Meet the young leaders hoping to infuse vitality into our democracy
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.brunch Updated: Jun 23, 2015 13:38 IST
Raghav Chadha, 26
Education: Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University and Institute of Chartered Accountants of India
First break: Helping the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) draft the Lokpal Bill (2012)
Currently: Spokesperson for AAP
Chartered accountant Raghav Chadha had never been interested in politics. He hadn’t even voted in the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) elections in college.
But like many young people in India, he was interested in wiping out corruption, so it was natural for him to get involved in the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and then helped them draft the Lokpal Bill in 2012.
As it happened, the movement was in the process of becoming the Aam Aadmi Party at the time, and Chadha was swept up in the momentum. He became a party member, and ended up as AAP’s official spokesperson almost before he knew what was happening.
Perhaps that’s why he believes he did not choose politics, but that politics chose him. “My family was very comfortable with the idea of me entering politics as an AAP member since it was formed with the same ethics and morals as the anti-corruption movement that they supported,” says Chadha. “Had I decided to join any other party, they would have been apprehensive and suspicious. They might even have stopped me.”
That’s because politics has earned itself a bad reputation, he explains. “Over the past few decades, its objective has been to abuse power and to make money,” he says. “You use money to get into politics, attain power and then ensure that there is a handsome return on the investment you had made to enter politics. Politics has been devoid of patriotism: it has become a bad word, a bad business; it is not considered noble or respectable.”
But this, he firmly believes, can be changed with a party of upright, well-meaning and right-thinking people, even those who lack muscle power and vast reserves of money. He would say that, of course. Chadha has been the face of AAP for three years. But that’s as far as he will go in politics, at least for now. He is not prepared to contest elections.
“It is a job that requires one to be emotionally, psychologically and physically involved 100 per cent, 24/7,” he says. “As long as she or he holds a seat, a representative of an electoral constituency has to devote every second of her or his time to the constituents – and perhaps even beyond that. It is a very challenging job and I don’t think I am prepared for that.”
He’s also unprepared for the masses of female fans he’s acquired on social media, and the attention that’s being paid to his fresh-faced look. “I’m not comfortable being objectified in this way, and my colleagues often take my case about this,” Chadha says shyly. “In any case, I have no time for all this attention. We karyakartas are like Arjuna, focusing on the machli ki aankh.”
- Neeta Chhatwani
Ragini Nayak, 32
English graduate from Delhi University
President of the Delhi University Students Union (2005-06), National General Secretary of National Students’ Union of India
National Media Panelist for the Congress; she is also part of a 10-member panel appointed for the revival of the party in Delhi
Politics is in Ragini Nayak’s blood. Her family was involved in India’s struggle for freedom. Her own indoctrination into politics began early: as a student of English literature at Delhi University.
An activist with the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), Nayak became president of the Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) in 2005-06. Subsequently, she would be appointed National General Secretary of the NSUI.
She says she couldn’t have asked for a better learning ground: “It is on campuses that students get initiated into political consciousness. It is here that they develop a sense of commitment towards contributing for the betterment of our socio-political system. In a country like India, with 60 per cent of its population below 35, it is necessary to develop a culture of political participation among the youth.”
The playground of student politics taught Nayak a few skills which, she says, came in handy later in her career. “I learned how to structure and manage election campaigns, to encourage students to effectively participate in activism and the electoral process, to prepare and deliver election speeches and to effectively put across our party’s point of view.”
After she graduated, Nayak formally joined the Congress party. Her communication skills were recognised by the leadership and Nayak was appointed spokesperson of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee in 2014.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, as the spokesperson of the Congress, Nayak was a popular face on television channels. How does she manage to maintain her composure when rival panellists and news anchors bare their claws and turn panel discussions into slanging matches? That’s an answer the nation does want to know.
“It isn’t easy,” she says with a smile. “Although, my debating style is rigorous, aggressive and matter of fact, I am mindful of the fact that it is always better to improve my argument than to raise my voice. I always take care not to make derogatory personal remarks against anyone.”
