Reform School

Can the Youth Congress expunge the sins of its fathers before it inherits their wicked ways?

Youth Congress workers stage a motorcycle rally in 2009. The party has added 10 million members in the past three years. BIJU BORO / AFP PHOTO
01 August, 2011

ON A WARM AFTERNOON in early March, five young men arrived at the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) office in -Lucknow to meet Uma Shankar Pandey, the Youth Congress vice president for -central Uttar Pradesh. A lean, clean-shaven 31-year-old with intense dark circles under his eyes, Pandey was sitting behind a desk littered with loose sheets of paper; layers of dust coated the windows and shelves of his office.

Ajay Srivastav, an exceptionally genial man in his early 30s who serves as an IYC general secretary for central UP, led the men into Pandey’s office and introduced them one by one, describing the work each had done for the party. Pandey stood up from a plastic chair, still holding a polythene bag overflowing with files in his left hand, and shook hands with each of the men before turning quickly to more pressing matters.

“Have you prepared the report?” Pandey asked Srivastav.

“Not yet,” he answered, “I will send it tomorrow.”

Pandey stared back at him blankly, betraying some frustration. Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh are scheduled for 2012, and the Congress is desperate to unseat the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and reverse decades of declining vote share in the state. In addition to Rahul Gandhi’s highly-publicised visits—nine so far this year—the entire state party apparatus has been mobilised for what’s been dubbed “Mission UP”.

For the Congress, reeling from a year of unprecedented corruption scandals and political missteps, the upcoming elections in India’s most populous state are a crucial test for the next general election, and a chance to reverse the surging tide of negative headlines. But they will be an even bigger test for the Youth Congress and its leader, Rahul Gandhi: after a dismal result in Bihar last year, the UP elections may be the last chance to show that the much-touted “youth strategy” can pay dividends for India’s oldest party.

With the countdown to elections underway, Youth Congress workers like Pandey are on the frontlines of the Congress campaign, holding public meetings and panchayat conventions in villages across the state—canvassing voters about local concerns and attempting to stoke discontent with the BSP and its chief minister, Mayawati. “We talk about the local issues,” Pandey told me, “like corruption, lack of proper schools, illegal construction in villages.” In February, IYC headquarters in New Delhi announced that public meetings would be held in every panchayat; Pandey had been given orders to supervise meetings across five Lok Sabha constituencies, containing about 6,000 villages. By March, he had already sent his report back to New -Delhi, highlighting the issues and concerns of voters in his own constituency of Sultanpur—which catalogued everything from crumbling school buildings to needed tube wells, with no issue too small to include.

Wearing tightly-laced white sneakers with jeans and a brown shirt that had faded with time, Pandey paced around the room while Srivastav and his men weighed the strengths and weaknesses of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and BSP in Sultanpur. (The local BJP was weak, they claimed, but Mayawati’s cadres were active and well-funded.) After some time, Pandey took a few bills from his tattered wallet to pay for the tea they had been drinking, signalling the end of the meeting, and Srivastav and his men got up to leave. “You should send the report by tomorrow evening,” Pandey told him again, just to be sure.

Uma Shankar Pandey, the IYC vice president for central UP. SAMI SIVA FOR THE CARAVAN

The reports submitted by Pandey and the other IYC leaders in UP are intended to provide ammunition for an upcoming series of state-wide agitations against Mayawati and her government, which will be led by visiting senior Congress leaders like Rahul, Digvijay Singh and Salman Khurshid—for which events like Rahul’s recent padyatra are a prelude. “We will organise a padyatra,” Pandey told me in March. “All the senior leaders will come here, it will be a huge event.” For the moment, his goal is to galvanise youth anger in the most neglected areas of the state, where he feels the party can best capitalise on the intensity of local frustrations. “If we can’t win a majority in the elections,” Pandey said, beaming with pride, “I promise that we will at least form a coalition government.”

Though IYC workers like Pandey are now the tip of the Congress spear in UP, the organisation was moribund as recently as the early 2000s, before Rahul Gandhi joined politics and devoted his energy to its revival. Rahul, who had vowed before his first campaign in 2004 that he would “create a new brand of politics”, made the Youth Congress his laboratory—the platform for his efforts to strengthen the Congress while opening and democratising its ranks. The fourth-generation heir to the modern world’s most successful political dynasty was an unlikely spokesman for meritocratic politics, but his message seems to have resonated with more than a few young people like Uma Shankar Pandey, who say they’ve been drawn into politics by Rahul’s call for new recruits.

