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India's Youngest Cabinet Ministers Look to Future

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Despite the election of younger heads of government in such countries as Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the United States, the face of politics in India is still one of relative seniority. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has heart trouble, is 76. The head of the largest opposition party is 81. A much younger generation is beginning to enter the electoral stage in the world's largest democracy, but that is also raising questions about dynastic politics.  

As India's new Cabinet was sworn in in May, all eyes were on one of its youngest members, 28-year-old Agatha Sangma. She was among a few young faces brought into government by the Congress Party to inject a sense of youth and energy after its resounding poll victory.

Thirty-one-year-old Sachin Pilot is the newly appointed junior minister for communications and technology. His late father, Rajesh, was also a Cabinet minister.

And, 39-year-old Rahul Ghandi, who declined a Cabinet position to concentrate on strengthening the party at the grassroots, is being groomed, according to analysts, to become prime minister one day.

What all three have in common is each belongs to political families.  Political dynasties appear to be a trend that is not abating, but spreading beyond the influential Nehru-Gandhi clan to a handful of families across India.

Sangma, India's youngest national lawmaker and minister of state of rural development, has been around politics all her life. Her father, P.A. Sangma, is a career politician who rose to become speaker of the more powerful lower house of Parliament. His daughter admits being perplexed about how to address elders in the ministry who are now her underlings.

"I have grown up with some people who are now still part of this ministry and many a times I am confused," she said. "Should I call them 'uncle' or should I call them 'Mr. So and So?'"

Sangma, trained as a lawyer, acknowledges an experienced political father as a mentor gives her an advantage, but only in the short term.
 
"It is very difficult for really young people to suddenly come up in politics unless they have a political background. But I would not say that one should judge the young political leaders only on this basis because, yes, we have a name, but name is not the only the only thing on which will be able to survive," she said.

Being a member of a recognized political family, she explains, sets the bar even higher as such lawmakers are expected to get much more done than their peers without a legacy.

The second-youngest member of the Singh Cabinet, Sachin Pilot, agrees family legacy only gets a candidate so far.

"Coming from a family of politicians or having a background in politics ought not to be a disqualification for an individual," he said. "An individual contests an election and there about two-million people who elect that individual back to Parliament, we respect that collective wisdom of that electorate which is two-million strong."

Pilot believes Rahul Gandhi's performance in this year's national election elevated his stature. But he cautions there are no guarantees of the youthful Congress Party figure becoming prime minister.

"I think the abilities are there," he said. "He has the potential [to become prime minister]. And it is very clear that he has been the star campaigner for the Congress Party in translating that effort into victory."

Rahul's mother, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, remains the Congress Party kingmaker.
 
Rahul is now focusing on building the party's grassroots and trying to lure additional young activists into the political mainstream, including those from disparate backgrounds.

The Pilot family is from the Hindu Gujjar clan, traditionally shepherds and considered a disadvantaged community.

The Sangmas, who are Catholics, hail from a tribal village in the state of Meghalaya, part of the distant and underdeveloped Northeast region.
 
"We feel neglected. We feel that we are not accepted in the country as part of mainstream India. And this is not something that is only the responsibility of the political leaders. The entire society has to evolve and understand that, we, at the end of the day are very integrally part of the same country," said Sangma.

That is a refrain uttered frequently by many disenfranchised minorities here in the world's largest democracy. But India's two youngest government ministers are optimistic more of their peers, in terms of age and background, will find greater inclusion in the Indian political mainstream.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.
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