Only those who are not capable of putting across a substantial argument, stoop to the level of personal attacks is Nayak’s credo. “A spokesperson’s job is not to try and persuade the anchor or the opponent to change their points of view but to address the audience and put forth the party’s stand emphatically in front of the masses. Once you realise this, many a battle has already been won.”
- Neeta Chhatwani
Alka Lamba, 39
BSc Chemistry, Dyal Singh College, Delhi University
President of the Delhi University Students Union in 1995
Aam Aadmi Party MLA from Chandni Chowk, DelhiIt was the winter of 2011. In the aftermath of the anti-corruption movement that captured the nation’s imagination, a young leader disenchanted with a grand old party met the ideologue of a new political outfit in the library lounge of the India Habitat Centre.
In the meeting, now Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia convinced then Congress leader Alka Lamba to put her loyalty in the Aam Aadmi Party. Since then, Lamba, who shared a more-than-two-decade association with the Congress, has contested the 2014 assembly polls and become legislator of the iconic Chandni Chowk assembly constituency.
One of six daughters of a government employee, Lamba grew up in a middle class family. After class 10, when she thought she’d study science, her father had to tell her that medicine and engineering would be too expensive to finance. "So in class 11 and 12, I gave tuitions to younger children."
During her final year of college in 1995, while pursuing Chemistry (Hons), Lamba contested the DUSU elections on an NSUI ticket. She went on to become national president of the NSUI in 1997 and later secretary of the All India Congress Committee (AICC).
So far though, Lamba hadn’t had a taste of electoral politics. Denied a ticket from the Hari Nagar constituency in the 2003 assembly elections, she was asked to fight against former Delhi CM Madan Lal Khurana in his pocket borough Moti Nagar. "I took up the challenge but lost in a year when the Congress swept assembly polls," she says.
As time passed, she grew ever more disenchanted with the Congress, though she never even considered joining the BJP. But when AAP was formed, she realised she had a genuine alternative.
In 2014, she sought an AAP ticket from Chandni Chowk, a Congress citadel for 20 years. "I won by 19,000 votes, pushing Congress to third position," she grins.
In the 20 years that she has spent in politics, Lamba has always had her ear to the ground. "Even now I begin my day spending two hours at the outpatient department of the Aruna Asaf Ali Hospital. I ensure that the poor get the free medicines and treatment they are entitled to," she says. After work, the single mother likes to spend time with her 17-year-old son Hrithik, and her parents.
- Aasheesh Sharma
Ritabrata Banerjee, 36
MA in English from Calcutta University
President of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI)in 2005
Rajya Sabha Member, CPI(M)
Perhaps because he was an avid debater growing up, or perhaps because his immediate surroundings lent themselves to free and fierce dialogue, Ritabrata Banerjee has always had the habit of raising the right questions.
This works well for him in his current capacity as the Rajya Sabha CPI(M) MP from West Bengal. Questioning issues like the government’s stance on social media, India’s second moon mission and separate time zones for North-Eastern states, Banerjee isn’t exactly a passive figure making up the Rajya Sabha numbers.
“I didn’t join politics to become just an MP,” he says. “I wanted to practice the CPI(M) ideology. I want to serve the people.”
Banerjee grew up in Colony #104, one of the many refugee colonies around Kolkata, located at Pal Bazaar near the Jadavpur station. The colonies were vibrant with leftist politics.
“My grandpa was associated with the Anushilan Samiti (an armed anti-British organisation in West Bengal) and my father was part of the leftist politics of the time though he wasn’t actively involved,” he says.
But the ground was certainly ripe for Banerjee’s own politics to take shape. In fact, he says, school was the only time he wasn’t actively involved in it and that was because school doesn’t offer scope for the field.