Pandey, whose father sells ayurvedic medicine in a village in Sultanpur district, graduated from university in Lucknow and was doing part-time work as a social activist. In 2008, while visiting Andhra Pradesh, he decided to go listen to Rahul Gandhi, who had come to the state to launch the Congress party’s Aam Aadmi Ka Sipahi programme (literally, “Common Man’s Soldier”). Pandey was impressed by the outpouring of applause from the audience, who screamed “Rahulji!” and tossed flowers to the stage, but what truly moved him was the speech that followed. He was particularly impressed by Rahul’s call for an end to nepotistic politics, his insistence on merit as the measure of political success. “I had seen how aam aadmi suffered,” Pandey said. “I had seen how bad politicians were in my village. His words were powerful and precise.”

Harsh Vardhan, a JNU PhD student and IYC national secretary. SAMI SIVA FOR THE CARAVAN

Pandey’s cynicism was deeply rooted: his brother had died of kidney failure in a government hospital, and Pandey felt sure that his family’s lack of money or connections had consigned his brother to inadequate treatment. “I hated politics, frankly speaking,” Pandey said. “But Rahul spoke against the system, he said we have to change the system.”

In 2008, the Youth Congress introduced “open membership”, which allowed any Indian citizen between the ages of 18 and 35 without a criminal record to become a member. Pandey joined a few months after hearing Rahul speak; a year later, he was elected the vice president for central UP during the first-ever round of Youth Congress internal elections.

Pandey’s story testifies to the evident appeal of Rahul’s rhetoric of change and democratisation; even those who derisively mock the no-longer-so-young dynast can’t deny that IYC membership has ballooned under his command. But far tougher challenges lie ahead: it remains to be seen whether the revamped Youth Congress can really help power its parent party to electoral victory at the next general election—or whether family connections and patronage can ever be eliminated from a party that currently runs on both.

The warm glow of the Congress victory in 2009—which led to a pile of fawning profiles announcing the “age of -Rahul” and praising his modesty and vision—has given way to an icy glare of criticism and second-guessing, targeting both Rahul and the party he’ll presumably soon lead. His supporters unanimously insist that Rahul’s strategy looks far beyond short-term returns—he’s running a marathon, not a sprint, they invariably say—and they usually present the four-year-long effort to revitalise the Youth Congress as their prime piece of evidence.

THE SEEDS FOR THE YOUTH CONGRESS revival were first sown in 2003, a year before Rahul Gandhi made his political debut as a candidate in Amethi, the Lok Sabha seat that had been held by his mother, father and uncle. In July 2003, a few hundred top party leaders met in Shimla to formulate strategy and discuss political challenges and organisational reform. The result was a 14-point statement trumpeting the party’s secular and pro-poor policies; it didn’t mention the Youth Congress, but among the delegates, several attendees told me, there was a firm consensus on the need to strengthen the Congress youth wing.

After the 2004 elections, which brought Congress back into power and Rahul into the Lok Sabha, the young heir apparent took a particular interest in the party’s youth outreach. Over the next three years, he met with student activists, social workers, management experts, lawyers and Youth Congress workers across the country, seeking advice on how to rebrand the party and bring in new recruits who might otherwise steer clear of the murky world of Indian politics. The Congress had no real counterpart to the BJP’s powerful Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (Youth Front) or the cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which had achieved considerable success spreading their message among young people in the north Indian ‘Hindi Belt’.

Rahul Gandhi and his closest aide, Kanishka Singh (left), at a badminton match during last year’s Commonwealth Games. JYOTI KAPOOR / INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES

In 2007, Rahul took formal charge of the Youth Congress and the party’s student wing, the National Students Union of India (NSUI), and took the first steps toward the “new brand of politics” he had promised four years earlier. -Rahul, who had done his own stint in the world of business consulting at the Monitor Group from 1996 to 1999, reached out to GK Jayaram—a management consultant who served as the first chairman of Infosys and now heads a leadership and institutional development institute in Bengaluru—for assistance with “vision, strategy and structure” in the IYC. In a phone interview, Jayaram told me he had been working with Rahul for the past three years as a “consultant and facilitator for the transformation effort”, for which he coined the name “Vistaar”, meaning “vastness” and “enhancement”. The goal, Jayaram said, was to create “holistic leaders and strengthen moral leadership”.

