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The new political Indian

Urban-centric parties, 20-something party workers, management principles in campaign strategies -- a movement gathers in the periphery to redeem the meaning of Indian politics

india Updated: Apr 07, 2009 17:07 IST

In the nondescript, neon-lit auditorium of the Marathi Patrakar Sangh, or the Marathi press club, was a congregation of people who had little to do with each other. A 20-something sophomore from Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in cotton harem pants and Osho

(flip-flops), a bespectacled, laptop-carrying business journalist, a posse of Page 3 celebs, some corporate executives, housewives and students. The motley crowd, split into small groups, was engaged in animated conversation about the man they had been waiting for—the reason they were there that January day.

The launch of the Mumbai chapter of Loksatta, a political party which began as a civil society movement in 1996, attracted a small but discerning group of prospective voters. By the time the founder-leader of Loksatta, Jayaprakash Narayan, walked in, most of the white plastic chairs in the auditorium were occupied.

Narayan, 56, who is contesting the Andhra Pradesh assembly election this year from the Kukatpally constituency, is a recognized, and admired, representative of an emerging niche in Indian politics—from being the pioneer of a civil society advocacy/activist group, he has become the leader of a party that has accumulated 200,000 registered members since 2006.

As Narayan spoke, the lacklustre press club transformed into a place where something significant and heart-warming was in progress. The audience listened in rapt attention as he talked: about Mumbai’s potential to be the seat of urban political revival, about police reforms, about why we have forgotten our own Obamas, and why we, as a democracy, are alarmingly close to anarchy. His agenda, articulated in clipped Indian English—and with a benevolent Everyman smile—was about urban infrastructure and honest governance. "Why should we, first-class citizens, live in such third-class conditions? We have to act now," he said, and the audience responded with applause.
The unrehearsed, forceful speech resonated with this audience—a milieu that is otherwise put off by the mention of the word "politics".
New wave
Narayan’s new supporters were among the first groups I met while trying to understand who really was the new political Indian. By the end of the exercise, I wasn’t any less cynical, but I came to some heartening conclusions.
Reports of fringe parties, independent candidates and new activist/support groups started appearing in the margins of election coverage by the media at the beginning of the year. While Naveen Patnaik’s trust vote in Orissa and Varun Gandhi’s anti-Muslim rhetoric grabbed headlines in the run-up to the election, a collective desire for long-term alternatives was showing up on the periphery of the political landscape. The educated people of Pune, Hyderabad, Delhi, Mumbai and other cities were embracing the electoral process. Youth below the age of 25, who roughly make up 51% of India’s 1.15 billion population, seemed to infuse vitality into politics.
Could this year’s election then be a tipping point?
Meera Sanyal, 47, CEO of ABN AMRO Bank and an independent Lok Sabha candidate from the South Mumbai constituency, believes it can. She calls 2009 the year of "the beginning of the new wave in Indian politics". Kumar Ketkar, editor of the Marathi daily Loksatta, who has followed the rise and decline of many small, independent parties over two decades, says: "Niche parties and independent candidates will force (mainstream) political parties to direct attention to real issues which they ignore. This isn’t, however, a new phenomenon. In 1967, and later in 1989, we experienced the rise of similar parties, but today they are more important because the political party as an institution is collapsing. Election results are determined by political exigencies rather than by ideology."
Two days after Sanyal announced her candidacy from South Mumbai, I met her at the home of her campaign manager (a business journalist who has taken leave from work to do this)—a house on a leafy road between the historic August Kranti Maidan and Mahatma Gandhi’s Mumbai residence, Mani Bhavan. It was around the same time that dancer Mallika Sarabhai announced her candidature as an independent against BJP’s prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani from Gujarat’s Gandhinagar constituency. Sarabhai had announced, dramatically, that politics was "flowing into her blood", that it was the appropriate time to jump into the electoral fray: "If I don’t contest now, it will be too late after five years," she said.
Sanyal, her campaign manager and I strolled across the maidan (ground) talking about Sarabhai, and Sanyal’s own five-point "Mumbai agenda". It covers the city’s infrastructure, the public transport system, security, citizens’ empowerment and the Nagarpalika Bill, and an empowered mayor such as New York’s Rudy Giuliani.
Four things catalysed Sanyal’s interest in politics: a childhood nurtured by the values of her father, a former vice-admiral in the Indian Navy; her interest in policy matters, cultivated through her years as a banking professional; being part of a diploma programme at Harvard University last year; and finally, the terror attacks on Mumbai in November. "We all have some amount of importance as CEO or editor or consultant. But that’s different from being significant. This was a thought that was in my subconscious, which revealed itself while I was at Harvard, meeting people doing meaningful things with their knowledge and experience," Sanyal said. "We used to have people with great intellect and passion in politics only 60 years ago. That kind of passion has become unfashionable now. This is the time to revive it or it will never happen."
