Congress as a symbol of positive affirmation for  our governance models which spreads to every caste, creed and religion. The Congress does not believe in suffocating the nation or imposition of ideologies. The Congress is far behind the BJP's politics of television, ultimately the people will know as Manmohan Singh said that history will be kinder to him. Today people are remembering Sardar Manmohan Singh, it is our test record, whether foreign policy or other issues. 2014-2018 have been the bloodiest years, fuel prices, inflation, relationship with Nepal, Russia, Maldives. How many traders lost businesses because of illogical GST, so government's blunders and the Congress track record will get positive affirmation not by default.

How will Congress counter the communal pitch?

It is the people of India who are rejecting the BJP's communal pitch. By their own admission, there is rise in communal violence. People  have understood that communal agenda cannot be substitute for good governance. It cannot guarantee jobs and good prices. We are not only exposing communal propaganda questioning every decision of BJP  on communal lines. The BJP has been fanning communalism within one community also. Today, dalits are protesting. Within the BJP people are feeling the heat of communal politics. People realise all that glitters is not gold. It is the people who are rejecting the communal agenda. The Congress will be the voice of those people.

There is a two-fold strategy. Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits are giving big heart burns to the BJP as they thought they had monoplised the religion and put their name plate on it. Secondly, the BJP machinery worked overtime to spread proganda against Rahul Gandhi which has been busted by real-time visuals of him visiting temples. He  always went to the temples, churches, Gurdwaras. He was in Kedarnath when no elections  were there and he was also at the Golden Temple. The Congress believes in Amar, Akbar, Anthony.

Gaurav Gogoi

Congress MP from Kaliabor, Assam

Age: 35 years

Family background in politics:

Son of former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi

Youth occupy centre-stage

The key responsibilities are being handed over to the youngsters, especially when it comes to managing the affairs of a state. Look at Jharkhand, Gujarat or Odisha, more younger leaders are now in-charge of these states. Jitendra Singh, Rajeev Satav or RPN Singh — they are still young compared to their peers. So there is definitely a shift. Also, by opening new cells like All India Professionals Congress, we are reaching out to the broader community of young professionals and getting them to volunteer and support the party. This is another area where the outreach focuses on a much younger audience.

In the recently held elections, there was much more emphasis to give tickets to younger candidates. Now we are focusing on areas where we haven’t done well.

Challenging BJP’s might

We are not worried about BJP’s rhetoric and hype. BJP has nothing but hype to offer, because the development on the ground is not working. And they have not been able to fulfil any of the major promises, so they have nothing to resort to but hype, which will eventually drown them in the future.

Tackling communal agenda

It is quiet unfortunate that in the 21st century, the BJP has nothing to offer except dividing the states and the country. It is a well-established fact. We have seen it time and time again during the elections in UP and Gujarat that all talks of development failed and the BJP had only polarisation to offer. The Congress, as well as the people, doesn’t want to focus on the religion we belong to. We want to shift the attention of the country to the issues that really matter, like poverty, employment or foreign policy.

The anti-BJP front

The policies of the BJP are quiet authoritarian. It’s what you see in the Parliament —they are trying to silence democracy. If we look at the different institutions — be it media, judiciary or the Election Commission — the BJP and RSS want to get a stranglehold on them and choke the lives out of these institutions. Therefore, it is quiet logical for all the other parties, irrespective of their political ideologies, to get united with the single aim of saving freedom and autonomy of the key institutions which are the pillars of our democracy. We are united with the common goal that Indian citizens must be free to wear what they want, eat what they want and love who they want.

Fighting the corruption tag

If you look at the recent legal cases involving the telecom sector, all the corruption charges turned out to be cases of false perception created by the BJP. In fact it is the BJP who should answer questions on corruption. We are witnessing one scam after another getting exposed at the banks. The ones who are fleeing the country with public money are those who enjoyed close proximity with the BJP leaders -- whether it is Lalit Modi, Nirav Modi or Mehul Choksi. We also see so many scams in entrance exams related to Vyapam or CBSE. Eventually those who are close to the Modi government are part of all these scams. The BJP has conveniently used its allies to run away from our questions on the Rafale scam. Therefore, it is the BJP who has to answer. But the ruling party continues to hide behind its allies and run away from tough questions.

