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Waiting for Rahul Gandhi: A portrait of the new Youth Congress worker

The Indian Youth Congress (IYC) headquarters on Raisina Road is abuzz on 24 September. A gigantic poster of angry young Rahul Gandhi announcing a protest (Aakrosh) rally at Jantar Mantar looms over the entrance. Inside, in the foyer, behind a peculiarly unrecognisable bust of Rajiv Gandhi, small groups of young men and women are chatting over cups of coffee. The only spot of calm amidst the frenetic activity is Youth Congress president Rajeev Satav’s office.

Forty-year-old Satav, a picture of calm himself, is also a first time MP from Hingoli, Maharashtra. A surprise winner, despite the ‘Modi wave’, from a seat previously held by the Shiv Sena and traditionally contested by Congress’s ally NCP.

In the office marked by a large LCD TV, portraits of MK Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru,Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and no less than five pictures of Rahul Gandhi, Satav is giving bites to agency and TV reporters. The already seasoned politician tells them Congress will come back to power in Maharashtra like Singham Returns. He plays the regional card by pointing out that the Modi government is spending lakhs on a Sardar Patel statue but not a single rupee to keep Shivaji’s legacy alive. Once the camera crews have left and we settle down to talk, his tone is less rhetorical, more contemplative.

The next day’s protest has been organised to highlight the Modi government’s failures of which they have a well-researched laundry list. The rally is all set to be substantial. Invites have been sent out to several Congress leaders and the organisers are hopeful they will show. Particularly, Rahul Gandhi.

Is Rahul Gandhi expected at the rally, I ask Satav. “Maybe he will come,” he says cagily.

He is a lot more forthcoming when talking about the changes initiated by the Congress Vice President in the Youth Congress. Satav himself is a product of the democratisation of the organisation. Before the reforms started the IYC functioned like most other political organisations. Existing leaders arbitrarily appointed relatives and cronies as their successors. Now membership is open to all and elections take place at the Panchayat, Assembly, Lok Sabha and state levels for all posts. These elections are professionally monitored by the Foundation for Advanced Management of Elections (FAME), an NGO set up by former Chief Election Commissioners, J M Lygndoh and T S Krishnamurthy and run by a number of retired Election Commission officials. Noone with a criminal record is allowed to contest. Regular training and internal assessment of members has changed the work culture significantly.

But what good has come of it, I ask, referring to the drubbing the party received in the national elections in May. Satav points to the young men milling about his office and says their entry into politics would have been impossible but for the reforms introduced by Mr Gandhi. “More than 90% of people in Youth Congress today have no family connections in politics. The doors are completely open. The main thing is fairness,” he says emphatically.

Satav appears a little incredulous that I seem to suggest democratisation within a major political party is not its own end. At the rally the next day, I can see more clearly where he is coming from. As a large number of young people begin to assemble around a makeshift stage, I ask Harsh Vardhan Shyam, General Secretary from Delhi, to point me to some members who have come up through the new process. “We have all come up through the new process, he says smiling assuredly. Speak to anyone here.”

Dr Vishwaranjan Mohanty from Puri District in Orissa, tells me he joined student politics while studying International Relations at JNU but gave it up because he was not cut out for the dog-eat-dog world. That is until the IYC set up a transparent process to give grass-root leaders a chance based purely on their merit. Today, at the age of 37, he works full-time for the Youth Congress as its National General Secretary.

His story is echoed in the stories of Syed Azmathullah Hussaini, from Hyderabad, Vidya Balakrishnan, Raziya Beevi and Jubily Chacko from Kerala, Indrajeet Sinh Parmar, Bankim Sinh Thakor and Rajesh Vasava from Gujarat and Gurbej Singh Tibbi from Punjab. None of these young leaders have any political antecedents. Tibbi, 30, from a small border village, tells me about how he stood for elections with 11 people who came from political families and won. He still seems surprised. And proud.

