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India’s Rahul Gandhi promises to change old ways of elitist politics

A day after being elevated to vice president of India’s ruling Congress party, Rahul Gandhi on Sunday promised to fix the prevailing elitism in the nation’s politics, address the impatient anger of its youth and bring change, but he told his supporters not to expect change too quickly.

Amid loud cheers from a hall full of party workers in the northern city of Jaipur, the 42-year-old scion of India’s oldest and most privileged political dynasty outlined the coming challenges in a country that is rapidly modernizing, that has an assertive middle class that wants to change the old ways of doing politics, and in which more than two-thirds of its billion-plus people are younger than 35.

“The voices of a billion Indians are today telling us that they want a greater say in government, in politics and administration. They are telling us that the course of their lives cannot be decided by a handful of people behind closed doors who are not fully accountable to them,” Gandhi said, speaking about the increasing push among Indians for a more participatory style of decision-making. “They are telling us that India’s governmental system is stuck in the past. It has become a system that robs people of their voice.”

Gandhi said that the answer isn’t in running the old system better, but in “completely transforming” it. He did not say how he planned to do this, but mentioned the ambitious new program to assign each Indian a unique biometrics-based identity number. The government hopes to use these numbers to identify the poor and send them welfare money directly, cutting out the middlemen.

Gandhi has been a member of parliament since 2004 and is now a step below his mother, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, who is the president of the Congress party. But his elevation Saturday marked a significant generational shift in Indian politics, where the average age of politicians is over 60.

Gandhi’s colleagues hope that his promotion will galvanize the demoralized party at a time when the Congress-led coalition government in New Delhi has been besieged with public anger over corruption scandals and inflation.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government is largely viewed by many as unresponsive and aloof, especially in the face of massive urban anger and street protests witnessed in the past two years against rising corruption and violence against women.

Thousands of young protesters poured into the streets last month and demanded measures to ensure the safety of women, better policing and tougher laws against rape after the horrific gang rape and killing of a young woman in New Delhi. But the police beat them back with canes, water cannons and tear gas shells, and politicians continued to make misogynistic remarks.

“Why is our youth angry? Why are they out on the street? They are angry because they are alienated, they are excluded from the political class,” Gandhi said referring to the ivory-tower lifestyles of India’s politicians. “There is a young and impatient India, and it is demanding a greater voice in the nation’s future,” he added.

Earlier in the day, the party discussed ways to engage young voters via social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which have triggered some of the protests.

In a party that has been criticized for being completely controlled by the Nehru-Gandhi family, Gandhi said his goal is to prepare 40 to 50 leaders who are capable of running the country. Some analysts said this could be a signal that he will not covet power for just his family members.

His mother led the party to an impressive victory at the 2004 national election but appointed the 80-year-old economist Singh as India’s prime minister in 2004. Some had hailed it as renunciation, but others said that she wanted Singh to keep the seat warm for her son until he is ready.

On Sunday, Rahul Gandhi said that his mother came to his room and wept with him because “she understands that the power so many people seek is actually a poison.”

Kapil Sibal, a minister in the Congress-led coalition government, called it a “visionary speech” that also “touched the hearts of all Indians.”

Another minister, Jairam Ram­esh, called Gandhi’s elevation the party’s “Obama moment.”

But Gandhi hastened to warn supporters against any unrealistic expectations of change.

“Change is needed fast, but the change has to be cautious and considered,” he said. “We have to do things, but not do them in a hurry. The change has to be sustainable and deep.”

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.

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