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Rajdeep Sardesai
Friday , August 23, 2013 at 00 : 05

Why Modi strikes a chord with the youth and not Rahul


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In the age of marketing, there is perhaps no social category as attractive as the urban 'youth' brand. The MTV generation has spawned channels, products, a lifestyle designed to promote this 'youth' culture. And now, in the battle for power in the next general elections, it is this ubiquitous youth factor which is expected to play a bigger role than ever before.

The 2014 general elections will be the first to have India's post liberalisation generation exercise their franchise. The post-1991 babies have grown up. One estimate suggests the number of first-time voters - between the age of 18 and 23 - will be around a 110 million of the 800 million eligible voters. This is, in a sense, the Virat Kohli generation, not even the Sachin Tendulkar one: their appetite for 20-20 cricket is translated into their life goals: a generation which is aggressive, aspirational, consumerist and impatient for change. This is an India, especially in the metros, which has only used mobiles, never seen a black and white TV, is Internet savvy and never heard of the Soviet Union.

In the normal course, 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi and his youth 'managers' should have been the natural mascots of this new India, and not a 62-year-old Narendra Modi and his Sangh Parivar. Rahul is younger, English-speaking, telegenic and tech-friendly. And yet, as most recent youth surveys suggest, it is Modi who is the preferred choice of young Indians. Where has Modi succeeded where Rahul has failed in attracting younger India?

In 2007, Rahul was appointed Congress general secretary in charge of the Youth Congress and NSUI, its students' wing. The promise was that Rahul would reform youth politics, and, importantly, 'democratise' the youth organisations. Yes, he did succeed in energizing and holding elections to these youth bodies, but he failed in actually breaking down the closed shop of dynastical politics within the Congress. Being a dynast himself, he perhaps lacked the moral authority to completely overhaul a system which has thrived on family ties. Instead of being identified with a new, meritocratic India, Rahul allowed himself to be trapped in the baba log image: a child of privilege for whom politics was a family business.

More importantly, Rahul has failed to throw up a big idea that would make him particularly attractive to teenage India. Spending a night with a Dalit family or travelling in a Mumbai local is not a big idea but a photo op, one that smacks of tokenism. Rahul's attempted discovery of the 'other' India might even have worked if he had stuck to it. But you can't make one speech highlighting the plight of Kalawati and Vidarbha's farm widows and then forget about it. During the Anna agitation and the anti-rape protests when the young took to the streets, he again went missing. You cant be anonymous in Parliament, give no interviews, rarely address press conferences, refuse high profile college fest invites, not have a twitter or Facebook account and then expect to reach out to a highly interactive generation which thrives on constant communication.

This is where Modi has stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the Congress youth icon. In the last five years, while Rahul has stayed mostly closeted behind the forbidding walls of Lutyens Delhi - barring the occasional foray into a UP - Modi has made a conscious and sustained attempt at engaging with young India. Be it a Google Hangout, a Twitter account with regular updates and addressing students, Modi has almost been like a Shah Rukh Khan on a 24 x7 Chennai Express promotional overdrive in seeking young audiences.

Nor is wooing the young simply a matter of who plays the social media game better. The winner of the next elections will not be decided by who has more followers on twitter but by who offers a better dream for the future. Rahul has chosen the India versus Bharat theme, reminding us of an unequal society and the need for a compassionate state. Modi, by contrast, has attempted to sell his "Gujarat as India" high growth model, one which sees the state as a facilitator to private enterprise.

In a pre-1991 era, the Rahul idea of a poverty-conscious society might have struck a chord. The post-1991 kids don't want to feel a sense of guilt at past failures or even present inequities. This generation simply wants to steam ahead into the future, unencumbered by either ideological faultlines or income divides. They are looking for a political leadership which promises quick fix, solutions to age old problems: one which will fix corruption, red-tapism, unemployment, even terrorism and Pakistan by simply a swish of the hand. The rhetoric may not always match reality, but Modi's image as a tough, no-nonsense leader is nonetheless attractive. So what if he carries the badge of authoritarianism and the baggage of failing to control the 2002 riots, he talks our language of growth targets and delivery is the prevailing 'youth' narrative.

Ironically, the last leader who enjoyed such high popularity among the youth was Rahul's father, Rajiv Gandhi. With the computer as his weapon, a fresh-faced Rajiv offered the seductive big idea of technology as an agent of change. Modi is offering his personality as a symbol of change, the macho hero who will shake up an ageing status quoist system. Rahul needs to throw up a counter to the Modi challenge, something which he has failed to do so far. Here's a thought: why doesn't Rahul even now make the rampant commercialisation of education a key campaign plank? Yes, we need bijli sadak pani; we also need high quality shiksha.

Post-script: My 18-year-old son is a first-time voter. I asked him what he thought of Modi's Independence Day speech and whether it was inappropriately timed. "I don't know about the timing, but at least he spoke!" And therein hangs a tale.


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More about Rajdeep Sardesai

Rajdeep Sardesai is the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He comes with 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
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