They’re young (40 and below) and they have no political lineage. Meet the new leaders who promise to infuse vitality into the Indian political system.
Dilip Tirkey, 37
Bachelor’s in Arts from Mohanpali College, Sundargarh, Odisha
A former Olympic captain, the hockey player was awarded the Padma Shri in 2004
Rajya Sabha Member, Biju Janata Dal
This year, schoolboys in Saunamara – an Odisha village which has given at least five international players to the Indian hockey team – may finally get to play on astroturf, the artificial surface used on hockey fields.
But in the 1990s, when hockey-captain-turned-politician Dilip Tirkey was a student in the same village in Sundergarh, a tribal district in northwest Odisha, he had to travel almost 600 kilometres to Kolkata to play on astroturf.
“Our school didn’t even have a ground. We had two bricks marking the two ends of the goal-post,” says the 37-year-old hockey veteran, sitting in his well-appointed MP’s bungalow on central Delhi’s Ferozeshah Road.
As a player, Tirkey attained legendary status because of his work ethic. Between 1995 and 2001, he didn’t miss even one international match. He played in three Olympics and led India at Athens, 2004.
So how did he end up in the Rajya Sabha? “In 2012, Biju Janata Dal was looking for a person to fill a vacant Rajya Sabha slot from Odisha. I heard my name was being discussed and expressed my keenness to enter public service. I was elected unopposed,” he recalls.
His wife Meera and his parents – former CRPF officer Vincent and homemaker Regina – weren’t sure what Tirkey was getting into. “My family couldn’t imagine how a person who didn’t speak much at home would participate in discussions in the Rajya Sabha. But I told them that as a politician, I could get things done for the people of my state, particularly those from tribal areas,” he says.
Since accepting his Rajya Sabha seat, Tirkey has revealed a hitherto unknown vocal side to his personality. Recently, for instance, he gave notice for a short discussion on the dismal conditions in sports hostels, after four women athletes attempted suicide alleging harassment by seniors at a SAI Centre in Kerala.
“Also, the House appreciated my proposal to bestow a Khel Ratna on Major Dhyan Chand.”
Tirkey says competitive sport cannot remain a rich man’s domain, any longer. “In a big city, the pressure to study turns kids into bookworms. Sport is thriving in rural areas and that is where the administrators should unearth new talent.”
- Aasheesh Sharma
SHEHZAD POONAWALLA, 28
Education: MIT School of Government and Indian Law School, Pune
First break: Was the youngest Additional Private Secretary to Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs
Currently: Lawyer, civil rights activist and a Congress supporter
Shehzad Poonawalla was 15 when he decided to join politics. It was 2002 and the riots in Gujarat had shaken him to the core. “I realised that if we don’t get into the system, this will happen over and over again,” he says.
So the Pune boy, born into a family so wealthy and famous he needn’t have worked a day in his life, volunteered with the Congress party, campaigning door to door for candidates in the municipal, assembly and Lok Sabha elections.
He put up posters, helped with campaigns and familiarised people with the Congress ethos. “If I was able to mobilise even a few votes for the party through my silly speeches, it was a great achievement for me at that time,” he says.
In college, he joined the NSUI, the youth wing of the Congress and went on to become the vicepresident of the Pune Unit. Practising as an advocate in Delhi for the last four or five years, Poonawalla has filed PILs and taken up cases of discrimination, especially injustices against minorities.
He is also a columnist and blogger, and is active on social media. “My idea of politics is not about electoral gains, winning a seat, or forming a government,” says Poonawalla. “It’s about reaching out to large sections of the people and convincing them about a particular way that society must function.
It is about bettering socio-economic conditions, improving our surroundings, making lives better for everyone.” This sounds like the idealism of youth and Poonawalla confesses that he has sometimes been side-lined within the party for it. It doesn’t upset him anymore. “You have to move ahead of the bickering and focus on bringing about a shift in mindset of the youth,” he says simply.
“People don’t want the fabric of this country to be torn apart. So when I see young Hindus taking up for Muslims and vice versa, I feel that all hope is not lost. Today’s youth have a sense of giving back to society,” he says.
Poonawalla was only six when his father passed away from cardiac arrest. That his dad isn’t around to see his son’s achievements, motivates him to keep fit. He works out for an hour every day, and wants to start a national campaign to address health issues. “More than anyone else, politicians should keep fit,” he says. “If you can’t maintain your body, how can you maintain the country?”
- Neeta Chhatwani
Sarita Singh, 29
Postgraduate in Political Science and Sociology from Delhi University
Founding member of the Aam Admi Party
AAP MLA from Rohtas Nagar, DelhiSarita Singh grew up wanting to wipe out corruption. One way to achieve this, she figured, was to work the system from within. So in 2004, she left her conservative village in Uttar Pradesh and moved to Delhi to complete a double post-graduation in Political Science and Sociology, and then began to prepare for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).
But as she participated in the Gudiya and Damini campaigns for justice for the rape victims, she realised something important: being an IAS officer would not help her change the country as much as social activism would.
Still, Singh continued her studies until late 2010, when the Jan Lokpal Andolan started and she took to social activism full time. Distributing water to the agitating crowds, handing out flyers on public transport, convincing the public to join the movement and participating in street plays, Singh was living her dream.
But she was too nervous to tell her parents. Instead, for two years, she convinced them that she was still studying. When, in May 2012, she told them the truth, they were so angry that they cut her off without a paisa.
But by then, Singh was fully committed to her work. Friends and fellow volunteers made sure she was fed and sheltered, and Singh found she enjoyed the uncertainty of her day-to-day survival.
Every day was an adventure. "I miss those days of scarcity and uncertainty," she confesses. "That’s when I found happiness in triumphing over herculean challenges and took one day at a time."
When the AAP was founded, Singh rejoiced, quickly signing up: "It is easy to be a drawing-room critic, but the system can only be changed from within".
Eventually, Singh’s parents accepted her way of life. When she contested the 2015 assembly elections, they were by her side. Now she is the ‘MLA beti’. "Ab parivar ki ya duniya ki sabse nalayak beti layak ban gayi hai," she laughs.
Winning the assembly seat was a high point of her life, says Singh. "Over the years, I have learned to balance Sarita, the andolankari, with Sarita, the neta."
And Sarita, the neta, is doing well. "It feels nice when people observe that the younger politicians are highly motivated to deliver their promises," she says. "They find our confidence and energy levels infectious. It keeps me motivated."
- Neeta Chhatwani
Also read: Meet the young leaders hoping to infuse vitality into our democracy
From HT Brunch, June 21
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