Young leaders stand up to challenge Modi

Labelled 'anti-nationalists', they fear India's secular identity at risk

Member of legislative assembly from Gujarat and social activist Jignesh Mevani (Centre) waves to the crowd during a rally in New Delhi on Jan 9, 2018.
Member of legislative assembly from Gujarat and social activist Jignesh Mevani (Centre) waves to the crowd during a rally in New Delhi on Jan 9, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

As the opposition struggles to counter the popularity of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a small group of fledgling political leaders is garnering attention from the margins of mainstream politics.

Mr Jignesh Mevani, a 37-year-old lawyer from the Dalit community, formerly labelled untouchables, is the most prominent among the over half-a-dozen, left-leaning and articulate leaders in this cohort. They all believe that India's secular identity is under threat amid the rise of Hindu nationalists since Mr Modi came to power. They are outspoken, often eschewing political correctness, and have been labelled anti-nationalists by right-wing Hindu groups.

While Mr Modi has spoken of inclusive growth, some BJP members have openly promoted the right-wing agenda with little censure. BJP MP Vinay Katiyar was recently quoted in the Indian media as saying "Muslims should not even be living in this country".

Mr Mevani believes India's secular identity is under threat. "We are living in difficult times. The idea of a secular democracy is under attack and I have no option but to fight," he told The Straits Times. He added: "I want the annihilation of caste. It is vital for the creation of a new democracy."

The bespectacled and bearded politician shot to prominence following assembly elections in Gujarat state, Mr Modi's hometown and a BJP bastion. Mr Mevani - who speaks up for the Dalit community and led protests following the flogging of Dalit men accused of skinning a dead cow in 2016 - won in the Vadgam constituency. The politician said he will campaign against the BJP in Karnataka, which is going to the polls.

Mr Modi came to power after decimating the opposition in 2014 elections, including BJP's main rival - the Congress.

Nearly four years later, the Congress is slowly starting to recover from the loss but has not been able to counter the BJP, which has gone on to win a series of state elections on the back of Mr Modi's popularity.

Mr Jignesh Mevani (right) is the most prominent political leader in his cohort. Young activists like him push issues such as youth unemployment and the targeting of minorities by Hindu nationalists. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Yet, issues like lack of employment for the young, the distress of indebted farmers and the targeting of Dalits and members of the minority communities by Hindu nationalists, are now starting to pinch the Modi government.

And these new, upcoming leaders are trying to tap these issues.

"We have almost turned into a single party system that is not good for democracy. If we can find a coalition of small parties across the country and we are able to limit BJP, I feel we will be able to exert pressure," said Ms Shehla Rashid, an articulate student leader from Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, an institute known for its liberal left-leaning politics.

Ms Rashid, 29, was catapulted into the limelight following the arrest of Mr Kanhaiya Kumar, 30, then president of Jawaharlal Nehru University's students union, on sedition charges.

The arrest, seen as excessive by many, thrust Mr Kumar and fellow student leader Omar Khalid, 29, into the limelight too. The three youth leaders have since campaigned against the Modi government and have joined up with Mr Mevani for youth rallies.

"We could say we are political activists now. We are really in the fray. We are going to make unemployment an issue. We want to build a nationwide movement and discourse," said Ms Rashid.

Similarly, in the north-eastern state of Assam, Mr Akhil Gogoi a peasant leader and an English literature graduate, went from raising issues related to farmers to campaigning against the BJP.

An anti-corruption crusader who uncovered a massive employment scam in his state, Mr Gogoi, was jailed under the National Security Act and released more than three months later by the High Court, which found his detention illegal.

Mr Gogoi has said he would like to take on the BJP, and offer voters an option unrelated to the Congress.

While these leaders still have a long way to go, the BJP is already feeling the heat from some of them. Mr Mevani, along with 24-year-old Hardik Patel, the leader of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti and from the influential Patel or Patidaar caste; and Mr Alpesh Thakore, a 40-year-old social activist who joined the Congress, chipped away at the BJP in Gujarat, causing it to win by a much smaller margin than anticipated.

Mr Patel, an English graduate, has said he will now campaign for the Congress in Rajasthan state which is going to the polls this year.

Yet, analysts remain sceptical about the future of these young leaders in Indian politics, where there is little space for growth outside the formal party system.

"They are a reflection of the people's dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and those who represent mainstream politics," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Jain University.

"I think it will be a long struggle they have to face. Challenging the dominant is not easy and challenging a dominant which is part of the power structure is tough. It is a long haul (to political success) and I am sure these leaders have that political energy. The BJP would not have had a tough time in Gujarat if not for these people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2018, with the headline 'Young leaders stand up to challenge Modi'. Subscribe