The women from Kerala, two of them lawyers and one a cooperative bank employee, are proud too.

The venue is plastered with hoardings carrying witty caricatures of Narendra Modi and the foibles of his government. Thousands of members have gathered by now, wearing party insignia in regular and imaginative ways and bearing placards spelling out their protests.

There is hope and energy in the air, and despite the heat and the jostling, the protest is a rather festive place to be. Whatever self-doubt had been brought upon by the results in May and the sharp rhetoric against the UPA during the campaigning has been put to rest by the patchy performance of the new government in its first 100 days and the results of the by-elections.

There is hardly any part of the country not represented at the rally making up for the lack of a robust opposition within the Parliament. But this is not all. Every agitator I speak with tells me he or she is gearing up to do more than protest in the coming months. The agenda is to build a stronger grass-root connect by working amongst people. “This is political work, Ma’m. We cannot share the finer workings of it,” says Shibu Malo, 25, from Kota, Rajasthan when I press for more details.

Malohas brought along 3 friends who are BJP supporters from his village. “Nowadays when we need any help only Youth Congress people come in my area so we came with him to see,” one of them explains. If they are impressed, so is Manorath Ram, who along with several other vendors has set up shop on the sidelines selling snacks. The 46 year old Allahabad native tells me he voted for the BJP but won’t in the next elections. Why, I ask him. “Are you not listening?” he exclaims visibly irritated.

The speeches have all been predictably loud and rhetorical in delineating the failures of the government but the line-up of senior leaders who have come to support the young protesters is impressive. Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasada, Meenakshi Natarajan, Madhusudan Mistry, Arvinder Singh Lovely, Shobha Oza, Digvijay Singh and counting. There is still hope Rahul Gandhi will show up.

Every single person I speak to in that motley gathering accepts Mr Gandhi as his or her supreme leader. This acceptance goes beyond the usual sycophancy and is clearly laced with affection. The elusive Vice President who is routinely accused of evading media and senior leaders has surprisingly met the majority of ground level leaders and workers in the Youth Congress. They speak of him with authority and ownership.

I pose questions about Mr Gandhi’s leadership. “Could a poor leader have envisioned a change like this?” retorts Hussaini. I put forward the constant criticism of him not being cut out for politics. “If by that you mean he is not like regular politicians, sure. He is an honest man, not an anxious leader. The seeds he has sown will bear fruit now. We at the Youth Congress will make sure the country sees him in a different light soon,” says Mohanty. It is impossible to doubt he believes in his own words even if I cannot completely comprehend the source of this belief.

As the rally draws to a close a group of protesters is lathi-charged. In a different corner several protesters, including Satav are sweeping the roads to clear up the mess of plastic plates and glasses left behind by the crowds. As the stage is being dismantled a tuneless voice on the loudspeaker is singing a song. The only words I can make out are ‘Rahul bhaiya’. Rahul bhaiya, who did not show up after all, lending a Beckettian sub-plot to this otherwise hopeful endeavour. Much like with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the meaning of this absence is not immediately apparent. One man’s leaderlessness is another man’s decentralization.

As I watch the young men and women disperse I think of another reference from Waiting for Godot. “We are not saints but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?”

Will that be enough though?

Satav had said to me the day before that the raison d’êtreof the Youth Congress is to groom future leaders. A lot of young men and women I met at the rally will make for promising leaders but realpolitik-ing is another ball game. The discipline, fairness and order that the Youth Congress boasts of is at odds with the unforgiving culture of Indian politics in which they eventually have to operate. Taking the message of this protest to towns, villages and mohallas where it really matters will mean braving worse than lathi-charges. Winning back votes will be tougher than dissenting.

An organisation that had lost its vigor as part of the ruling party is now reinventing itself as a voice of constructive opposition. A journey of a thousand miles has only just begun with this single thumping step.

(First published at Firstpost, September 26th, 2014)

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