The “transformation effort” kicked off in earnest in May 2008, with a workshop conducted by Jayaram for 40 young Congress leaders. It was this seminar and a series of subsequent meetings—about “what the organisation should stand for, its goals and its ideals”, in Jayaram’s words—that set the course for the overhaul of the IYC. What Rahul and the other young Congresspeople envisioned was an open, democratic, clean, technologically advanced party. “We wanted to produce good politicians who are like professionals,” one participant in the meetings told me.

The basic idea was to find dedicated young people, make it easy for them to join the Youth Congress, promote them according to merit, keep them clean, train them to think and speak, and put them to work on what is essentially a non-stop campaign across the country—while tracking and monitoring the whole process in a big new database. The end result of this staggeringly ambitious programme, if it could ever succeed, would be a radically different kind of Indian political party—especially when compared to the present Congress, with its much-maligned culture of sycophancy—and one whose numbers, reach, efficiency and organisation would presumably grant it considerable advantage at the polls.

To say most observers remain sceptical is a considerable understatement. But among Rahul’s inner circle of advisers—all of them under 40—there is a great faith in the transformative power represented by a surge of young voters, party workers and politicians. Kanishka Singh, who is now Rahul’s closest aide, encapsulated the tenets of this faith in a 2005 Seminar article called “Dreaming of India in 2010”. “The period between now and 2010,” he wrote, “is likely to herald a partial dismantling of the gerontocracy that India has evolved into during the post Rajiv Gandhi era”. (After predicting that the BJP’s top leaders, by virtue of their age, would be replaced by 2010, he added, “the Congress too must see some turnover in its senior ranks.”) India’s median age, Singh noted, was under 26. “One hopes that our political leadership will grow younger, more agile and vigorous,” he wrote. “This is bound to have far-reaching consequences for the Indian political landscape.”

The election of younger leaders wouldn’t merely bring the government closer in age to the governed, Singh argued: “A younger leadership in India will, by default, have the ability to think and act beyond a limited five-year time horizon.” The rise of a new generation of non-septuagenarian leaders, in other words, would even reverse the poor performance of government, substituting long-term vision for short-term fire-fighting:

Simply put, today’s problems weigh so heavily on those running the government that the potentially bigger problems of tomorrow are left largely unacknowledged and unaddressed. This is an area of great systemic weakness in India. Our leaders are older than they ought to be. Our citizenry, also our greatest asset, is young. A severe and visible disconnect exists between the separate time horizons that each of these two groups are focused on and invested in. Therein lies the problem. Indians have been abysmal at following up on and implementing plans that impact the distant future.

The challenge, however, is bringing these hypothetical visionary young leaders into politics to begin with, as Singh emphasised when I interviewed him at his villa in South Delhi’s Friends Colony this February. “There are certain very harsh realities in Indian political parties,” he said. “First, how do you get in? Second, a person who wants to work full-time in politics finds it difficult to make an honest livelihood. The sacrifices involved are significant for somebody who is not willing to be corrupt and who is not independently wealthy.”

Former Youth Congress president Ashok Tanwar, one of Rahul Gandhi’s close advisors and the MP from Sirsa in Haryana. FURQUAN A SIDDIQUI FOR THE CARAVAN

After taking his MBA at Wharton, Singh spent four years as an investment banker in the US. But he left his Wall Street job, he told me, because he came to believe it was trivial. “The whole thing was about how much money you will make in the end,” he said. “You make money, then you are burnt out, you probably divorce your wife and your family has fallen apart. I thought, what a meaningless life.”

News reports often describe Singh as one of Rahul’s classmates at St Stephen’s College, but this isn’t correct—Kanishka is eight years younger than Rahul. His father, SK Singh, was an Indian Foreign Service officer who served as an ambassador in Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other places, and was appointed foreign secretary under Rajiv Gandhi in 1989; he was later governor of Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. After Kanishka returned to India, he went to work for Sheila Dikshit’s Delhi campaign in 2003, helping her sweep to victory in the assembly elections—in part by directing campaign energy away from neighbourhoods with traditional Congress vote banks and toward areas where the BJP held an edge.

