Worried by spontaneous anti-rape and corruption protests near the seat of government in New Delhi, India’s ageing 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 such as “flash mob” and “Twitter” at a brainstorming meeting this 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.
Ms 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 programmes for the rural poor, gave a speech that placed uncharacteristic emphasis on urban job creation for the young middle class.
“We have to recognise the new changing India, an India increasingly peopled by a younger, more aspirational, more demanding and better educated generation,” Ms Gandhi told party leaders.
“We cannot allow our growing educated and middle classes to be disillusioned and alienated from the political process.”
Mr Singh’s government is already seeking to win over the middle class with reforms aimed at boosting economic growth.
Rahul Gandhi, often criticised 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.
The delegates came armed with ideas on how the party should embrace social media, which the government has at times tried to contain.
“It is being debated whether social media, flash mobs, new ways of organisation, migration and employment and how things are happening are to be looked in a different light now,” said Jitin Prasada, a junior minister close to Rahul Gandhi.
Angry, issue-led, protests are on the rise in India, organised by tech-savvy citizens, not by political parties, and amplified by social media. These include those that followed the rape and death of a student in Delhi.
India’s finance minister, P Chidambaram fretted about the phenomena of flash mobs – gatherings rapidly organised using social media.
“Sometimes they gather to dance and sing, but sometimes they can gather to protest also,” Mr Chidambaram said. “I don’t think we are fully prepared to deal with it.”
In 2011, the government was slow and heavy handed in its response to an anti-corruption movement led by activists Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal that drew hundreds of thousands of protesters on to the Delhi streets.