Politics in India is undergoing a quiet revolution, driven by a handful of young candidates standing in the bitterly contested federal 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 Marlena, 37, a Rhodes scholar and education expert, and Jignesh Mevani, 38, a law graduate — are offering an alternative brand of politics centred 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.
“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 federal 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.
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 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 below the age of 35.