Billionaire candidate: Nilekani is running for office for the first time, and his declaration of assets to the Election Commission will affirm the known fact that he is the richest candidate in the fray. - EPA
As India heads towards general elections, candidates with no political background will throw down the most serious challenge yet to the establishment.
IN Indian politics, as is generally the way of the world, old men died and the young filled their places. But the typical politician has not changed beyond recognition over the decades. He is still mostly a he; a relic and beneficiary of village values even when he lives in the heart of a city, who correctly identifies modernity as his archenemy; a practical man of ordinary intellect who is perceived to be corrupt, even dangerous.
Until recently, the young who were heralded as the “new breed” of politicians tended to be merely the progeny of this typical politician. They were not very different from their papas.
They just wore the skin of an easily procured Western education and all its masquerades. It was as if the typical Indian politician were a species so suited to the terrain where it foraged that it did not have to evolve.
But then circumstances forced the voters to evolve and from them have risen the mutants – engineers, activists, corporate executives, journalists, former government officers and at least one actress – who have become politicians out of necessity. Naïve and upright, they view politics as a transformational public service.
It is not the first time that Indians infected with idealism have entered politics. But now, as the great republic heads toward general elections, they will throw down the most serious challenge yet to the old.
“What has happened is that the pool of hyper-aspirational youth has become very, very large, and they want Indian politics to change,” said Nandan Nilekani, the co-founder of the software firm Infosys and until recently the bureaucrat at the helm of India’s attempt to give every citizen a unique biometric identity.
Nilekani is running for office for the first time, and his declaration of assets to the Election Commission will affirm the known fact that he is a billionaire and the richest candidate in the fray among those whose wealth can be measured.
Most of those who are debuting in electoral politics are drawn to the Aam Aadmi Party, a new outfit born out of public rage against the typical politician.
Nilekani is an anomaly because he has joined the governing Indian National Congress.
The significance of the vast pool of hopeful, educated young people that Nilekani was referring to is that they do not have the means to escape to the West and so are deeply invested in the fate of the nation. The idea of home as the only refuge, which is often expressed as nationalistic awakening, is the fundamental force behind the heightened interest in politics today not only among the young, but also the many layers of the middle class.
In November 2008, after 10 terrorists attacked Mumbai, the urban disquiet over the state of the nation erupted in the form of street processions and passionate television shows that abused the political class so severely that politicians threatened to censor television news in the interest of national security.
Meera Sanyal, a banker whose friend died in the terrorist attack as he was dining in a hotel, was inspired by the public rage against politicians to run in the 2009 general elections as an independent candidate from the high-profile Mumbai South constituency.
She fared very poorly. She is running again now, and this time, she told me, “There is a sea change in the voters.”
In 2009, she said: “People thought I was crazy. Friends said politics was dirty business and there was no place in it for someone like me. But now, the idea that a person with no political background should enter politics has become mainstream.”
This is a consequence of the extraordinary impact of the Aam Aadmi Party, which she has joined.
“It is a magnet for people with no political background who want to enter politics,” she said.
The Aam Aadmi Party believes it is a sudden force of nature that can make the typical Indian politician extinct.
The transformation has begun, and irrespective of the fortunes of the Aam Aadmi Party, the golden age of a dominant species is over. — © 2014 The New York Times
> Manu Joseph is author of the novel ‘The Illicit Happiness of Other People’.