Singh joined Rahul’s team in 2004, and soon became his closest aide: he effectively serves as the gatekeeper to Rahul, keeping tabs on his meetings, coordinating tours and assigning tasks to other IYC office-holders across the country. Inside the party, he is known for his analyses of constituencies, caste combinations and candidate profiles, particularly in states where the Congress hopes to return to power. He’s wary of press attention, and modestly insisted when I went to meet him that he wasn’t worth writing about. As we sat in his drawing room, where his father’s portrait stood on a table surrounded by oil lamps—right across from framed pictures of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi—he spoke with great caution, choosing his words and anecdotes with precision.

For Singh, the introduction of open membership and direct elections in the Youth Congress was more than a way to boost the party’s numbers; shifting from a “closed system” to an “open system”, he suggested, would bring talented politicians into the party. Previously those with money and political lineage had considerable advantages, but the direct elections had leveled the playing field, and allowed “self-made people” to stand out. Some of the most talented young people, he added, are often found contesting at the booth and assembly level, or in states without a strong existing network of Congress politicians. “In such places,” he said, “there is more space for younger people to emerge.”

Harsh Vardhan would seem to be precisely the sort of self-made talent Singh has in mind. A 28-year-old PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Vardhan was a newly-elected secretary in the central UP Youth Congress when Singh spotted him during a visit to the party’s office in Lucknow.

Vardhan, who comes from the same Jatav subcaste as Mayawati, joined the IYC after going to watch Rahul speak at a convention for scheduled castes in 2009. “He said he wanted to see leaders representing the youth,” Vardhan recalled when I met him in his JNU hostel. “Then he pointed his finger in the crowd and said I want leaders to emerge from this meeting—that he was sure there would be at least two young leaders in the audience who would rise to the national level in the future. I got so inspired by that statement.” Vardhan signed up for the Youth Congress, and spent a year seeking the votes of his new comrades, gathering enough support to win a seat on the central UP committee. “I don’t have a political background,” he said. “I don’t have a very sound financial background, but I have managed all this with my will and efforts.”

After the IYC elections, Vardhan and the other officers went straight into a training course, a key part of the new system, which covered everything from the responsibilities of office holders to dealing with the media and campaigning for the party. “We were told that any decision, even at the panchayat level, should not affect the party negatively,” he recalled. On the JNU campus, Vardhan is an eager ambassador for the Youth Congress, striking up conversations with students, discussing philosophy—he’s particularly fond of Socrates, Derrida and Marx—and encouraging them to pursue careers in politics. He tells me one of his political role models is Abraham Lincoln: “he wasn’t rich, good-looking or privileged, he was honest and had a drive to work for people.”

He put his training to use canvassing for the Youth Congress in UP, visiting 25 districts and following his trainer’s advice: “Do whatever the people want you to do.” I asked him about his meetings in villages. “We have informal conversations,” he said. “We take off our shoes, sit in a circle, ask someone to get some corn from the field. Then we discuss whatever problems they face, like school facilities, health facilities, NREGA implementation.” “From morning to evening,” Vardhan continued with a smile, “you have to drink at least 15 cups of tea with too much sugar. You cannot say no.”

Vardhan’s dissertation research at JNU focuses on caste and politics in UP, a detail that has not escaped the notice of Singh and other top Youth Congress leaders, who elevated him to a position on the IYC national committee earlier this year. Singh himself turns to Vardhan for information about caste breakdowns and demographics in UP; while I was meeting Vardhan at JNU, Singh called him on the phone to ask for socio-economic data on a few villages of weavers in southwestern UP.

IN THE CITY OF SULTANPUR, about 150km southeast of Lucknow, the intensity of next year’s battle for UP is already visible. In the 1980s, when the Congress still reigned supreme, this district had a medieval feel to it, with a market built from mud and thatch and villages cut off from the rest of the country. Today it’s a jumble of low-slung concrete buildings, with public parks and tarred roads packed with SUVs, buses and auto-rickshaws. Billboards bearing party advertisements and enormous smiling portraits of politicians line the roads; the Congress hand and the BJP lotus jostle for space alongside the BSP elephant, which is clearly dominant in these parts.

