Gandhi relished describing the mechanics of his party building efforts, but coupled this with a long term vision of Congress as a national party competing for votes on a non-caste basis. If Gandhi is successful in his efforts, Indian politics would be profoundly changed.

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SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/27/2019 TAGS: PREL, PGOV, PHUM, IN

SUBJECT: RAHUL GANDHI ON HOW CONGRESS WON, VISION FOR THE FUTURE

REF: NEW DELHI 1062

Classified By: CDA Peter Burleigh. Reasons: 1.4(B, D).

1. (C) Summary: In a private meeting with the Charge on May 23, Indian Congress Party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi discussed his work with the Youth Congress, why he gambled on Congress going it alone during parliamentary elections in Uttar Pradesh, and what he sees as the future of Indian politics. Gandhi relished describing the mechanics of his party building efforts, but coupled this with a long term vision of Congress as a national party competing for votes on a non-caste basis. If Gandhi is successful in his efforts, Indian politics would be profoundly changed. End Summary.

Coy on Cabinet Details

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2. (C) Responding to a long-standing request for an appointment, Rahul Gandhi met Charge at his private office at his residence on May 23. Despite the heavy staff and security presence outside the residence, Gandhi met Charge without any staff present. Charge congratulated Gandhi on Congress' parliamentary election victory and noted that the President and Secretary of State would be in touch with their counterparts. Gandhi welcomed the improvement in U.S.-India ties, but did not disclose who would be appointed to the Cabinet (see reftel for latest state of play) or what role he would play in the government.

Youth Quake?

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3. (C) Gandhi wanted to focus on explaining Congress' outreach to younger candidates. Noting that almost 20 percent of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Lok Sabha members were under 45 years old, he stressed that putting forward younger candidates would help build party strength. However, he was careful to note that younger members should not expect Cabinet seats immediately. Responding to press criticism that the first 19 members of the Cabinet included no one under 55, Gandhi said that being a Lok Sabha member was a full time job and that new members would be better off learning their jobs rather than setting their sights higher.

4. (C) Pointing to his extensive work in Punjab over the last two years, Gandhi said that he was intent on attracting younger candidates through a more open process of candidate selection. Last year, the Punjab Youth Congress held internal elections to pick its leadership, something that Congress had never done before. This year, in advance of the Lok Sabha polls, Gandhi argued that younger candidates drawn from this pool be given an opportunity to compete for seats in Punjab where Congress had not been competitive, noting that there would be little political risk to the Congress from this maneuver. Gandhi acknowledged that some of the state's senior leadership were uncomfortable with this approach, but he prevailed and, he noted happily, two of the three candidates won seats. Following success in Punjab, Gandhi said he would try this approach in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, and eventually across India.

Politics Does Not Have to Be a Dirty Business

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5. (C) Gandhi conceded that many educated, upper middle class urban Indians dismiss politics as a dirty business, but he countered that there is a massive wave of interest in politics and service by younger Indians in small towns and rural areas. Noting that young people make up a majority of India's population and electorate, Gandhi said that for many, politics is a ""black box"" to which entry is opaque. Noting unselfconsciously that most Indian politicians got into politics through family connections or friends, he said that establishing an open and transparent process of candidate recruitment starting at the most basic level and NEW DELHI 00001072 002 OF 002 democratizing the party would do much to aid Congress in the coming years by bringing in fresh faces and new ideas.

UP: Playing to Win

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6. (C) Responding to the Charge's question about why Congress decided to go it alone in contesting Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Gandhi stressed that it was vital to rebuild the party structure in two of India's most populous states (which send 120 members to the 545-member Parliament). He noted that UP, from which he and his mother both ran, was once a Congress Party stronghold, but the party's strength had collapsed there over 20 years ago, as caste- and community-based parties had gained strength at Congress' expense. But these parties did not have a future, in Gandhi's view. He drew a chart of each party's strength, noting that the dominant castes in the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) drew the resentment of other groups in the party, who Congress had targeted in the latest parliamentary election. This ""revolt from below"" against the caste superstructure of the parties created opportunities for Congress to make a successful non-caste appeal. Gandhi noted admiringly that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had shown that good governance was enough to attract voters; campaigning on caste, as Lalu Prasad Yadav had in Bihar, was now a losing proposition.

End of Caste Politics?

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7. (C) Warming to the subject, Gandhi said his efforts were just scratching the surface, but he also acknowledged that there were ""contradictions"" in the Congress Party and that a ""massive generational shift"" would have an impact on not only Congress, but on other parties that wanted to compete for young candidates and voters. Already in Punjab, competing party leaders had asked him why the Youth Congress had used a primary system to select its leadership. He dismissed many parties in India as being essentially ""one man"" structures, where a single leader was the party. Looking into the future ten to fifteen years, Gandhi asserted that many of the caste-based parties would ""crack up"" because of dissatisfaction with caste as an organizing principle and voters' rising expectations of better governance. Looking 30 years ahead, he predicted that Indian voters will act much like their counterparts in developed countries and vote based on their pocketbook or on other salient individual interests.

Comment: Young Man in a Hurry

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8. (C) Gandhi came off as a practiced politician who knew how to get his message across and was comfortable with the nuts and bolts of party organization and vote counting. He was precise and articulate and demonstrated a mastery that belied the image some have of Gandhi as a dilettante. Given his commitment to party building, it seems unlikely he would seek a Cabinet position anytime soon. While his party work will professionalize and democratize Congress, it will also create a cadre of party loyalists which will be useful as Gandhi moves into a position where he can be a credible candidate for Prime Minister.

BURLEIGH