Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi addresses an election rally in Ghaziabad, India, Thursday, April 30, 2009.
Under a scalding April sun, Rahul Gandhi tried on an orange turban and held aloft a ceremonial curved sword. But such props are routine in Indian elections. What was really unusual about this campaign stop was the age of Mr. Gandhi and the other politicians on stage.
They were young. “Ask people to vote for change. Vote for the youth!” the 38-year-old Mr. Gandhi exhorted followers in the northern Indian state of Punjab.
India is run by graying politicians, although about 70% of its 1.1 billion population is under 40. Now Mr. Gandhi, scion of the country’s most powerful political dynasty, is campaigning on the theme of generational revolution — a strategy that also could pave his own path to power.
The Indian National Congress has run the country with his father, grandmother and great-grandfather at the helm. To rejuvenate the left-leaning party, Mr. Gandhi is trying to signal a break with the past. He has plucked candidates for Parliament from the party’s youth wing, which he heads. Five hopefuls from Punjab, in their 30s or early 40s, represent Mr. Gandhi’s strategy to flush out his party’s elderly cadre, rebuild the ranks of its foot soldiers and catch up with a demographic shift that’s reshaping Indian politics.
The push reflects both idealism and cold calculation as the world’s largest democracy chooses its next government. Mr. Gandhi’s ruling party and the main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, are vying for the same bulging youth vote. They see the young as the swing factor in India’s dizzyingly divided electorate of religious, ethnic and caste groups. So do a host of scrappy regional parties. Results for the month-long elections are expected May 16.
The rejuvenation pitch is partially undermined by the fact that India’s prime minister, and the Congress candidate for the post in the elections, is 76-year-old Manmohan Singh. His rival in the right-of-center BJP is 81-year-old L.K. Advani.
The push by younger players into politics could prove to be a turning point for India. Put off by rampant corruption, many of the country’s young and talented have steered clear of political careers. The state has fallen short of its promises to deliver better health, education and living standards. The theory put forth by the champions of generational change is that bringing educated and business-savvy young people into politics will revolutionize governance.
The elections come as India navigates big obstacles. The global financial crisis has significantly slowed its economy. The Mumbai terror attacks of last year that left more than 170 dead sparked tensions with Pakistan that haven’t cooled much.
Mr. Gandhi bats away speculation about his own future. For the next two years, he says, his mission is to introduce direct elections for the Youth Congress, the party wing for members 35 and under, so local chapters choose their leaders.
“The Rahul Gandhi of today has a very clear focus: the democratization of the Youth Congress,” he said in a recent interview with a group of reporters. “It’s very important that the Congress party is strengthened.”
That mission is accompanied, opponents say, by a rich irony: The reformer is the heir to the party helm by virtue of his family’s lasting hold over Congress, a spell even more powerful than that cast in America by the Kennedy and Bush clans. Mr. Gandhi is widely seen as being groomed as a future prime minister by his Italian-born mother, Sonia, who heads the Congress Party.
Mr. Gandhi emerged from a cloistered childhood, after the assassinations of his grandmother Indira in 1984 and father Rajiv in 1991. He earned a graduate degree from Cambridge University and worked as a consultant. In 2004, he won his father’s old constituency in Uttar Pradesh state, and later became one of the Congress party’s top officials.
Today, Mr. Gandhi is considered one of India’s most eligible bachelors. But off the campaign trail, he shies from the spotlight and is rarely photographed at parties. A fellow politician and friend says Mr. Gandhi enjoys early morning motorcycle rides, but with a helmet to ensure his protection and privacy.
Rivals liken Mr. Gandhi’s youth strategy to a tummy tuck for a party that remains flabby and old. And his drive has been marred by party infighting — and at least one fistfight.
“They are talking as if they discovered the young. It’s ridiculous,” says D. Raja, a senior leader in the Communist Party of India, which has long drawn young followers.
Mr. Gandhi is betting the electoral math will work in favor of the party that introduces a critical mass of younger politicos. The average age of India’s lower parliament, called the Lok Sabha, is 56. Of India’s elected parliamentarians, 11% are under 40.
Whether young people will vote for younger politicians just because of their age remains to be seen. Like their parents, India’s younger generation may favor politicians who share similar backgrounds, regardless of age, says Ramachandra Guha, a historian of modern India. “Ultimately the DNA of India is caste, kinship and religion,” he says.
In the past four elections, voters between 18 and 25 lagged the national average; in 2004, the youth turnout was 55%, compared to 58% overall, according to the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi think tank.
Mr. Gandhi has set a goal that 30% of his party’s parliamentary candidates should be young. Such talk helped fuel the Congress party’s youth recruitment, but provoked an outcry among those who touted their experience and years waiting their turn for a shot to run.
Beginning late last year, the Youth Congress held elections for local leaders in some regions for the first time; previously, leaders were appointed by the party. From this group, Mr. Gandhi selected a handful of candidates for this year’s parliamentary elections.