On my way to the city bus station, I passed a small group of BJP supporters hoisting anti-Congress signs in a park, protesting against rising inflation, government corruption and black money. The day before, BJP president Nitin Gadkari had announced an upcoming nationwide campaign over these issues; for now, at least, the dozen or so local BJP men didn’t seem to be having much success catching anyone’s attention.

I boarded a bus to Barisahijan, a lower-caste village 60km from Sultanpur, where I met Suresh Kumar Prajapati, a 21-year-old Youth Congress recruit. Barisahijan is a small hamlet of about 80 houses, with a fresh water lake, thick patches of mango trees and thatched cowsheds. The villagers are potters, farmers and unskilled labourers; the sound of ringing bicycles can be heard at regular intervals as men leave the village for work. Each month the entire village stops working for a day to worship a small shrine to the Hindu deity Baba Balak Nath, but caste conflict is still pervasive, with the potters in the lowest echelon. They live in a separate jumble of huts, which are huddled together and in various states of decay; one hut belongs to Prajapati.

Wearing grey pants and a handmade sweater, Prajapati stands about five-and-a-half feet tall, with dark skin and faint stubble, and it’s not hard to sense the quiet confidence of a first-generation politician; no matter how backward his village, he knows the significance of his new role. People call him Adhyakshji (“Mr. President”), and old women proudly mention his name; one woman led me to a new water tap and said, “This is what he gave us.”

Three years ago, Prajapati said, he was plagued by insecurity about his own future: after finishing high school, he had been idle and without any prospects. His father, a potter, earned `30 per day, and couldn’t pay for Prajapati to continue his education. Rather than sink further into poverty, he went to work as a manual labourer on private construction sites, and used his salary—`100 per day—to pay college fees. Here too, caste was an issue; he felt he had been treated poorly by the Brahmin contractors. Long before he joined the Youth Congress, Prajapati said, he felt that Mayawati had done nothing to check the increasing power of the upper castes or their propensity to abuse other Dalits. In fact, he said, a local Brahmin landowner had conspired with a lower-caste politician in the area to steal land that belonged to him and the other villagers, which made him wonder if it would ever be possible to end the impunity enjoyed by the upper castes.

This was around the time the Youth Congress was beginning its outreach in UP, touting the benefits of its flagship programmes like Right To Information and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. He started to hang around the local corner stores, where the Youth Congressmen would often gather and talk with the villagers, and in the autumn of 2009 he was introduced to Vinod Kumar, a 28-year-old IYC worker in the Kadipur assembly constituency. Kumar recognised Prajapati’s interest in politics, and asked him to identify the problems facing his village and return in the next 10 days. When Prajapati came back with an impressively thorough report, Kumar immediately took down his name and home address—even local activists like Kumar eagerly hunted for talented workers at the booth level whose hard work would reflect upward.

On 15 November 2009, the IYC open membership drive began in central UP, and Prajapati was one of the first to join, alongside 15 other men at a ceremony in his village. After singing the national anthem and hoisting the Congress flag, the initiates formed a circle, held out their hands and recited an oath: “We will work for the betterment of the common man. We will rise above the caste and religious prejudices and work for the poor. We will fight to spread the ideas of Congress.”

One year later, the second pillar of the Youth Congress transformation—open elections—came to central UP. Though the details of the process vary from state to state, the essential model is that all members vote at the booth level to elect five-person committees; each set of office-holders then votes in turn for the committees above them, at the assembly, Lok Sabha and state levels. The top two vote-getters become president and vice president. In each committee there are reservations for scheduled castes, minorities and women. In the central zone of UP, which corresponds to 26 Lok Sabha constituencies, 266,818 newly-registered party members elected 10,092 new office-holders. One of these was Prajapati, who became president of his booth committee with a 50 percent vote share—five votes out of 10.

The plan to conduct elections within the Youth Congress has always been credited to Rahul, and his authority was indeed critical to bulldozing internal resistance within the Congress. But the idea to hold Youth Congress elections actually had its origins outside the party, with the retired bureaucrat KJ Rao, a former adviser to the Election Commission who had become famous for his crusades against India’s infinite variety of electoral malpractices. After retiring in 2006, Rao partnered with former election commissioner James Lyngdoh to found an independent election monitor, the Foundation for Advanced Management of Elections (FAME).

