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The Reinventor

india Updated: Apr 12, 2008 02:03 IST
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Last Sunday, when Jitin Prasada realised that he was going to be the youngest member in the Council of Ministers, his first thoughts were of his father. “He had been a politician for so many years — but he had never become a minister. I have now.” At age 34. (Though, of course, as political secretary to Rajiv Gandhi and then PV Narasimha Rao, the senior Prasada was more powerful than most ministers.)

And then Jitin wished that Jitendra Prasada had been around “to see this for himself”. “He’d have been very happy.”

Today, the new minister of state for steel says that he “always knew” he’d be in politics — while he was at Doon School, at Sri Ram College of Commerce, and even while he pursued a management degree at the International Management Institute, New Delhi. “I grew up in a political family, my dad’s friends were all politicians.” So even though, in the 1990s, in post-liberalised India, he worked for DSP Merrill Lynch in Bombay and BPL Net in New Delhi, it was only a matter of time before he found his “true calling”.

He quit his “corporate career” when he was 27, right after his father passed away at the beginning of 2001. Jitendra Prasada’s constituency, Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh, had to be won back. Jitin’s mother — Kanta Prasada — contested the by-election in May that year.

As it turned out, the sympathy wave was not enough, and Kanta Prasada lost the seat to the Samajwadi Party. “It was a huge, huge setback,” Jitin remembers. “Our people had voted us out.”

He couldn’t go back to his corporate career, he decided. “That was over. Decisively.” He had to return to Shahjahanpur and keep the family tradition alive. “But I had to reinvent myself.”

He did, he says, a post-mortem of what had gone wrong. The feedback he got — from his people — was that “there was no first-hand interaction… we [his family] had, without realising it, distanced ourselves from the grassroots.” He decided to spend most of his time in the family’s erstwhile constituency — and his real home (“There was always a family connect — not so much a political one — because we belonged to Shahjahanpur, we were farmers who tilled the same land the others did”). But he was, in his own words, “very vulnerable”: “I had no clue if I was doing things the right way.”

The next year, in 2002, he was appointed the general secretary of the Youth Congress. That, says Jitin, was probably the turning point in his life. Not just because it was, in a way, his formal induction into politics, but also because “Sonia Gandhi brought me back from nowhere”.

Moving up the value chain

Over the next two years, Jitin set about doing more of what he had already been doing: putting his house in order in the run up to the next general election. He contested from Shahjahanpur in 2004, and won by an overwhelming mandate, a victory margin of more than 80,000 votes in a state where the Congress itself fared badly.

“I had been able to restore my people’s faith in me… I’ll always be grateful to Rahul (Gandhi) for campaigning on my behalf — it sent out the right message: that I was being taken seriously by my party.”

His new assignment — the ministership — is an extension of that article of faith. “It’s my turn to live up to Sonia-ji’s expectations.”

The MBA graduate is already talking strategy when it comes to his portfolio. Two things are of primary concern, he points out: one, capacity expansion in the steel sector, ensuring enough supply; and, two, steady procurement of raw materials for the sector, most of which — like oil and coking coal — are imported. Bottom line: steel prices have to be reined in — for a very aam junta reason. “Steel touches the life of the common man in India: he’s the end user, we have to keep prices competitive.”

Jitin’s paternal great-grandmother, Purnima Devi, was Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s niece. “Even if I had inherited any artistic — or literary — leanings, I have no time to pursue them now,” he laughs. He used to be a film buff and enjoyed trekking. All that’s in the past. “I want to be a full-time politician… but yes, whenever I have some spare time, I hang out with my friends.”

When he says that, you realise Jitin speaks the lingo of a new — and young — India (although ‘the agriculturist from UP’ will probably tell you that most of India still lives in the villages, where rozi roti, not ‘hanging out’, is top of the mind).

Will more young Indians actively engage in the political process? “That will happen,” he promises. “Too many negative aspects of politics have been highlighted — but change is on its way.” Rahul Gandhi’s entry into the fray, he suggests, is a symbol of hope and change. “It’s a commitment to empowering the youth. Things can only get better.”

Jitin now has his eyes trained on next year’s general election. Post-delimitation, Shahjahanpur will be out of bounds for him (it has been reserved for the SC quota). “I’ll have to find a new constituency — and I’ll be back.”

His youthful confidence in the Great Indian Political System, he hurries to add, does not stem from strategy. “Electoral politics is not about managing from the top; it comes straight from the heart. You have to live the lives of your voters — nothing else will work.”

But as Jitin Prasada gets ready to manage the challenges faced by industry and the marketplace in an economy that is “growing too fast”, he concedes he’ll require nerves of steel.

He’s certainly in the right ministry for that.