Anil Baluni

Head of BJP’s media cell and Rajya Sabha MP from Uttarakhand

Age: 45 years

Family background in politics:

First generation politician

Youth and politics

I am young in politics but not in the category of youth as I am in the mid-40s. Even Rahul Gandhi calls himself young, he is two year older than me. I was associated with ABVP since college days. I made journalism my career but returned to the party. It is a fact that it is difficult for all young leaders (to succeed), if they don’t have political background. You will have to take every step carefully. I was nine when my father passed away and I grew up on the pension that my mother would get. Rahul Gandhi has to go to Kalawati’s house to experience what it is to sleep on a cot, but we have been used to it since childhood. My journey to the Rajya Sabha has been a long and difficult journey.

BJP and the young

The BJP has made a story like me possible. A worker in the party gets full opportunity. In other parties it is very difficult. My father was in service, my mother was a housewife and cannot even speak Hindi properly. I come from a small village. In the BJP, a small person can become president and even prime minister. It was my good fortune that I have been part of the BJP. I am an envelope without an address. Whatever the party writes on it, I follow.

How will the young voters relate to the BJP?

The young voters have been participating in big numbers in elections. It is very beneficial for us considering what is happening in the country. The way the Congress and Rahul Gandhi are playing the politics of divide and rule, society is being damaged. The way the Congress is working out of frustration, it is not good for the country. A series of movements are being created. If Akhlaq is killed, it is given a communal touch. If a Dalit dies in Gurgaon, the Congress and the opposition go on protest. You saw the Rohit Vemula case. It all goes to the fact that Cambridge Analytica was used to break society. They had the formulae to create a division on caste and religious lines.

On youth and jobs

The young voters will not fall into the trap of the opposition who claim that there are no jobs. The whole issue has to be seen from a different point of view. There is a limit to providing jobs but we are doing so. The Modi government has started schemes like Mudra Yojana for giving loans to start businesses. The employment figures have actually gone up.

Will the young support Modi in 2019?

After every election since the 2014, the BJP's vote share has gone up. Even in states where we lost, like Delhi and Bihar, the BJP's vote share went up. It hasn’t been like the Congress which has been losing the vote base. Even in Gujarat, our seats came down but the vote share went up. If you see all the states from Uttar Pradesh to Tripura and Himachal Pradesh, the youth are with us.

On opposition unity

We are ready to face this. We got 49 per cent of the vote in Gujarat. You just watch that we will consolidate our position in other states as well. There is no anti-incumbency against the government. Anti-incumbency works for the Congress not the BJP as our governments have been running for multiple terms in many states. People know that our intentions are good. The nation is convinced that Prime Minister Modi’s intentions are good. The people will vote for him again. Rahul Gandhi is showing aggression only on Twitter but see what is the result in the elections.

Poonam Mahajan

Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha

(BJYM) president and MP from

Mumbai North Central

Age: 37 years

Family background in politics: Daughter of former union minister and BJP leader Pramod Mahajan

The aspirations of young voters

In 2014, when I became a MP, BJP had government in five states. Today we have our government in 22 states. A large number of programmes implemented by the Modi government are youth-focused like Start-up and Stand up and the Mudra Yojna. A corruption-free government was an overwhelming demand of the youth in 2014, one for which they voted in the BJP. We have delivered on that. People of the country have supported us wholeheartedly and I am sure they will break their own record in 2019.

Dealing with anti-incumbency

Anti-incumbency happens when a government doesn’t perform. Look at Gujarat. After 20 years, the people of Gujarat voted for us once again because we had performed. I have travelled across the country and witnessed tremendous support from the people. We are committed towards the betterment of the society and I am sure we will continue to receive the support of the country in the future too.

Road-map for the BJYM

The BJYM has continued to engage with the youth and it acts as a sounding board to address the concerns of the youth. We believe in Antyodaya and ensure that all the programmes and schemes of the Government reach the last person of the society.

Meeting targets on issues like unemployment

Our party cadre is very dedicated and is always motivated by ideology and the leadership of our Hon. PM Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. And this is true before, after and during elections.

BJYM plans for 2019

BJYM has been working towards empowering the youth of the nation with various programmes like the Free Legal Aid Centres for women, Millenial Voter registration, BJYM Dialogue where we create a platform for eminent personalities to connect with the youth, Khelo Bharat competition where games like mallakhamb, kho-kho etc are organized. We have created a big data of interns who will help us in many different ways — right from social media to onground work of creating awareness towards various government schemes for the public.