College was a different matter though, and once he started in politics, Banerjee didn’t look back. During his first year in Kolkata’s Ashutosh College in 1989, Banerjee became the general secretary – a quick achievement for a first-year student.
Outside of college, he became the secretary of the party’s local committee and zonal committee and in 2003, became SFI’s district president. Finally, in 2005, he was made vice president of the West Bengal wing of the SFI.
Sometime in 2005, Banerjee decided to join politics full time. Reactions at home were not great. “Understand korano ta ektu kothin! (It’s a tad difficult to explain such a decision to family!),” says Banerjee. “They were convinced I was throwing away a decent academic career and that all my political ideologies were a madman’s rant.”
That seemed natural – after all, while doing his Master’s in English, Banerjee had told his parents that he wanted to be a journalist! But that plan didn’t work out. Does he regret it ever?
“Not everybody walks a straight line in a conventional direction, some choose to wander in the opposite one!” laughs Banerjee. “I don’t know how my Rajya Sabha nomination happened. I contested the 2011 Lok Sabha by-election and lost, but in January 2014 the party nominated me for the Rajya Sabha. I won and started my term in April.”
Banerjee credits his success to his party’s ideology. “It’s because the CPI(M) doesn’t believe in dynastic politics that I got a chance,” he says. “I’ve risen through the ranks from being the leader of just a local committee and student bodies to a Rajya Sabha MP.”
He never had any misconceptions about what he was getting into. “Politics was a passion for me from an early age so I knew what a career in it entails,” he signs off.
Ashish Khetan, 39
Postgraduate from Lucknow University
Contested the 2013 Delhi assembly elections as an AAP candidate
ice chairman, Delhi Dialogue Commission
Dressed in a neatly pressed shirt, a pair of denims and sneakers, Ashish Khetan still looks more like the journalist that he was than the politician that he is now. “I’m the first journalist in my family. It was unimaginable for a Marwari to choose journalism over business,” he says.
Khetan, a native of Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh, started writing for city newspapers while studying at Christian College in Lucknow. “One of my first stories was against a magistrate,” he says. “He sent me a notice for that and I assumed my career as a journalist was over even before it had begun!”
Instead, he went on to become one of the more prolific investigative journalists in the country. “For 15 years, my editors always expected some special story from me,” he says.
The idea of joining politics first came to him in 2012 when he started to become frustrated with the state of journalism in India. “I was pursuing the story of a man who was sentenced to death on a completely false case in the Pune German Bakery blast,” explains Khetan.
“But the channel I was working with wasn’t interested in the story. Because, you see, guilt is a story, innocence is not.” He was filled with a deep urge, he says, to bring about a meaningful change. It was this desire that led him to launch his own web site first, and then join politics soon after.
“All my life as a journalist I was trying to challenge the status quo, scrutinising, inquiring, critiquing,” he says. “And that is what we’re still doing at AAP.”
Khetan is vice chairman of the Delhi Dialogue Commission, whose role is to form a bridge between the government and the people. “It is fallacious to believe that elected representatives have all the wisdom in the world. People have all the wisdom, but no one wanted to listen to them so far,” Khetan says. “This top-down, straitjacketed approach is what we’re trying to change through Delhi Dialogues.”
He has been married to a Goan radio jockey for nine years now. “We have three daughters,” he says fondly, “And the best quip comes from the eldest who says, ‘All of us have our own parties – mama goes to her parties, we go to birthday parties, and papa goes to his party.’ She doesn’t understand my party is so different from hers.”
– Satarupa Paul
Nupur Sharma, 30
Hindu College, Delhi University, and London School of Economics
Went up against Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP in the 2015 Delhi elections
BJP spokesperson, lawyer and columnist
At age 29, Nupur Sharma battled AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal for an assembly seat in the 2015 elections. The practising advocate and columnist lost the seat, but it was perhaps her articulate arguments that got her to become the spokesperson for her party, the BJP.