One of the early battle grounds for Mr. Gandhi’s strategy is in Gujarat, a BJP stronghold in western India. Gujarat held elections Thursday, though results aren’t yet known.
Mr. Gandhi’s strategy there has been to rely heavily on the Youth Congress to supply campaign workers for the parliamentary elections. In a three-week recruitment drive in February, the Youth Congress expanded to 700,000 members from 150,000, according to party officials. The goal is to cut into the 14 of 26 parliamentary seats that the BJP controls from Gujarat.
Not all has gone according to plan.
When the Youth Congress held elections to pick leaders in March, fistfights broke out between poll workers and voters who claimed their names didn’t appear on electoral rolls. In another district, ballot papers were burned. The selection of a Youth Congress veteran as a parliamentary candidate enraged rivals in the party who had been waiting their turn for the seat, prompting at least one defection to the BJP.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to Mr. Gandhi’s drive in Gujarat has been the state’s popular chief minister, a man who many mention as Mr. Gandhi’s future opponent for prime minister: Narendra Modi of the BJP, who leads the state of 51 million people.
During Mr. Modi’s seven-year tenure, the state’s economy has averaged 10.2% growth a year. In 2008, he drew in investment of $15 billion, tops among Indian states. He’s overseen building of roads and ports and, last year, wooed the high-profile Tata Nano auto factory to Gujarat from West Bengal.
But Mr. Modi’s hard-line championing of Hinduism also makes him a controversial figure in this religiously diverse country. Under his tenure in 2002, riots ripped apart the state — leaving dead 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.
Mr. Modi, 58, has frequently outwitted his Congress party critics. When Mr. Modi called Congress a “budhiya” party (meaning “old woman” in Hindi), his aides sent a text message relaying the jab to nearly one million Gujarati voters.
The next day, 37-year-old Priyanka Gandhi, Mr. Gandhi’s sister, asked publicly if she or her brother looked old. Mr. Modi said he changed his mind: He said Congress was actually a “gudiya” party (meaning “baby” in Hindi). Another million-person text message went out.
The barbs came from a BJP digital-technology group targeting young, urban voters. The team not only sends out the chief minister’s quips, but has created pages for Mr. Modi on YouTube and Google’s social-networking site Orkut. It even makes ring tones from his speeches.
“Narendra Modi is the brand in Gujarat,” says Shashi Ranjan Yadava, who heads the BJP digital technology wing. “Our job is to market him.”
Indeed, with Mr. Modi in power, the odds for the Congress party in Gujarat appear long — even among the sort of voters the Congress party is wooing.
“Rahul Gandhi has young blood, but he doesn’t have the experience,” says Jack Prajapati, a 20-year-old Gujarati business student and first-time voter. “Narendra Modi is a powerful person who has shown he can take decisions.”
Many running on a BJP ticket against Congress opponents in Gujarat are successfully riding the chief minister’s coattails. In the university town of Vadodara, BJP candidate Balkrishna Shukla has been mayor for nine months. But young voters still credit him with improving the city’s economic prospects.
Mr. Shukla’s opponent, former Youth Congress President Satyajitsinh Gaekwad, has had a bumpier ride, hinting at troubles that may lie ahead for Mr. Gandhi’s plans.
In 1996, when he was 34, Mr. Gaekwad was nominated for Parliament from his home district in Vadodara, and eked out Congress’s first win there in seven years. In office, Vadodara voters say, he had trouble bringing back money for development because of his young age. He lost the following election.
Mr. Gaekwad, now 47, says he is getting more smiles and fewer stiff stares than he did in previous years. “People are getting tired of the BJP,” he said, as he waved from the back of a pick-up truck to slum-dwellers. “They want a change.”
Mr. Gandhi’s search for young parliamentary candidates yielded five for Punjab. It also fueled a recruitment drive that more than doubled the Punjab Youth Congress ranks to 340,000, according to Vijay Inder Singla, the 37-year-old former president of the Youth Congress and now also a candidate for parliament.
But Mr. Gandhi’s backers admit the parliamentary selection process hasn’t been unblemished democracy. Even to some of the candidates, it wasn’t clear how and why they were chosen to run for parliament.
“I assume Rahul decided,” said Mr. Singla.
Dalbir Singh, a senior Congress party official in New Delhi, said the youth wing chief did make the final decisions. In Punjab, he adds, family was a factor.
As the group of aspiring parliamentarians huddled around him after his speech in Punjab, Mr. Gandhi offered a longer view of his youth experiment. “If you are going to be democratic,” he says, “you have to leave the outcome to the people who vote.”
Before jumping on to a helicopter in another campaign stop for this election, he added: “Democracy is an attitude and an idea. We are pushing the attitude, the idea and the process. It takes time.”
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