New Delhi: The Poonawallas are no strangers to national politics. Or to the national politics on social media. While the younger Poonawalla, Shehzad, the state secretary of Maharashtra Congress, created a stir a week ago after he slammed his party on dynasty politics and questioned the election process for the post of the president (for which only Rahul Gandhi has filed nominations), the elder Poonawalla, Tehseen, responded by saying that he had cut off all ties with the former. He added that his family, including his wife, would have nothing to do with Shehzad.
What started off as a young Congress leader denouncing his party’s ways of electing its leader ended up with two brothers washing their dirty linen in public, something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi took note of. At an election rally in Gujarat, Modi said, “A youngster Shehzad has exposed the rigging that takes place in the Congress president poll. Those who have no internal democracy can’t work for people. I want to tell Shehzad —you have done a brave thing but this is sadly what happens in Congress.”
For the PM to mention the Congress leader in his election rally was a shot in the arm for Shehzad who further went on to accuse the party of allotting a dummy candidate against Gandhi and also spoke about a secret audio tape. Shehzad has been at it since being praised by Modi.
All this while, his elder brother has been denouncing any reference made by anyone that puts him and Shehzad in the same sentence.
But who exactly are the Poonwalla brothers, who seem to have broken the internet and the current political scene in the country with their personal differences? They are ‘twelebs’ — celebrities on Twitter.
Shehzad’s Twitter bio says he’s a Nehruvian, Gandhian, civil rights activist, TedX Speaker and columnist. “My religion is Islam, culture is Hindu, ideology Indian,” it further reads. His elder brother Tehseen’s bio says he’s a political trendwatcher, life coach, entrepreneur, columnist and an atheist. He’s also pledged organs.
The brothers are no strangers to the world wide web. Long before Shehzad hit the spotlight for hitting at Congress’s alleged dynasty politics, he has been, along with Tehseen, at the forefront of many social campaigns, most notably the campaign for lynching bill.
However, Shezad’s recent attack on his own party, has capitulated him to an unprecedented level of spotlight.
The Maharashtra Congress leader is a graduate from MIT School of Government (MIT-SOG) in Pune and has been active in politics since the age of 16. Shehzad has served as the Vice President of the National Students Union of India (NSUI) of Pune.
He tells me he got into politics to strengthen dialogue on civil and human rights in the country. He says being in politics in India was often equated to electoral politics. That, he adds, is something that he did not agree to. So, why does someone, who’d choose his social activism over politics any given day, be glad that Modi praised him in one of his speeches?
Shezad’s tweet was enough for people to talk about his ‘shift’ to the other side.
“I have been part of the Congress since 2008. And I still believe in Gandhi and the Congress’s policy, philosophy. I have never praised Modi; all I said was how a man I had criticised throughout thought of including me in his speech whereas the vice president of the party I have toiled for had not even met me once in all these years,” he says.
Any questions on him having used his brother’s name and connections (Tehseen is married to Monicka Vadera, Robert Vadra’s cousin ) and him actually not being part of Congress are strongly met with a flurry of documents. Shezad has kept all official Maharashtra Congress emails sent out to him as proof of his membership in the party, among other things. In fact, he adds, he was asked to rise up the ranks and get ‘some political heft’ if he wanted to get in touch with Rahul Gandhi.
"So I worked hard and I did get a decent position in the party so that I could bring forth the issues that concerned me with Gandhi," Shehzad says. The meeting, however, never happened he alleges.
His position as a ‘politician cum activist’ is further strengthened by the space he’s created for himself on social media, a platform he says will shape the political dialogue in the country in the times to come. Shehzad knows his fame can be attributed to him being a tweleb and he intends to use the platform further to strengthen his voice and actions.
Not just Shezad, the elder Poonawalla too has a voice of his own and is a tweleb in his own right. No long ago, #MaSuka was a trend on Twitter. Tehseen was splashed all over TV channels, he was also seen at protest rallies, where his brother rallied behind him in handcuffs, holding a copy of the Constitution in his hand. That’s not all that the elder tweleb has to his claim to fame. Tehseen’s birthday was a trend in itself where he was called a ‘shining star’ and an icon. He is also often known for his very public display of affection and love for his wife, Monicka, something which has got him into a war of words with many on Twitter.
Things turned difficult for Tehseen when he allegedly requested Union minister Smriti Irani to erect a 56-inch statue of a condom in all universities, in response to her directive on the national flag in varsities. Tehseen, however, said it was photoshopped and that he knew of no such thing. As controversial as the tweet may have been (Irani had called him out for his ‘sexist’ remark), Tehseen became a ‘political trend watcher’.
“My ideology is more inclined towards the Congress that Nehru and Gandhi believed in and I strongly believe that this country needs a strong opposition. Rahul Gandhi is a great leader in that regards,” he says.
Disinvesting politics with social activism is something that him and his brother have in common, like Shezaad, Tehseen believes that politics should be about making a difference in society and human lives. But why did he take such offence when his brother called out the Congress’s way of functioning.
“I am not actively involved in politics but I strongly believe that Congress, if it does what it believes in, will work towards issues that matter to society,” adds Tehseen.
Now with tension in the air between them, where does their joint social activism stand? Shezad minces no words as he calls his brother one of the most competent men he’s known. “If he needs me at all, I’ll be there. But I’m sure he’s capable of fighting for what’s right” he says. Tehseen, however, says his brother’s existence makes no difference to him at all. How the political discourse turns out for both is yet to be seen.