In 2008, Rao and Lyngdoh wrote letters to every political party in India, proposing they bring democracy to their ranks and offering assistance in conducting internal elections. There were no serious takers until Kanishka Singh called about six months later, asking to arrange a meeting with Rao. “We had an hour-long conversation,” Rao said. “I suggested that criminals should not be allowed to become members or run in elections, and that the full details of all members should be available to the public.”

“I told him that if there will be any malpractice, the final decision [to bar a candidate] will be taken by us,” Rao told me. “He gave a thought for a few minutes and then he said yes, no issues.” Rao had regular meetings with Rahul’s team, working out the details of the elections. Rahul proposed Orissa as the first state for elections, in part for sentimental reasons: his grandmother Indira Gandhi delivered her last speech there, and Rajiv Gandhi toured the state shortly before his assassination in Tamil Nadu. “We were told to get ready for Orissa first, but they changed the plans and asked that we start from Punjab,” Rao said. FAME sends two observers to each state’s elections, he explained, and provides ballot boxes rented from the Electoral Commission. I asked him about what disciplinary action he had taken against candidates in Youth Congress elections. “We have taken a lot of decisions. Recently in Punjab we found someone with a criminal background contesting, and we disqualified him. And Rahul agreed.”

Since the first outing in Punjab, elections have taken place in 19 IYC units; membership drives are underway in most of the rest. Already, according to IYC national president Rajeev Satav, close to 10 million people have joined, all of them registered in the party’s new database.

Nationwide, about 200 people have been elected to top posts at the state or unit level, but a considerable amount of attention has focused on those whose election suggests the enduring power of dynasty and patronage. Five state units have presidents whose relatives were Congress politicians; many other winners at the state level had the clear backing of senior Congress figures. Youth Congress leaders protest that the fixation on a few state-level office-holders is unfair; we can’t bar people from contesting elections, they say, but it’s clear the issue concerns them.

I was told that in Maharashtra, where the children of numerous senior state Congress leaders have announced plans to run, the election structure will be modified in an attempt to level the playing field, with direct elections to state posts from the rank-and-file rather than the current “electoral college” system, in which only assembly-level secretaries and delegates vote for the state committee. But senior Congress figures have clearly identified the Youth Congress as an ideal way to jumpstart the careers of their heirs, which presents a dilemma for Rahul and his team: the more they succeed in giving state and parliamentary tickets to leading Youth Congress members, the greater the appeal to those seeking power and patronage. (And, of course, the greater the resentment of long-standing older Congressmen and Congresswomen who feel they’ve been passed over in favour of inexperienced youngsters.)

Ashok Tanwar, a former Youth Congress national president who is now considered one of the close advisers in Rahul’s inner circle, was among those “hand-picked” by Rahul for a ticket in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, in Haryana’s Sirsa constituency. Tanwar, who comes from a Dalit family in the Jhajjar area of Haryana, did not disappoint: he won in a landslide, with a 35,000-vote margin of victory over his closest rival.

As a Youth Congress national president, between 2005 and 2009, Tanwar reoriented the organisation away from street agitation and toward workshops and seminars, in line with Rahul’s own agenda for the businesslike training of new talent. Soon after becoming president, Tanwar established an age limit—from 18 to 35—and bid farewell to the older “young” Congressmen. (“When he joined the party there was hardly anyone below 40 years of age,” said Shishpal Singh, a general secretary in the Haryana Youth Congress.) Earlier he had amassed an impressive record as the president of NSUI, the Congress student wing, while finishing his PhD in history at JNU.

I went to see Tanwar one evening in early March, and found a small group of Congress supporters gathered in the garden of his official residence on North Avenue in New Delhi, bearing flower bouquets, garlands and sweets. Tanwar’s appointment to the All India Congress Committee as a secretary had just been announced, and his supporters had come to pay their tributes, in true Congress style. Tanwar, wearing a white kurta pyjama and black Nehru jacket, walked out of his house alongside a middle-aged party worker. He took several laps around the garden, walking slowly, with a BlackBerry in his palm and the earphone still plugged in. “Yes dear, tell me,” Tanwar greeted one of his supporters, a large man who touched his feet and congratulated him.