It was a natural role to fill. Sharma says she had the “politicial keeda” since she was 18. She’d help friends campaign for the student union elections as a junior at Hindu College and recalls being fascinated by it all.
Campaigns would include camels, elephants and big vehicles. At home, she’d discuss local and international current affairs at the dinner table, and her grandfather would often lament that not enough young people were interested in politics.
In 2008, in her second year as a law student at Delhi University, her old Hindu College friends pushed her to contest for the post of student union president. “My family had mixed reactions,” she recalls.
“My father was sceptical, but my grandfather and mother were very encouraging.” She won the election and got involved in Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad activism a year later. As for her family, they eventually came around to accepting her choice.
In 2010, when Nupur was only 25 and finishing her LLB, she was made an executive member of the BJP’s national youth wing. She attended her first executive meeting in Mumbai, then left for London to complete her Master’s. But she missed the action back home and returned soon after her degree.
Her education and lack of family connections in politics haven’t held her back. “I was strongly opinionated and my party never made me feel like an outsider,” she says. “I am doing what I believe in and I like doing it. My work is recognised. I get appreciation for my debating abilities, for my clean record and for being well-read. In fact, I am treated like a daughter. The seniors say, ‘beti hai’.”
Sharma recalls how, in her early days of activism, friends would ask her if she was certain about what she was getting into. “But after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the general public [including her friends and family] has become more comfortable with the idea of politics. The young generation is quitting well-paying jobs for politics. India has changed a lot.”
That change can also be seen in the way rank outsiders like her are viewed. “People like me, with no political background, have been transported from an altogether different lifestyle,” she says. “We learn on the job, bring a fresh perspective and inject new energy into the organisational structure and polity of the country.”
Politics is not all-consuming. Sharma still finds time to give guest lectures at law colleges in Delhi. But she insists that the best is yet to be. “Every day I learn something new. So I just take one day at a time.”
- Neeta Chhatwani
Ajay Alok , 40
MBBS from DY Patil Medical College, Maharashtra
When he joined the Janata Dal (United) in 2012
Spokesperson for the Janata Dal (U)
A year after qualifying to practise medicine, Ajay Alok set up a firm called Indira Gopal Institute of Medical Services (IGIMS) in Patna, which dealt in high-skill diagnostic services and medical consultancy services.
But his life changed in March 2003 when he and his father, the renowned physician Gopal Prasad Sinha, were threatened by a criminal named Bindu Singh. The gangster said he had already killed a doctor in Kadam Kuan in Patna, and he would similarly kill both father and son if they did not pay him Rs 25 lakh.
It was well-known that establishing a business in Bihar at the time was simply asking for trouble. “All these goons are aided and abetted by politicians,” gangster-turned-politician Suraj Bhan Singh told Alok when he approached him for help.
“Why are you scared? Come into politics and clean this system.” That made sense to Alok. “I realised that sitting and criticising the system would not make any difference,” he says. “I realised I had to be part of the system so I could help.”
Even as a school student in Delhi and while studying medicine in Maharashtra, Alok was active in student activities and politics. After working abroad and in Delhi, he returned to Bihar in 1999 and took the Bihar Public Service Commission exam to serve as a doctor in the government.
In 2000, he established a diagnostics centre and in 2013, he set up a hospital in Patna.
His life changed in 2003 when he entered politics. At that time, a major political party denied him a party ticket from Chainpur, his native town, because of caste issues.
Unfazed, he contested the November 2005 Bihar assembly elections as a Lok Janshkati Party candidate and, to everyone’s surprise, secured 11,000 votes. In 2007, he joined the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and in 2010, he contested the assembly elections, securing 34,000 votes but losing by a narrow margin.
Impressed by the development process initiated by Nitish Kumar in Bihar, he joined the JD(U) in 2012, and is now the party’s spokesperson.
