India's Congress Faces an Angry Electorate

Well into its second term in power, the Congress Party, India's oldest and biggest political machine, has failed to deliver good governance or inclusive economic growth. It is tainted with massive scandals - Commonwealth Games, 2G spectrum auction, allocation of coal mining blocks and more.

The prime minister has consistently failed to read the public mood on everything from disgust at blatant corruption of the political class to the recent outrage at the fatal gang-rape of a university student on a Delhi bus. A general election is due in 2014.

Aging party anoints Rahul Gandhi

The Congress decided after a 10-year break to hold a Chintan Shivir (strategic brainstorming) to reflect on how it lost its way after winning a crowning second electoral mandate in the 2009 general election. It wondered how Twitter and Facebook allowed youth to organize protests and share live events on the streets. Congress has no share of mind on social networks. Two-thirds of the Congress Party's office bearers are over the age of 65.

Of the 350 delegates invited to the Jaipur event last week, 150 were from the Youth Congress and the National Students Union, both led by Rahul Gandhi. That set the tone. Rahul Gandhi was officially anointed vice-president. His mother Sonia Gandhi is party president, under treatment for cervical cancer. Everyone expects him to lead Congress into the 2014 election and become prime minister if it wins. Rahul gives fulsome praise to his seniors repeatedly. He is in no hurry to take responsibility for the party's GE fate. As 2014 dawns, Rahul may be closeted into the party president slot which his mum will vacate, while a more competent and electable prime ministerial candidate leads Congress into the polls.

Rahul has evaded ministerial and cabinet responsibility for the longest time, content to lead the youth wing of the party. Given the mandate to manage the 2012 state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to prove his mettle, Congress underwhelmed. He has little political equity to claim or trade. Perhaps the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic burden is tethering him to a role he is ill-suited for by personality, inclination or political skill. Rahul is already a shaken young man, forced to step up onto the national stage where sharks within and outside the Congress circle him. His mother came into his room in Jaipur and wept. It is almost as if he had no choice but to accept the poisoned chalice.

The senior congressmen arrived at a consensus that Rahul can be the symbol to rally the new youth vote of India. Besides, rural India is still cocooned in the caste and feudal obeisance it is born into. The democratic nose-counting process gives rural India weight. Rahul Gandhi represents the new prince. Political manifestos mean little to the farmhand. New youth voters matter in 2014.

The post-1990s youth born into the liberal reforms initiated by Manmohan Singh as finance minister in the Narashima Rao government will comprise 110 million new voters out of the 800 million eligible for the 2014 general election. They form the active social media generation. They demand transparency, accountability and good governance. They want jobs and are eager for India to join the ranks of globalized digital economies. They are tired of unresolved sectarian issues within society. They want to get on with their lives without petty corruption, nepotism and national scams. They want the opportunity space to open up.

The new voters, better educated and more aware through social networks, regard traditional politics as a system to reward crooks. They respond to causes. They were out in force for the Anna Hazare-led sit-ins for a Lokpal Bill (to allow fast-track handling of citizen complaints against corrupt officials) and to hold vigils against the failure of police and civil administration on the mid-December Delhi gang-rape.

It is highly unlikely they see Rahul Gandhi as their leader. They have no sympathy for the netas (politicians) of the Congress or the BJP (main Opposition party) at the national level nor the petty despots of state assemblies. If anything they may cast their ballot for new, cause-driven parties like anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). They want real change. They are not shy to express it.

Regional politics the new reality

Meanwhile, since independence 64 years ago, the idea of the Indian nation state has been breaking down. Indian politics today is a tenuous central political hub in Delhi assembling fractious regional satraps for numerical dominance in parliament. That requires the Center to horse-trade with a rainbow coalition of incompatible ideologies where expediency trumps principle. While giving numerical dominance to the party in power, it also paralyses policy-making when ideologies clash or regional priorities conflict.

That dissembling saw the Communists (CPI) desert the Congress on the nuclear deal with the USA and its truculent ally TMC in West Bengal depart when the much-delayed bill allowing foreign direct investment in retail establishments was passed in the recent kick-started economic reforms.

The national parties may have to scramble after regional parties even more. Local fiefdoms will have to be co-opted and fuelled with opportunities to hijack the public purse. Neither the Congress nor the BJP enjoy any credibility in promoting an anti-corruption platform. The new youth voters know it. So does the angry middle class. The 2014 general election may shift voting patterns that flatter neither Congress nor the BJP. Rahul Gandhi may be totally irrelevant.