At 133, Congress’s challenge is to be ‘grand old, young party’

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New Delhi: As the Congress turns 133 years old on Thursday, the party is at one of its most critical junctures. After a generational change of guard at the top, India’s oldest political party is now confronting the challenge of transforming itself into a ‘grand old, young party’ to stay relevant.

Newly elected Congress president Rahul Gandhi is looking at a two-pronged strategy—appoint more young people in key positions of the party and reach out to young voters ahead of crucial state elections over the next one year, preceding the 2019 general election.

While the task is cut out—Gandhi himself spoke about it in his first speech after taking over the top post—challenges abound.

To begin with, the party has often faced a clash between the old guard and young blood, which led to factionalism in several of its state units. While Gandhi had been making changes in the party organization in the run-up to his elevation on 11 December, party leaders say the exercise could now become more focused.

“In the past few decades, we have been relying heavily on two-three powerful leaders in the states. This led to factionalism as an individual’s merits made way for personal loyalty. It affected our connect with the grassroots, to the electorate and at times with our own cadres. The focus on merit and talent has to come back and getting younger people would be a step forward in breaking those silos,” a general secretary of the party said, requesting anonymity.

Fresh from giving the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a tough contest in the recent Gujarat assembly elections, Congress is keen on maintaining the momentum in the coming months. Over the next one year, Congress and BJP will face off in assembly elections in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Congress is currently in power only in Karnataka; the BJP is the incumbent in the other three states.

“The change in the party is going to be a gradual one. When we say that the party is going to have a youth focus, it does not mean that one will happen at the cost of the other. For instance, at least as of now there is no thought that a fraction of seats have to kept for younger leaders etc. The process has to be an organic one,” a senior leader associated with the party’s youth wing said, requesting anonymity.

Political analysts say the process of getting more young leaders on board and focusing on the youth—people in the 18-35 year age group make up 31.3% of the population of India, according to Census 2011—will not be easy.

“This is going to be a big challenge for him. He will have to do it very subtly. And I do not think he will do it either very publicly or in haste. But the problem is also that he has to ready the party ahead of 2019 and there is not much time left in that sense,” said Sanjay Kumar, a New Delhi-based political analyst and director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

“I feel if the entire party structure is changed and transforms it into a young brigade—that comes with its own set of problems. Whether you make a young leader a party chief in state or a chief ministerial candidate, age alone does not ensure winnability. It requires a lot of backroom work and strategizing, something for which the old guard will be needed,” the analyst added.

As the party celebrates its 133rd Foundation Day on Thursday, Gandhi will hoist the ceremonial party flag in the morning at the Congress’s headquarters, 24 Akbar Road—the first time he will do so after becoming party president.