Rahul's new initiative.
For many young people in India, politics is a ‘black box' where the entry is opaque; those who get into politics do so through family connections and friends. Rahul Gandhi, who is himself a privileged member of a privileged political dynasty, seems keen on changing this situation by bringing in fresh faces and new ideas into politics through an open and transparent process of candidate recruitment. At least this is the impression he gave the Charge d'affaires in the United States Embassy, Peter Burleigh, during a private meeting on May 23, 2009 immediately after the general election.
In a cable sent on May 27, 2009 (208867: confidential), Mr. Burleigh recorded that Mr. Gandhi was intent on replicating his Punjab model of candidate selection first to Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, and eventually across India. The model involves holding internal elections to the Youth Congress, something the Congress had never done before, and allowing successful young candidates drawn from this pool to fight for seats where the party was not competitive. This, Mr. Gandhi noted, presented little political risk for the party.
Although some sections of the senior party leadership in Punjab were uncomfortable with this approach, he had his way and two of the three candidates thus chosen emerged successful in the election.
“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 democratizing the party would do much to aid Congress in the coming years by bringing in fresh faces and new ideas,” the CDA wrote.
Almost 20 per cent of the Lok Sabha members in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance were under 45 years old, Mr. Gandhi told the diplomat, while emphasising that putting forward younger candidates would help build party strength. But being a Lok Sabha member was a full-time job and new members would be better off learning their jobs rather than setting their sights on Cabinet berths.
According to Mr. Burleigh, “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.”
Asked why the Congress decided to go it alone in contesting Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, he replied that it was vital to rebuild the party structure in two of India's most populous states, which send 120 members to Parliament.
Uttar Pradesh, which was once a Congress stronghold, had seen caste-based parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party grow at the Congress' expense. But the dominant castes in these parties drew the resentment of other groups in the organisation, who were targeted by the Congress in the 2009 parliamentary election. This ‘revolt from below' against the caste superstructure of the parties created opportunities for Congress to make a successful non-caste appeal, the Charge reported.
“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,” Mr. Burleigh wrote while detailing his conversation with the Congress leader.
He told the diplomat that his efforts against caste politics 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.”
Mr. Gandhi, according to the CDA, 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.”
In his comment towards the end of the cable, titled ‘Young man in a hurry,' Mr. Burleigh said: “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.”