India's election: Rahul Gandhi brings youth appeal to old dynasty

Fans climbed trees and hopped fences in eastern India Friday to glimpse the political scion, who's campaigning nationwide amid parliamentary elections.

Mukhtar Khan/AP
Rahul Gandhi campaigned in Jammu and Kashmir Monday, part of a cross-country tour amid parliamentary elections that end May 13.

MALBAZAR, INDIA – They climbed trees, whacked through tea bushes, and hopped over fences to get a closer look at political royalty. A recent campaign rally by Rahul Gandhi to this tea-plantation town in northeast India drew a crowd of several thousand, and showed that the country’s heavily jaded electorate still finds some hope in youth and trust in the Gandhi brand.

Half of India’s people are younger than age 25, yet the standard-bearers for the two main parties are both over the age of 75. That disconnect has helped generate buzz around Mr. Gandhi, a 39-year-old first-term member of Parliament. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that his father, grandmother, and great-grandfather all served as prime ministers of India.

“Rahul Gandhi is the head of the young generations of India,” says Mintu Ghosh, a businessman standing in the bushes with others who had no entry pass. “The old people have already shown the extent of what they can do. We are waiting to see something new.”

Younger politicians gaining foothold

Indians have tended to choose elderly leaders, with the notable exception of Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father, who became prime minister at age 40. The desire for youthful leaders reflects both deep frustration with the current political class as well as a younger generation more insistent on faster service.

“The older generation of voters had a much higher threshold before getting angry with their representatives. This restless new breed of voter: Their threshold is very low,” says Yashwant Deshmukh, a pollster with the Team Cvoter based in New Delhi. “We are in a massive transition.”

So far, a passing of the prime minister’s seat to the young Rahul doesn’t seem to be in the tea leaves. On Saturday, Gandhi told journalists that he’s not ready to be prime minister should the Congress Party, led by his mother, Sonia Gandhi, win national elections later this month. “My priority is to build Congress into a strong, pro-poor, and youthful organization. Second, I don’t have the experience for it,” he said.

Some voters do agree with that assessment, saying it would be better if he waited five years for the next election. "I feel five years time is necessary, although he is quite prepared and used to all the politics because of his family background," says Bharat Chandra Saha, a stamp vendor.

Others were blunt with impatience: “Younger is even better,” says Suchita Panna, who says she works in the nearby forest. The longer in office, she suggests, the longer politicians look after themselves. “The promises made by the politicians are never 100 percent kept.”

Tired of broken promises

In his speech, Gandhi tried to tap into this discontent with the slow pace of development and broken promises. He blamed the state government of West Bengal – controlled by a communist party for the past three decades – for stymieing efforts by the Congress-run central government to help the region.

During 2004 elections, the Congress Party had made only one promise, he said – to help the poor. “We proved our commitment in the five years,” he said, listing guaranteed schooling and meals for village children and a $14 million assistance program for field laborers.

Reaction to the speech was favorable, but it didn’t help that he helicoptered in, spoke in halting Hindi to a crowd of mostly Bengali and Nepali speakers, and pointed out that it was his first visit to the region.

“Truly speaking, I don’t have much faith,” says Raja Banerjee, a businessman, who nevertheless thought the speech sounded good. “Coming in helicopters, attending a meeting in a remote village – [these] are all part and parcel of their life before the elections. There is no noticeable change after the elections, things remain the same."

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