Tanwar listens carefully and speaks precisely; at times he seems lost in his own thoughts, but when he begins to talk he gets to the point quickly. His father was a soldier in the Army, and Tanwar said he once wanted to join the -Indian Administrative Service. He explained that his parents were initially concerned by his move into politics, echoing something I had heard from several young Congress workers from non-political backgrounds: they felt, Tanwar said, “that if somebody is not from a political family, they don’t know how to manage the tricks of politics.”

Suresh Kumar Prajapati (far right), a 21-year-old Youth Congress booth committee president in Uttar Pradesh. MEHBOOB JEELANI FOR THE CARAVAN

He obviously feels that the transformation of the Youth Congress has the ability to change all this. “In terms of giving an opportunity to millions of young people,” Tanwar told me, “there is no better system than the democratisation of the IYC.” I asked him if the new prominence of the Youth Congress had aggravated tensions with the senior party. “Some people argued the elections would create factionalism, but I don’t think so,” he said. “There is a feeling of competition, that is certainly there. But even earlier, everyone aspired to the top posts at every level—district, state, national.” The internal elections, he suggested, would make it harder for disappointed aspirants to blame favouritism. “If you are popular,” Tanwar said, “you will get elected inside the organisation, and then if you are performing, you’ll be given an opportunity to fight the elections; if you’re not, you keep working.”

This unstinting belief in the rational functioning of well-designed processes seems to be a common trait among Rahul’s close advisers. Tanwar is confident that the transformation that’s been set in motion will produce a generation of talented and motivated young Congressmen capable of leading the party and the nation. “Once a machine comes into existence or a factory is set up, then the production is easy,” he says, evoking the image of a well-oiled assembly line. “The factory has been set up. We’ve just started to produce good stuff.”

THE OPTIMISM ABOUT THE PARTY'S YOUTH mobilisation hit a roadblock in last year’s Bihar elections, after enthusiastic predictions of a youth wave gave way to a humiliating defeat in which the Congress took four seats out of 243. That Rahul had invested considerable time in Bihar only deepened the blow, and headlines like “Rahul’s magic fizzles” were everywhere. Bihar Congress president -Mehboob Ali Kaiser, meanwhile, took responsibility and offered to resign.

But at a press conference three months later, Kaiser blamed the high command for choosing poor candidates and cited “organisational weaknesses, indiscipline and irregularities in distribution of tickets”. In a phone interview, Kaiser told me that the youth wing had in fact only made matters worse. “They didn’t listen to us,” he said, “but we couldn’t do much against them because they were moneyed people, contractors, mafias, they hijacked the entire party. Things were so chaotic here no one knew who was supporting whom.”

According to Kaisar, Rahul called him a few months before the election to check on the state of the campaign. “I told him it was without discipline, that our boys are not campaigning properly,” he said. When election day arrived, Kaiser continued, the Youth Congress workers turned against the party. “Even the members who joined in the membership drive gave their support to those who paid them.”

The situation in Bihar may represent an extreme case, but it’s not hard to find examples of open conflict between the young party workers and their seniors. Tarun Patel, the Youth Congress president for central UP, was suspended from the party within months of the November IYC elections, after he broke the lock to some rooms in the party office used by a senior Congress leader in order to make space for himself and the other new office-bearers.

In April, Patel was informed that his suspension would be lifted, and he came to the capital to lobby for his own cause. When I met him at the Youth Congress office in central New Delhi, he didn’t seem happy to have been reinstated; instead he seemed disgruntled, hinting of further disagreements and “conspiracies” against him. “I had no place to sit,” was how Patel explained the controversy. “I am the elected president and the room where I was supposed to sit was used by someone else.”

Patel first met Rahul in 2008, during the latter’s “Talent Hunt”, a series of interviews and discussions that had been arranged so Rahul could talk directly with young people about their ideas and concerns. Patel stood out at one of these events held with 265 young people in Lucknow, and got invited to a more intimate conversation at Rahul’s home in New Delhi. Rahul took notes, Patel said, while the 16 young guests discussed good governance and effective leadership.