Known for his independent views and oratory, Alok courted a controversy by recommending that three ministers of the then Jitan Ram Manjhi cabinet quit for their alleged proximity with the BJP. His remarks against the trio – Brishen Patel, Narendra Singh and Nitish Mishra – earned him the wrath of JD(U) president Sharad Yadav.
But Alok was unrelenting and the month-long power struggle ultimately ended in Manjhi’s departure.
“I believe in clean politics,” he says. “If tomorrow I happen to acquire a seat in the assembly, I would focus on law and order and the empowerment of every section of society ”
- Ashok Mishra
Atishi Marlena, 34
BA History (Hons), St Stephen’s College, DU and Master’s from Oxford University
Spokesperson for AAP
No formal position in the party
Atishi Marlena is awkward when you refer to her as a politician. She instantly recoils, flinches for a second, then laughs, looking rather embarrassed, and says, “I still perceive myself as an activist than a politician.”
This exchange was to be expected, Marlena is only 34, but then, the Aam Aadmi Party is a young party. She was, and still is, an activist. And as of now, she has no formal position in the party.
Until a few months ago, she was the AAP spokesperson. “AAP is like a start-up. You do roles you would have never imagined. I am likely to do some work in the government.”
She grew up in Delhi, her family lived in the Hindu College campus, where her mother was teaching. At school (Springdales, Pusa Road), “we celebrated Africa Day and May Day.” Both her parents are academic-activists, so politics and government policies would be hotly argued over dinner.
Politics was inevitable – but never part of the plan. Like her parents, she wanted to be an academic-activist. She wanted to write papers, mobilise people and change the world.
In 2003, she was completing her Master’s at Oxford, she had a PhD admission, but, “On 15 February, a synchronised protest happened all over the world against the Iraq War. There were two million people on the streets in London.
Yet the war happened. It shattered my beliefs.” She dropped the idea of a PhD, took a break and ended up teaching at the Rishi Valley school in Andhra Pradesh.
It is here, a decade ago, that she met her husband. He was an engineer and a management consultant, who had left all of that to make a difference in the world too.
Starting 2006, they began working in rural Madhya Pradesh. She realised the policy roadblocks could not be tackled in this “grassroot-moving-upwards” fashion.
This is the time the Anna movement started. “I’d seen it more with scepticism than sympathy. But when it decided to get into politics, I became involved.” Before she knew it, she was a politician.
“With politics, everyone, your neighbour, acquaintances, anyone you ever meet, has an opinion. Particularly about what Arvind Kejriwal should be doing,” she laughs.
In April, Marlena was sacked as party spokesperson. A week later, she wrote to Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan, who had been her former mentors, criticising their actions and effectively seeming to choose sides.
Unsure of her political ambitions, she took a few weeks off, and went back to Madhya Pradesh for the Jal Satyagraha, and realised, “Non-violent protests have reached a plateau. There is no other way but to get into politics to make your voice heard.”
People tend to see politics as a means to make money; Marlena is barely making ends meet. But all her friends “know that when we go out for dinner, they have to foot the bill.” Thank god for small mercies.
- Saudamini Jain
Anubhav Mohanty, 35
Bachelor’s in Public Administration
Becoming a Member of Parliament
Biju Janata Dal Rajya Sabha MP since 2014
Anubhav Mohanty does not believe in giving clichéd interviews. Two minutes into our conversation, he says, “I have two dogs, Fanny and Motu, they’re like my children. Do mention them!”
And then he explains how “spoilt and notorious” he was as a child – and still is. “I was always flying kites, and I even stole money from my father’s wallet to buy cricket equipment,” he says sheepishly.
“I troubled my mother a lot because I wasn’t a good eater! Only rice, dal and boiled aloo would do. Even now my mother makes me eat properly. And if she isn’t around, then my wife does that duty. I am badly spoilt that way.”
But that appears to be Mohanty’s only reputation as a trouble-maker. He grew up in Cuttack, Odisha, and went to DAV Public School before completing his Bachelor’s in Public Administration.
