The definition of youth in Indian politics would make sense only to a geologist. It is common to find men and women in their fifties being bandied about as ‘young’. But now in the Congress, there is emerging a more reasonable qualifier as Rahul Gandhi looks deeply within the party to groom a generation that is not yet 35. It is part of his relentless pressure on the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) to re-energise itself for the future.
In real terms, what it has meant is the party’s most ambitious recruitment campaign since Independence. And what the party of greying khadi wearers has to show for it is quite a surprise: Congresswallas who could’ve been your college buddies or Facebook friends.
Among the new faces of the party is 33-year-old Szarita Laitflang. She spent a recent Friday at an eight-hour training session in Delhi for a select group of young and emerging Congress leaders, including over four dozen MLAs and MPs from across India. The previous evening, she had been shopping for her 10-year-old son’s school: the sort of stuff boarders need to take to their hostel at the end of a vacation. Her son’s boarding school is in Assam, though he spends his holidays in Kolkata with his father. “I have to catch the morning flight. He will be sleeping when I get home,” she says, her eyes twinkling with a mix of excitement, longing and fatigue. The excitement is the prospect of spending the next three days with her son in Kolkata, the longing is for time beyond just three days, and the fatigue is probably a result of the long party session she has just attended. After meeting her son, she will have to plunge into her new assignment as a Congress coordinator in the upcoming West Bengal Assembly polls. And she will do so with gusto.
Szarita is not even a proper Congress member yet. She belongs to the IYC. Her presence in the party’s Bengal preparations would have been an anomaly just a few years ago. Except for the brief period in which the IYC was infamous for its misguided zeal under Sanjay Gandhi, this youth outfit has been little more than a closed club for politicians’ kids to hang out before they were old enough for grander roles. That, says Rajeev Satav, IYC president and Maharashtra MLA, is changing fast as youngsters sign up from assorted fields. “The election process that is on will change the IYC forever,” he promises, “Nominations were replaced by elections last year. By the time we finish our IYC membership drive and elections (in mid-2011), we would have about 20 million IYC members with their own elected representatives at various levels.”
That figure could be the population of a mid-sized European country.
Even if a fraction of them turn active in favour of the party, it could boost its performance hugely. By next year, the IYC hopes to finish its recruitment and election process in all states and union territories. “We will have a large pool of dedicated young men and women without a criminal background, raring to go,” hopes Vijay Inder Singla, Sangrur MP and a former state Youth Congress president from Punjab who is overseeing the IYC elections.
COME ONE, COME ALL
Membership is open for 30 days. Those who apply are screened for criminal antecedents by Fame—Foundation for Advanced Management of Elections—formed by the likes of former election commissioners JM Lyngdoh, N Gopalaswami and KJ Rao. After this round of scrutiny, elections take place at the gram panchayat and municipal ward level. Then the Assembly and state-level elections follow (see next page: ‘Membership and Elections’).
“Until Fame endorses it,” says Singla, “the election is null and void.” The first election was held in December 2008 in Punjab. It was supervised by Rahul Gandhi in his capacity as Congress General Secretary in charge of the IYC and National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), along with Lyngdoh. The election resulted in Ravneet Singh Bittu, grandson of assassinated Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, being elected as the president. Bittu was backed by one former CM and the opposing camp by another. Despite the elaborate exercise, a dynast had emerged as president. But in the process, the state Youth Congress got itself over 300,000 new members in Punjab. “That was the first election,” says Singla, “As awareness of the process spreads, we have got more numbers enrolling for membership and more first-timers coming to the fore.” He is back after supervising the Bihar Youth Congress election, held in the first week of August. The winner here, Lallan Kumar, does not belong to any political family.
Political lineage, the IYC is keen to emphasise, is irrelevant. Szarita’s family, for instance, runs a small business in Shillong, and she studied English Literature at St Mary’s convent in Shillong before getting herself a Microsoft certification for software professionals. But things changed when she was spotted in a ‘talent search’ conducted by Rahul Gandhi and his associates. This was before the elections began. She has since been the national coordinator of the IYC’s Aam Admi Ka Sipahi initiative (Aaks, literally, ‘the common man’s foot soldier’) for the Northeast. Ten districts of Assam have been chosen for this pilot programme, kicked off formally by Rahul Gandhi in July 2009 with the objective of pushing thousands of IYC recruits into the rural hinterland to engage the poor and elicit wider participation in public efforts.
Abdul Hafiz Gandhi, a former national secretary of the IYC, has had a rural upbringing. He belongs to Uttar Pradesh’s Mou village in the Patiyali Assembly constituency of what was once Etah (now Kanshiram Nagar). Abdul’s father is a marginal farmer, tilling five bighas of land in the village. His uncle, a cement contractor, helped him move to Delhi at the age of six. From his village school, Abdul moved to an English-medium school in an East Delhi locality.
“At that time, I spoke no English, even my Hindi dialect was the butt of jokes,” he says. One glance at his Facebook profile and you know he has come a long way since then. “Whenever I go back home, I travel to the villages in my area and meet people there. They are very poor. I want to do something for them. That is why I have chosen politics as a career,” he says.
After an integrated five-year Bachelor of Law degree from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Abdul could have become a lawyer and hauled his family out of poverty. Instead, he completed his Masters and chose to pursue an MPhil and a PhD—on the Right to Information Act’s impact on the Judiciary—at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, on scholarship. “When I was at AMU,” says Abdul, “I filed a case in the Supreme Court seeking the restoration of the students’ union there. The SC dismissed my plea, but we started an agitation. The vice-chancellor agreed to our demand and I became the students’ union president in 2005.” Spurred by the success of that agitation, he entered student politics and opted for higher studies. “Despite being the union president, I topped the JNU entrance exam for MPhil,” he says, to underscore the point that political and academic success need not be mutually exclusive. For the last one year, he has been touring Madhya Pradesh for the IYC since its elections in the state are to be held shortly.
