It's the glib, glamorous face of Indian Parliament. They're all under 45, well-educated, articulate and they play as hard as they claim to work. But what makes a refreshing change is that most of these young MPs aren't hypocritical about their leisure time, even if this takes them to five-star hotels, trendy health clubs and involves upscale hobbies like bungee jumping, scuba diving or playing the piano. They drive Lancers and Mercs, wear Fab India kurtas at work and Benetton T-shirts at home, read Gore Vidal and hold degrees in commerce, political science or economics.
The youngest of them all is the most high-profile and fun-loving. Just recently, 31-year-old Omar Abdullah donned an apron and whipped up a meal for his friends at the Hyatt Regency's Celebrity Chef night. In fact, Omar is a familiar fixture on the Page Three party circuit which perhaps explains why he has had to fight off the impression of being a pin-up boy. Another regular party-goer, the bjp's 40-year-old Sangeeta Singh Deo, has been labelled as part of Parliament's lipstick brigade by those who watch her transformation—with a feigned sense of moral outrage—from a demure, head-covered, sari-clad MP to a socialite in with-it, black outfits.
The one reason why the 37-year-old industrialist Baijayant Panda was given a Rajya Sabha ticket by the Biju Janata Dal (bjd) is that his house is perhaps the only one in Bhubaneshwar that the ex-socialite chief minister Naveen Patnaik can drop in for "a drink and some English conversation". Protests Jai Panda, "I was drafted into the party because I was one of the founding members of the bjd." But one look at his private pilot's licence and his Gymkhana Club membership and there is a distinct impression of a man the Doon School-educated Patnaik would be comfortable with.
Another MP who has acquired a reputation for frequenting the party circuit is the bjp's cricketer-turned-politician, Kirti Azad. Says the first-term MP, "I am what I am. I have no intention of hiding what I do. I drink wine, I smoke. What is the harm in that? Even when we met the queen of England in 1983 before we won the World Cup, I had a glass of champagne in my hand."
This candid—and, truth be told, welcome—admission must be seen in the current context. Even today, official government dinners follow a curious pattern. The cocktail invitation goes in the name of the secretary in the ministry, a bureaucrat. This is accompanied by another invitation card for dinner at the same venue, on the same date, but an hour later. Only, this invite is from the minister. And the minister only makes an entry when the drinks are over. The exception to this is the external affairs ministry and P.A. Sangma, who has never failed to serve alcohol—whether he is a mere MP, Lok Sabha Speaker or a minister.
It is against this background that the new generation MPs are struggling to set out some upfront and less hypocritical norms of behaviour. They are not afraid to admit that they party in moderation and indulge in upmarket hobbies. Says Panda, "I do think that the socialist mindset of 20 years ago is giving way. Today, the public thinks it's fairly normal for anyone who can afford it to indulge in all this. Even if the person is an MP."
Agrees bjp MP from Bihar Rajiv Pratap Rudy, "Where is the harm in having fun, if you stay within a limit? Even if it is at a five-star hotel?" And the 39-year-old MP's idea of fun is to go to the Lakshadweep for some scuba diving. Says he, "As an MP, you are exposed to much more than a person living in Patna. Last year I went to Mauritius as part of the President's delegation. I used the opportunity to learn para-sailing."
This image is vastly removed from the crass and drab politician of the Indian cinema and in some cases, the Indian Parliament. The younger lot who want to break the mould believe they can function more efficiently than their peers because they are better-educated. But this does not always help them fight the system. Despite his commerce degree, Abdullah's complaint against his previous minister was that Murasoli Maran used him purely as a decorative piece at Udyog Bhavan.
This younger breed also likes to make a sartorial point. While Omar prefers the corporate look, Panda and Kirti stick to Fab India kurtas and Rudy gets his tailored from Bihar. "How can one uniform size fit all?" he asks. (However, this did not stop Rudy from buying a Benetton T-shirt for the Outlook photo-shoot!) Notes Panda, "I never wear white kurtas. It's a statement of some sort, I suppose." Perhaps unconsciously, he is rebelling against the stereotype image of the politician in white. And though Sangeeta lists reading and playing the piano as her pastime in her Lok Sabha biodata, she omits to mention her passion for jewellery or lingering over a cup of java at Khan Market's Barista coffee shop.
Health consciousness is another modish preoccupation that sets the hipper parliamentarians apart from the old set. Panda is a member of the gym at the Hyatt, Rudy goes to the Habitat Centre, both in the capital. Omar does not exercise regularly though he does some body-toning. He has a treadmill but confesses he does not find the time to give it full justice.
A favourite pastime of the MPs is watching movies. Both Azad and Rudy have seen the latest Bollywood hit, Dil Chahta Hai. Says Azad, "It reminds me of my college days, except that I have never fallen in love with an older woman." Panda claims his tastes are more 'eclectic', his favourite movie of all time being A Fish Called Wanda.
Since they are finding their feet in the midst of a technology revolution, the Internet is listed as a 'hobby' in most of their CVs. And the ubiquitous laptop never fails to accompany them, almost as a badge of membership. Except for Omar, the other four are also part of the Young Parliamentarians Forum which was originally founded by Panda as the Backbenchers Club. The Forum claims it meets regularly for dinner and holds serious discussions on issues that cut across party lines such as the population problem.
Despite such stabs at seriousness, it is their lifestyle rather than their politics that gets talked about. When Omar talks Kashmir, it doesn't merit as much newsprint as his new haircut and it is Rudy's fluorescent kurtas that light up the television screens than his defence of the bjp in the Tehelka scam. And despite his protests that he does not party every night, Kirti's ponytailed looks and his Mitsubishi Lancer just add to his reputation of being a regular party-goer. In fact, fed up of the bad press, Sangeeta is now shying away from it. "Please don't feature me. I am not high-profile," she told Outlook. And he may raise many 'relief-for-Orissa-related' issues in Parliament but Panda's office, replete with an assistant manager (corporate affairs), resembles a business outfit more than it does a traditional MP's parliamentary office.
Then again, that's the way this generation plays the game. Not for them the stereotype image of a dhoti-clad, pan-chewing politician. It is the new look and one that's fast acquiring a label of its own.
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