The CEO-turned-politician spoke in measured, carefully chosen words and with calm conviction. Her decision to enter politics, it appeared, was not driven by a lofty, noble idea, but what she believed was a "pragmatic" one. She said she recognized her brand and had a strategy for it to work, with a set of priorities and deliverable goals in mind. "I’m convinced change is possible. I can assure you that 10 years from now there will be more people like me in politics."
In rhetoric, Sanyal and Narayan are the antithesis of how fringe politics has been traditionally perceived—as too idealistic and romantic; the whimsy of maverick ideologues doomed to fail.
Two days after my meeting with Sanyal, G.R. Gopinath, founder of the erstwhile Air Deccan, announced his decision to contest as an independent candidate from Bangalore, his home turf. At a press meet, he explained: "My plunge into politics was born out of my own frustration, agony and pain on the kind of political set-up we have in our country. Our political parties are either with a particular community or are fighting against a community; they are either with business houses or against business houses. There is no inner party democracy in any party."
Business of politics
Sanyal’s business management approach is similar to that of the Professionals Party of India (PPI), set up in 2007. Sitting in on a meeting of the party’s core group in Pune was my first brush with the new urban-centric political dialogue. It was 30 January, the 61st death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Early in the evening, 13 party members drove into the campus of an educational institution. R.V. Krishnan, the founder, is a former Thermax executive who now runs a market research and management consultancy. Krishnakumar Iyer or "KK" has worked with Mastek, Siemens, IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers in Singapore, Australia and the US. Girish Deshpande worked with multinational companies such as Saint Gobain and Krupp for 12 years before setting up his own inbound destination management firm. Jayashri Moorthy had done stints in the marketing and publicity departments of the Union Bank of India and Crompton Greaves before deciding to become a full-time homemaker.
In the past one-and-a-half years, these members have learnt to juggle a day job and family life with party work—but 2009 is their first real test. Making its debut in the Lok Sabha elections, the PPI has announced two candidates—Rajendra Thacker and Mona Patel Shah—for the North Mumbai and South Mumbai constituencies, respectively.
That day, inside a classroom, one of them announced the agenda for the meeting—which included debates over posters and merchandise; members to be recruited; and the PPI’s first major symposium in Ahmedabad. The party now has 12 chapters and 10,321 members.
The backstory
Like all other urban-centric parties, including the Delhi-based Bharatiya Rashtravadi Samanata Party (BRSP) founded by management guru Shiv Khera, the PPI’s plans are based on simple arithmetic. Krishnan says: "A very large segment of the urban middle class does not, or is not able to, vote. This is due to a variety of reasons, including the perception that no one is worth voting for. We are looking to persuade that segment. If you give them candidates worth voting for, there are enough people to get a majority in Parliament."
The history of small parties all over the world, however, suggests a different story. Traditionally, fringe parties or small urban-centric parties have rallied around a single issue—be it ecology, ethnic or community groups, or radical political ideology. The first really successful one was the controversial far-right Front National (FN) in France that fielded candidates in the 1973 French national legislative election. Its focus was on defending and reclaiming the so-called French national identity and its leader was the charismatic Jean-Marie le Pen. Although discounted by political observers through the 1980s and 1990s, the FN had emerged as one of the strongest and most influential radical right parties in Western Europe by 2000. Similarly, Green parties have succeeded electorally in Belgium and Germany but failed in Italy; and ethnocentric parties have garnered a significant number of votes in Scotland. In her book Party Competition Among Unequals (2008), political scientist Bonnie Meguid says that in the US, the success or failure of small single-issue political parties is determined largely by how established political parties respond to them.
In India, most of these parties are pitching the same development issues. The PPI has an "educational manifesto", a "social manifesto", an "agricultural manifesto", even a "cultural manifesto". Without distinct identity and branding, most of them are likely to cancel each other out in the polls. How does a voter choose between Sanyal and Dr Shah, PPI’s candidate in South Mumbai, when both stand for almost identical issues related to the city? Pratap Bhanu Mehta, political analyst and president of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, says they are "a flash in the pan". "Politics is hard. A party like BSP has been at it for at least 15 years to get here. So except Loksatta, which has been around for a while and has the potential to emerge in the next few years, the rest are insignificant now."
Youth for power
