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India's old leaders get hip to the young

By Satarupa Bhattacharjya and Frank Jack Daniel in Jaipur, India | China Daily | Updated: 2013-01-21 07:59

Changing electoral demographics a wakeup call to entrenched govt

Scalded by spontaneous anti-rape and corruption protests near the seat of government in New Delhi, India's aging 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 last 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 programs 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 recognize 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.

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 is a clean-up of the corrupt police and bureaucracy.

"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 state 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 makes 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.

Angry, issue-led protests are on the rise in India, organized by tech-savvy citizens, 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.

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