Szarita too is intent on a political career. “At some point of time, I do want to be an elected representative,” she says, “whether in a state or at the national level.” This choice of career had begun to take shape when she joined the IYC in her home town Shillong, Meghalaya, in 2006. But it was only in October 2008 that she felt that she had taken the right decision. On 2 October 2008, Szarita was in Bordubi Gaon in the Madhuban area of Tinsukhia constituency in Assam, as part of Aaks. All across India, the programme’s activists had been asked to visit the remotest of villages to undertake voluntary labour (shramdan). It was an apparent tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, and at the same time a good way of forging an equation with the poor in far-flung places.
That day, Rahul Gandhi himself was a participant in one such effort at Amroli village in Rajasthan’s Kota district, busy as he was scooping up soil in metal and plastic pans to carry. This made headlines the next day, as did his statement at the time: “Every single day, I feel there are two Indias. One that lives in the cities and belongs to the rich… the other India is that of the poor. We have to connect these two.” This is now seen as the 40-year-old leader’s mission, a way to attain an ‘India where everyone can dream freely’.
TWO INDIAS, ONE IDEA
The challenge has been more than apparent to Szarita. Back in Bordubi Gaon, her team stopped at the hut of a family of tea plantation workers. It was a very poor family. Of late, an unwritten IYC rule is that while working in a village, volunteers must dine with the poorest families.
“We were carrying rations to cook and we asked them for utensils. The village had been recently electrified but the house did not have a connection. There was a young woman in the family who was in the last month of her pregnancy. So I spoke with the local state Youth Congress and asked them to help the family with the electricity connection. I assured the family that we would try our best, and left the village,” recounts Szarita.
A fortnight later, when she was again in that village, she went back to the house. They had got a connection under the Kutir Jyoti Yojana, a rural electrification scheme run by the Congress government in Assam. The young woman who had been pregnant was now a mother, and the family had named the baby girl Szarita. “At that time, I was completely overwhelmed by the gesture,” she says, “I felt so good about being in politics.”
What she had done for the family was simple: got a poor household something that was legitimately theirs under an existing scheme of the Centre. Only, they didn’t know they had a right to it. The Youth Congress team acted as a catalyst. Aaks is a programme fashioned around this disconnect, and Rahul Gandhi hopes there will be millions of young men and women in their 20s and early 30s playing catalyst between the aam aadmi and the establishment, winning friends for the Congress and influencing voters.
After all, the Grand Old Party is set to become the Grand Young Party with its ranks bursting with new recruits in their twenties and thirties. If the IYC is in the midst of a flurry of inductions, so is the NSUI. “India has the world’s largest pool of young people,” says a party secretary, “Between two general elections, about 50 to 70 million voters between the ages of 18 and 23 are being added. As a political party, if we are not tapping them, we are not doing our job.”
To shirk that job would be to flout Rahul Gandhi’s authority within the party. Within three months of being appointed Congress general secretary in-charge of the IYC and NSUI towards the end of September 2007, he had set out on a talent hunt to identify future party leaders. In his aid was an entire team of youngsters. Kanishka Singh and Sachin Rao, as his lieutenants, worked from the Amethi MP’s official residence—12 Tughlaq Lane. There was also AICC Secretary Jitendra Singh, in charge of the IYC and NSUI, and the then Youth Congress President Ashok Tanwar, apart from young Congress MPs Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasada and Deepender Hooda. The idea was to fan across the country and interview people. “Mr Gandhi told us that even before he became an MP or general secretary in charge, young people he met anywhere would say they want to do something for the country or society but felt that politics wasn’t the path they wanted to take. They felt there was little reward for honest first-timers with no lineage,” says a young parliamentarian who was part of the first talent hunt.
Idealism and patriotism, Rahul Gandhi sensed, was alive and well. Only, the youth was disillusioned with politics. So he wanted word put out that the Congress was looking for young idealists who could help usher in the political revolution that they yearned for. In almost every state, young people were asked to land up at IYC conclaves or meetings. Here, say sources, the voiceless found a voice. What future did anyone have in a party dominated by the old guard and their progeny? They demanded to know. Would the party ever be a meritocracy?
“Rahul Gandhi’s thought process evolved through the meetings he had with students and young people during his travels,” says the young parliamentarian, “We had brainstorming sessions with him and people in the organisation, and finally, we had a plan for a democratic IYC and NSUI.”
Both Szarita and Abdul emerged from the talent hunt. But Devendra Pratap Singh Patel of Satna, Madhya Pradesh, has not been so lucky. A former law student of APS University in Rewa, he is a national secretary of the Samajwadi Party’s youth wing, the Yuvjan Sabha. Five months ago, he had approached Rahul Gandhi in an attempt to join the IYC. “He sent me to meet Jitendra Singh. They want me to contest the IYC elections in Madhya Pradesh. I belong to the backward Patel caste there, and have a following of about 10,000 voters,” he claims. Typically, Satna’s Patel vote goes to the rival Bharatiya Janata Party and he could help tilt the balance, he argues.
Patel was once with the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM). In fact, he was a trade union leader with the Bidi Mazdoor Sangh, and was even booked by the state government on charges of rioting. “The SP had a few elected MLAs in the state and the CPM was not so strong, so I joined the SP’s youth wing to protect myself from harassment,” he says, disappointed that the new IYC has no space for him despite his record in taking up cudgels for the poor. “Youth Congress leaders want me to first enrol members and then contest elections,” he complains, “This way, I will have to start all over again.” But with a criminal case against him, there is little chance of his nomination papers getting past the scrutiny. With a projected 20 million other recruits, the party can be choosy.