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18 April 2024

Rahul Gandhi woos 'young and impatient India'


Rahul Gandhi, newly named to the number two post in India's ruling Congress party, Sunday delivered a powerful call for change to meet the aspirations of the nation's "young and impatient" population.

"We have to rethink and transform our system and the country," Gandhi, 42, told party members as Congress ended a three-day brainstorming session in the northwestern city of Jaipur ahead of 2014 elections.

Congress must listen to the voice of a "young and impatient" India to ensure they do not feel alienated from the political system, he said, a day after being unanimously voted party vice president.

The scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, whose family has given India three prime ministers, is now second in the Congress hierarchy behind his mother Sonia, who is president.

Rahul Gandhi's elevation represents a generational shift in Indian politics in which most of the leaders are over 60, while roughly half of the country's 1.2 billion population is under 25.

The party stopped short of naming him its candidate as premier, amid lingering uncertainty about his political talents and his hitherto apparent reluctance to assume a major political role.

In his speech drowned often by applause, Rahul Gandhi sought to dispel doubts about his political commitment, declaring the "Congress party is now my life."

"I will fight for the people of India with everything I have," he promised, adding he was "optimistic as we already have the building blocks for a better future".

He gave no hint of whether he wants to be a candidate for prime minister.

But analysts said it was unlikely any other Congress leader would be fielded and his mother, who long been seen grooming him for the post, was now expected to push him to take a bigger role in running the party.

"Congress has no other choice. It would be very difficult to name some other person because there would hardly be any consensus," said Sanjay Kumar, political analyst at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies.

The Nehru-Gandhi clan has ruled India for most of its post-independence history and many Congress members cannot conceive of the party without a Gandhi at the helm,

Newspapers predicted a showdown for the prime minister's job between Rahul Gandhi and hardline Hindu opponent Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister of western Gujarat state, in the 2014 election.

"He has, for all practical purposes, been pitched as the prime minister candidate of the party... thus setting the stage for a showdown with the Gujarat strongman," the Times of India said.

The main opposition BJP is yet to officially name a candidate to take on Congress. But the clamour is growing to pitch Modi for the post after he won a third term as chief minister in state polls last year.

The Hindustan Times said Congress had perhaps stopped short of naming Rahul Gandhi as candidate for premier "out of consideration for its sitting octogenarian PM Manmohan Singh".

Rasheed Kidwai, author of two books on the Congress party, conceded Rahul Gandhi faced big challenges and said his Italian-born mother, who led the party to back-to-back election wins in 2004 and 2009, was a tough act to follow.

The Congress-led government has been struggling in the face of sharply slowing economic growth, stubborn inflation and a string of corruption scandals.

"Congress is trying to transform itself from a grand old party to a brand-new party but it remains to be seen if they can succeed," said political commentator Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.