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Connecting with youth: Modi has edge over Rahul

Connecting with youth: Modi has edge over Rahul

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 that 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 Twenty20 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 energising 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 overhaul a system that has thrived on family ties. Instead of being identified with a new, meritocratic India, Rahul allowed himself to be trapped in the babalog 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 can’t 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 24×7 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.

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They are looking for a political leadership that promises quick fix solutions to age-old problems: one that 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 that 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.

The views expressed by the author are personal

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