India's old leaders get hip to the young and the restless ahead of elections

JAIPUR, India Sun Jan 20, 2013 11:38am IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (in blue turban) prepares to sit as chief of ruling Congress party Sonia Gandhi (3rd R) watches after paying respect at the memorial of the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on the occasion of Rajiv's 68th birth anniversary in New Delhi August 20, 2012. REUTERS/B Mathur/Files

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (in blue turban) prepares to sit as chief of ruling Congress party Sonia Gandhi (3rd R) watches after paying respect at the memorial of the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on the occasion of Rajiv's 68th birth anniversary in New Delhi August 20, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/B Mathur/Files

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JAIPUR, India (Reuters) - Scalded by spontaneous anti-rape and corruption protests near the seat of government in New Delhi, India's ageing leaders are scrambling to win over an angry and influential young urban population ahead of elections due to be held by early next year.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 80, and Sonia Gandhi, the 66-year-old leader of the ruling Congress party, grappled with terms like "flash mob" and "Twitter" at a brainstorming meeting this weekend that focused on the new generation and growing social media.

About two thirds of India's 1.2 billion people are under 35 and the population is shifting to cities, eroding political parties' traditional dependence on the rural poor.

Looking weary after nine years in coalition government, the Congress leadership is widely seen as aloof and out of touch. The meeting, the first of its kind in a decade, was the party's attempt to adapt to fast-changing demographics as it prepares to contest for a third consecutive term.

Gandhi's son, Rahul, 42, was anointed party vice-president at the meeting. As the scion of a dynasty stretching back to India's independence from Britain in 1947, the party wants him to be prime minister if it wins the elections.

His mother, who in the past has promoted welfare programmes for the rural poor, gave a speech that placed uncharacteristic emphasis on urban job creation for the young middle class in one of the world's fastest growing major economies.

"We have to recognise the new changing India, an India increasingly peopled by a younger, more aspirational, more demanding and better educated generation," Gandhi told party leaders.

"We cannot allow our growing educated and middle classes to be disillusioned and alienated from the political process."

Singh's government is already seeking to win over the middle class with reforms aimed at boosting economic growth, such as subsidy cuts that have been backed by Gandhi, despite initial misgivings they would hurt the poor.

"SOPS WON'T WORK"

Political analyst Amulya Ganguly said it was good the party had "suddenly discovered" the youth and urban middle class, but said more economic reform was needed, as was a clean-up of the police and bureaucracy, widely seen as corrupt.

"Sops will not work in modern India. The government has to create an environment for employment which will come through economic reforms," Ganguly said.

Rahul Gandhi, often criticized for his low public profile, has so far given few clues to his own policies. But he will likely have to contend with Narendra Modi, an opposition leader whose reputation for clean governance and economic growth along with a slick modern media strategy have won admiration.

Modi, chief minister of Gujarat for the Bharatiya Janata Party, is perhaps the politician who has best tapped into this trend, but his association with religious riots a decade ago make him unpalatable to many.

High economic growth helped the Congress party do well in urban areas and win a second term in the last general election. But a scandal-plagued four years of wobbly economic performance may have cost much of that support.

The delegates came armed with ideas on how the party should embrace social media, which the government has at times tried to contain.

"It is being debated whether social media, flash mobs, new ways of organisation, migration and employment and how things are happening are to be looked in a different light now," said Jitin Prasada, a junior minister close to Rahul Gandhi.

Angry, issue-led protests are on the rise in India, organised by tech-savvy citizens, not by political parties, and amplified by social media.

A 23-year-old physiotherapy student died last month two weeks after being raped on a moving bus in New Delhi, then thrown bleeding onto the street. Nationwide protests followed.

Finance Minister P Chidambaram fretted about the phenomena of flash mobs - gatherings rapidly organised using social media.

"Sometimes they gather to dance and sing, but sometimes they can gather to protest also," Chidambaram said. "I don't think we are fully prepared to deal with it."

In 2011, the government was slow and heavy handed in its response to an anti-corruption movement led by activists Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal that drew hundreds of thousands of protesters on to the Delhi streets and was seen as a political awakening for the urban middle class.

"The party can no longer ignore street protests, that's the realisation," a senior leader of the Congress Seva Dal, a grassroots organisation of the party, said. "Why were Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal able to mobilise the middle class? We need to think." (Additional reporting by Nigam Prusty; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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