BHARATIYA JANATA PARTY

THE CHOSEN FEW

Smriti Z Irani
Union Information & Broadcasting Minister

Age: 42 years

Family background in politics:

First generation politician
Information and Broadcasting minister Smriti Irani is one of the youngest members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s team. She will play a greater role in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as the party has pitched her to take on Rahul Gandhi in his family borough of Amethi. A straight-talking firebrand leader, she had given him a tough fight in the last elections and since then has not lost touch with the constituency. The next election may see Rahul Gandhi versus Smriti Irani and she has been preparing for the battle for long.

Babul Supriyo
Union Minister of State, Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises

Age: 47 years

Family background in politics: First generation politician
The singer-turned-politician won a tough electoral battle in 2014 when he defeated Dola Sen of the Trinamool Congress from Asansol in West Bengal. He has been at the forefront of BJP’s political battle in the state against TMC.  He has been aggressive in his approach and is not known to mince words. Communal violence erupted in his constituency of Asansol during the Ramnavami celebrations and an FIR was registered against him for allegedly preventing police from doing its work. The young minister is known for his controversial utterances including demanding a ban on the performance of Pakistani artists in India.

Amit Malviya
Head of BJP IT cell

Age: 40 years

Family background in politics: First generation politician
Amit Malviya drives the BJP’s social media campaign. The BJP was one of the first parties to utilise cyberspace for electoral gains. After coming to power, Malviya took charge of the IT cell and remains busy defending the government. He has been in several controversies as well from being accused of paddling fake news to jumping the gun in announcing the Karnataka election dates. But suave and articulate Malviya, who left his banking career to join politics, has been at the forefront of the BJP’s image building.

Tuhin Sinha
Author and Mumbai BJP spokesperson

Age: 42 years

Family background in politic: First generation politician
Tuhin Sinha made his mark with his novels like The Edge of Power, The Edge of Desire, Of Love and Politics, That Thing called Love, 22 Yards, Let the Reason be Love and Daddy. When he is not writing books, he is defending the BJP. He campaigned for Narendra Modi through is blog. He has been presenting the BJP’s voice on various media platforms countering the opponents and the rooting for the saffron brigade. 

Sushmita Dev
President of All India Mahila Congress and MP from Silchar, Assam

Age:  46 years

Family background: Daughter of former Union minister late Santosh Mohan Dev
She has been one of the emerging young voices in the Congress. The young MP has been active in taking up issues of gender violence. She has been campaigning against the sexual harrassment of student by a teacher in Delhi University’s chemistry department. Herself a graduate from New Delhi’s Miranda House, Dev has joined protests against exploitation of students. She will play a key role in Team Rahul Gandhi as a young face of the Congress.

CONGRESS PARTY

THE ATTACK TEAM

Sachin Pilot
President of Rajasthan unit of Congress

Age: 40 years

Family background in politics: Son of former Union minister late Rajesh Pilot
The young Congress face in Rajasthan is determined to bring the party back to power in the state after the drubbing it got in the last elections. Pilot as the state unit head has been doing the ground work and the first signs of success came in the form of big victories in  the by-polls for Alwar and Ajmer Lok Sabha seats and the Mandalgarh assembly seat. The party’s performance in the local body elections also show that the Congress is on the comeback trail. Expectations are now riding high on the shoulders of the young Congress leader to reverse the fortune of the party.

Divya Spandana
Former Lok Sabha MP and Head of Congress IT cell

Age: 35 years

Family background:

Her mother was a Karnataka Congress leader
Kannada actress Divya, popularly known as Ramya, is at the forefront of Rahul Gandhi’s social media machinery. She remains in the public domain countering trolls and putting forward Congress' point of view. She is said to be one of the persons behind Congress scoring social media victories over the BJP in recent weeks. There has been a flood of memes and fact check data analysis of PM Modi’s speeches. Not a word spoken goes unchallenged. The aggression in cyberspace has clearly brought BJP under pressure as it is the first time the ruling party is facing the heat in a territory it once dominated. It remains to be seen how well Congress is able to turn it into electoral gain.

Randeep Singh Surjewala

Head of Congress Media Cell

Age: 50 years

Family background in politics:

Son of Haryana politician

Shamsher Singh Surjewala
As head of the Congress party’s media cell, the Haryana leader occupies prime place in Team Rahul Gandhi. He has been leading the attack on the Modi government through media briefings exposing the chinks in the BJP’s armour. He is said to be one of the key members of Gandhi’s inner circle. He leads a team of young spokespersons who’ve kept up the pressure on the government.

Columnist: 
Gautam Datt