So the tipping point isn’t so much about small parties claiming a place in governance. It’s a sociological one—a shift in urban India’s collective perception of politics and politicians, and a new motivation for political engagement and action—especially when it comes to the youth. Some of PPI’s "friends" are college students in their late teens and early 20s. Shwetali Jagdhane, a 20-year-old student and an elected class representative at the Marathwada Mitramandal College of Commerce, Pune, is a regular at PPI open-house sessions. Jagdhane’s interest in politics was inherited from her father, a former president of the Youth Congress. "I want to join politics one day because for so long we have depended on the Congress and the BJP and their allies in vain. I don’t know what they stand for. What’s the BJP’s manifesto? And by the end of every term, why can’t we see any changes?" Jagdhane says over the phone. We went on to talk about US President Barack Obama, women’s rights, censorship and Rahul Gandhi.
Reuben Mascarenhas, 21, is a student of engineering in Mumbai’s St Francis Institute of Technology and the general secretary of Yuvasatta, Loksatta’s youth wing. A resident of Juhu, Mascarenhas was convinced that politics was worth his time when he heard Narayan speak in Mumbai two years ago. In the past three months, Mascarenhas and his fellow Yuvasatta members have been organizing voter awareness campaigns in colleges across Mumbai. "It’s shocking, the kind of questions we get from people sometimes. A lot of young people are disconnected from social realities and you can’t blame them. We have seen politicians take bribe on national TV. But it’s easy to get young people excited, like the film Rang De Basanti did. Our challenge is to translate that excitement into action. This year, we’ve been able to get many youngsters involved in little issues of governance," Mascarenhas says.
In Delhi, Kushal Kant Mishra, 33, an orthopaedic surgeon at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), was catching up on sleep at 6pm when we met him in a cramped hostel room. His Youth For Equality (YFE) comrades Jiten Jain, 24, a software engineer, and Aman Kumar, 20, a law student, were trying to decide which Delhi park they should campaign in, the next morning. Dr Mishra works for the YFE every day from 6-9am and again in the evening, after his shift at the hospital. The YFE was set up in Delhi in 2006 as an anti-reservation movement in educational institutes. As of January, it has a political wing too. It has around 20,000 registered members, including doctors, lawyers, engineers, and academics, in 27 cities and 14 states.
The YFE does not yet have the resources to field candidates from all the constituencies in Delhi. "For us, this election is a test run. We want to set an example to political parties and to the general public on how an election should be conducted. We want to use the New Delhi constituency as a role model project for India," says Dr Mishra. They are following, they say, "the Barack Obama model—small donations from small people and donations in kind". The YFE has two scooters, a Toyota Innova van, a computer and an office space in Gautam Nagar, all of which have been donated. They also have a big presence on the Web through networking sites and blogs.
Rural vs urban
In the realm of campaigning, the Internet is the other novel thing in this election. The grand old man of the 2009 election, Advani, has had to adapt to changing times. Long before Sarabhai announced her candidature as his opponent, Advani was photographed lifting weights in a gym. He started writing a blog and has a Facebook group which describes him as "The Iron man of India".
Rahul Gandhi, 37, has the obvious edge when it comes to navigating this new, young voters’ landscape. In February, he announced a national team, meant to boost the Congress’ youth wing, comprising people from varied backgrounds—all of them were under 40.
One of them, 29-year-old Navodaya Murali, who was appointed general secretary of the Youth Congress, Andhra Pradesh, comes from a family of farmers in a village in southern Andhra Pradesh. He worked with Mithrudu, an NGO founded by social worker M.V. Rajendar, in Hyderabad before he set up his own NGO, the Navodaya Trust, and then a real estate company, Navodaya Properties. Gandhi heard about his work in the fields of health and education in rural Andhra, and asked him to join the Youth Congress. "Being part of a big party has helped me disseminate the message. I still don’t talk hard politics when I meet people on behalf of the party. I tell young people not to expect heroes, but to be a hero yourself," Murali says over the phone. He is strikingly different from the youngsters I met or talked to in Mumbai and Pune. He believes that the big changes can come only if there are changes in rural India—by far a much bigger slice of the electoral pie, one which holds the key to electoral fortunes; and synonymous with strong-arm tactics and vote-bank politics. Murali thinks little of urban-centric politics.
But in Mumbai, Mascarenhas and his friends did their bit with a sense of purpose. On a Sunday morning, a few of them assembled at Bandra’s Mount Carmel Church to educate the parish about the voting process. They fielded questions about parties, candidates and constituencies. "We city people have the most important vote," Mascarenhas told the small gathering, echoing what his guru, Narayan, had told the motley gathering at the press club a few days earlier: "Why do we romanticize the village so much? Unless urban India gives its mandate, there can’t be any progress in rural India. It has to be a trickle-down effect. Politicians from villages have failed us long enough."
Voting might just be the coolest thing to do during this election.
Seema Chowdhry in Delhi contributed to this story.

First Published: Apr 07, 2009 16:43 IST