Jaipur: The ruling Congress party—in a break from the past when it sought to leverage vote banks built around Dalits, minorities and tribals—indicated it will focus on youth and women for upcoming elections.
In her opening speech on Friday at the beginning of a three-day conclave to discuss challenges and strategy, Congress president Sonia Gandhi asked the party and the government it leads to recognize the changing aspirations of the people, generate more jobs for educated youth, and bring gender issues to the top of political debate.
With the Congress gearing up for around a dozen state polls in the run-up to the 2014 general election, Gandhi called for new “responses” from the government and the party as “the economic growth, social change and technological innovation” have led to manifestation of new aspirations. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has recently come under severe criticism for its failure to handle mass movements demanding an anti-graft law and security of women.
The three-day conclave—a two-day brainstorming session of 350 leaders, a mix of both veterans and youngsters, and a larger party session on Sunday—is expected to discuss new challenges before the party and strategies to handle them.
The party is also expected to give more powers to Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, who could be elevated to a new post, either as working president or secretary general.
The ruling party has already indicated it will go to the Lok Sabha polls next year under Rahul Gandhi, keeping in view the changing demography of the country that has youth as more than half of its total population.
Party leaders expect that a focus on youth and women will help the Congress overcome any anti-incumbency sentiment and return to power for a third consecutive term.
“We have to recognize the new changing India, an India increasingly peopled by a younger, more aspirational, more impatient, more demanding and better educated generation,” Sonia Gandhi said at the conclave in Jaipur, Rajasthan, while also claiming credit for this change.
“This is a natural and welcome outcome of rapid economic and social change that has been brought about by the success of our programmes to educate to empower and indeed unshackle the oppressed and disadvantaged. Our youth is getting more assertive, it wants its voice to be heard,” she added. But Gandhi admitted that citizens were “rightly” fed up with corruption in government, and urged Congress members not to allow the “growing middle class to be disillusioned and alienated from the political class”.
On winning the confidence of women voters, Gandhi said gender issues “should be a concern to all of us. It is not just the Mahila Congress or women’s organizations that should be in forefront. The entire party must understand them and bring them to the heart of our political activity and change mindset.”
Congress leaders indicated the UPA government, as a part of its strategy to woo women voters, will push a long-pending legislation to reserve for women 33% of the seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, before its current term ends in 2014.
Gandhi is on the right course, said N. Bhaskar Rao, a New Delhi-based political analyst who has been tracking the Congress party for almost four decades. But he added: “The question remains how far the party can walk the talk. The focus on youth and women should be reflected in the party positions and ticket distribution.”
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was critical of the Congress move, saying the ruling party needs to introspect.
“Sonia Gandhi failed to address the nation on the issue of corruption, Congress’ doublespeak and leadership crisis. She has disappointed the nation who were looking to hear from her on these issues,” BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman said. “She has failed to admit that the government lacks integrity, leadership and non-performance. Instead of looking for solutions they are looking for alibi to evade key issues.”
Gandhi also made a case for the practice of austerity by Congress members. “Celebrating weddings, festivals and happy events is one thing, but what of lavish and ostentatious displays of wealth, pomp and status? Does this not beg the question where is this wealth coming from?,” she said. “I hope that you will take this seriously and come up with suggestions and norms that we may all accept and adhere to.”
Congress leaders are to discuss five key issues on Friday and Saturday—emerging political challenges, socio-economic concerns, women’s empowerment, India and the world, and organization affairs. In the concluding session on Sunday, the party is expected to adopt final conclusions emerging from the discussions.
Sahil Makkar contributed to this story