Politics in India is undergoing a quiet revolution, driven by a handful of young candidates standing in the bitterly contested Lok Sabha election.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high-octane election campaign has occupied much of the media limelight, a band of millennials -- reminiscent of the rise of young US Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez -- is becoming a counter to his right-wing party’s hyper-nationalistic rhetoric.
The disruptors - Kanhaiya Kumar, a 32-year-old with a doctorate in African studies, Atishi, 37, a Rhodes scholar and education expert, and Jignesh Mevani, 38, a law graduate - are offering an alternative brand of politics centered on improving lives of the poor, ensuring citizen’s participation in policy-making and delivering justice for the underprivileged, especially those at the bottom of India’s caste pyramid. The message is a contrast to the ruling party’s nationalist narrative that’s been boosted by airstrikes in Pakistan.
“Good politics should win and there’s a need to counter majoritarianism and authoritarianism,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, political analyst and Modi’s biographer. “These youngsters are rare examples of idealism among India’s younger generation and can change the political discourse if they come into parliament.”
Kanhaiya and Atishi are contesting the Lok Sabha elections, while Mevani represents Vadgam constituency in Gujarat’s state assembly. Coming from a humble background, their brand of politics is based on socialism and ending income inequality, much like Ocasio-Cortez. And like her, they are young, working-class political outsiders in a country where lineage and cadre-based parties like Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its rival Indian National Congress dominate.
It was past dusk when about 75 party members shouted slogans into microphones in East Delhi as they waited for Atishi to flag off a bike rally. The atmosphere was festive for the candidate who’s credited with revamping government schools by introducing modern learning tools and bringing them on par with private-run institutions.
Her presence was electrifying for the 200-strong crowd that fills the narrow lane to catch a glimpse of the young leader. Ditching the bikes, she chose to walk, mixing freely and waving to those at the far end of the gathering.
For 22-year-old Pragya Singh, Atishi’s focus on improving the quality of education has been the inspiration that prompted her to join the rally as a campaigner. Atishi belongs to the Aam Aadmi Party, which translates as Party of Ordinary People, which governs the state of Delhi and is fighting to spread its influence nationally.
“She knows education is the future," Singh said. "Who’s talking about building schools other than her?”
Education and Jobs
Education has received little more than a cursory mention from mainstream political leaders like Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi in the election, where 15 million youngsters aged 18-19 years will cast their vote for the first time. More than two-thirds of Indians are currently below the age of 35.
The Modi government’s spending on education has been lower than 4% of the total budget every year since the 2014-15. Only half of 10- to 11-year-olds in India can read grade two level text, according to IndiaSpend website. In rural India, almost 70% of grade five students cannot carry out simple division.
Yet education is second only to jobs as the most critical political issue, according to Kanhaiya Kumar, who’s fighting from Begusarai, an industrial town in Bihar. Arguably the most popular face of India’s left politics, Kumar became a household name after the Modi’s government jailed him on charges of sedition for alleged anti-India slogans at a gathering in February 2016 in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he was a student leader.
Kumar, who represents the Communist Party of India, stands opposite Modi on issues ranging from nationalism to economic policy. He’s fueled by the failure of the current government on key issues like unemployment. The jobless rate in India rose to a 45-year-high in 2017-18, Business Standard reported citing unreleased government data. While the Modi government denied the report, data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy showed the unemployment rate in April rose to 7.6%, the highest since October 2016.
“Real nationalism is studying how we can give bread to the hungry, give jobs to unemployed citizens and youth; How we can give equality to all, irrespective of their caste and creed?” Kumar said in a newspaper interview last month.
His campaign against BJP leader Giriraj Singh attracted film stars, writers and students who joined in from all over the country. One common campaigner for both Kanhaiya and Atishi is Mevani, who won in the Gujarat state elections in 2017 as an independent candidate.
“I joined their fight as part of the people’s movement,” said Mevani, a popular leader to lower castes or Dalits who took on the ruling party in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. “The kind of cultural and institutional havoc created by the BJP in India has been unprecedented.”
Atishi, Kanhaiya and Jignesh favor crowdfunding and transparent funding for political campaigns. All three are critics of the electoral bonds introduced by Modi’s government to help political parties raise funds from anonymous donors.
“Election funding is one of the biggest fault lines in our electoral system. Political parties usually accept funding from large industrialists and are then obliged to bow down to the demands of these individuals,” Atishi said by email. “When the government is funded by people’s money, it will work for the people.”