Political awareness came early. When he was in Class 12, he cast his first vote. “I felt quite responsible knowing my vote could help elect our representative.” He followed news on TV with his father, and was influenced by his granduncle who participated extensively in local politics.
But the thought of actually joining politics never occurred to Mohanty. Even in college. All he wanted was to get into the National Defence Academy, something that didn’t work out.
He started modelling instead. In 2000, a friend recommended him to act in a music video, paving the way for him stardom. Soon, he made his film debut with the 2004 Oriya hit,
I Love You
. “People honoured me by calling me the 100-days hero,” he says.
Around this time, he began to be interested in politics. “You don’t need a position to do good for people, but I felt if I got into politics, it would give me a powerful platform,” says Mohanty.
His political idols are Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the late Biju Patnaik. Mohanty was also influenced by the current chief minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, and in 2013, he was formally inducted into the BJD. “But there were no aspirations to be an MP,” he says. Besides, politics had other plans for him.
In 2014, Mohanty was on the sets of a film when he got a call from the chief minister’s office. “I was asked to visit the chief minister’s house and to tell my parents to switch on the TV. Later I learned that I had been elected from the state for a Rajya Sabha seat.” This convinced him that one doesn’t need a political legacy to succeed in politics. An ‘outsider’ can do just as well if she or he is sincere.
“We get free flight tickets, a flat in Delhi and Rs 5 crores for development of our areas every year, among other perks,” says Mohanty. “If we really want to, we can achieve development in a beautiful way.”
- Asad Ali
Prakash Jarwal, 27
Master’s in Commerce from Delhi University
At 25, he became the youngest MLA to win the 2013 Delhi assembly elections
The Aam Aadmi Party MLA from Deoli, DelhiOn his way to his MNC office one morning, Delhi University graduate Prakash Jarwal saw something that would change his life forever. That something was Arvind Kejriwal in Jarwal’s constituency of Deoli, discussing electricity and water issues with the locals.
Jarwal didn’t stop to participate in the discussion. He had to get to his office. But it made him realise exactly where his heart lay.
Soon Jarwal quit his job to join politics full time. His family wasn’t amused. Jarwal’s parents had raised him to be socially responsible, but they couldn’t understand why their son would leave the money and security of a good job for the dirty world of politics.
"I gave them the example of Kejriwal, who’d done the same thing," Jarwal says. His friends were similarly baffled. "So I began working on them one at a time," he says. He’d invite them to public meetings, involving them in different public interactions. Eventually they understood.
Jarwal’s outsider status in politics has helped more than it has hurt, he says. No famous surnames precede him; he has no dynastic legacy to uphold. That means he’s carrying no baggage and his individuality shines through. This is already his second stint as an MLA and he is all of 27 years old. Even so, he’s seen a lot of change in the field.
"The distance between an elected representative and the common man is diminishing," he observes. "Only a few years ago, people would be afraid of approaching their elected representatives. Today, people view a young politician as one of their own. They’ll stop his car to discuss their problems and give feedback – giving him a sense of personal achievement."
They stop him for other reasons too. "Once, a much older man, a clothes shop owner, stopped my car. He had been trying to get a water connection to his house for 15 years," Jarwal says. "He thanked me for getting it done, then asked his tailor to take my measurements so that he could sew me some clothes in gratitude."
Being a down-to-earth politician also means that you’re never off duty – people approach you even if you’re visiting a coffee shop with your family. But that’s good, says Jarwal.
People now expect their elected representatives to deliver; voters can’t be taken for granted, especially when they have your phone number. Seeing young people contesting and winning an election is a great motivator, Jarwal says. "It shows that there’s still hope and that the hope can be you too."
- Neeta Chhatwani
Also read: What kind of young people are entering the political sphere and why?
Also read:Meet the young leaders hoping to infuse vitality into our democracy - Part 2
From HT Brunch, June 21
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First Published: Jun 20, 2015 18:26 IST