After his experience with the Talent Hunt, Patel decided to run in the Youth Congress elections, and he campaigned like a professional: he raised `500,000 from local sources, printed pamphlets—with pictures of himself and Rahul on the front, and a list of his achievements on the back—and hired an SUV so he could visit 25 districts and canvass for votes. “My surrounding is strong,” Patel said, sitting cross-legged in the garden outside the IYC office, pulling occasionally at the grass. “I haven’t spent even one paisa from my pocket. It’s all my contacts that promote me.” He claims that his rivals in the election, some of whom are now his colleagues, spent even more money than he did—not -exactly a promising start for a programme whose stated goals include bringing poorer people into politics.

Once he got into office, Patel said, “I raised important questions. I demanded certain things, like, I have to -travel to 25 districts, so I need a car.” He complained that the Youth Congress office didn’t get any of the money collected in annual dues from the 250,000 members under their authority; if the party was modernising, he said, the office needed computers and printers. If it wanted people like him, from poor backgrounds, to work hard for the party, they needed salaries. “I want to convey these things to Rahulji,” Patel said, “but he is not meeting me, he is surrounded by the wrong people.”

Perhaps these conflicts are inevitable, the result of a natural clash between ambition and pride. The young activists are working to move into positions of power, which the senior party members are determined to retain. Ever since Congress strategists realised the importance of reconnecting with the grassroots, the youth workers have been empowered, and they end up locking horns with their seniors—a feud that only becomes more vicious when the allotment of assembly or Lok Sabha seats is at stake.

I witnessed this very struggle playing out in Sultanpur, the rural district in UP just 20 km from Rahul’s own constituency in Amethi. When I visited the Congress office there, located in the middle of a massive bovine dump, the party’s district president, 60-year-old Maqsood Alam, was eager to vent his frustration. “I like Rahulji’s ideas, but these boys are impatient,” he said. “They claim tickets; every one of them wants to be an MP.”

Sitting cross-legged on a wooden charpoy, Alam looks every bit an old-school politician. “We sacrificed our life for the party,” he told me. “And today we are treated as if we’ve done nothing.” Since the revival of the Youth Congress, the office has become a gathering place for the young party workers, many of whom show up early in the morning and leave late at night, to his evident annoyance. “Shouldn’t they be working for the party?” Alam whispered.

Then he leaned forward and pointed his finger at some young men sitting in a circle just outside his office. “At their age, we used to dig wells for the poor farmers,” he said, with more than a hint of agitation. “Look at them.”

For a moment, Alam sat upright like a statue, gazing toward the door, until a small and fat young man wearing dusty trousers and a skintight shirt strode angrily into the room, barking at Alam. “Mr. President, don’t lie!” he shouted, and sat, indignant, on the edge of the charpoy. “Tell him the truth, tell him what is happening here.”

This was Abdul Rahim Khan, a 25-year-old general secretary of the Sultanpur district Youth Congress Committee. Unemployed, he’s still dependent on his father, who owns a grocery shop. He continued flinging accusations at Alam, loud and unstoppable.

“I have campaigned for Soniaji,” he said, “I have campaigned for Rahulji. Priyankaji knows me very well. I’ve gone to jail for the party.” (He had been arrested in 2009 in Delhi while demonstrating in support of the Indo-US nuclear deal.) Rahim went on and on, while the other young men stood watching. “We want young boys to get tickets,” he said, banging his fists on the charpoy, “because we have sacrificed our lives.”

In a party whose loyalists refer reverentially to the “sacrifices” the Gandhi family has made for its country, the word stirs strong emotions for old and young alike, powerful enough to trigger rebellion after rebellion in the ranks. When Rahul sidelined some older party figures in Tamil Nadu to give tickets to his own younger choices in the April state elections, older party workers were so furious that they attacked their own party’s headquarters, breaking doors and smashing windows.

Two groups of Madhya Pradesh Youth Congress activists fight over a contested election result earlier this year. PTI PHOTO

FOR RAHUL AND HIS TEAM, the risks and challenges that come with their efforts to reform the party are outweighed by the benefits, which they see in both idealistic and practical terms: an open, clean, democratic Congress will be good for the nation and good for winning elections. But Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s preeminent political analysts, argues that their institutional reforms alone can’t possibly bring about the “new brand of politics” Rahul envisions.

“The idea of transparency and internal competition is right,” Mehta said. “But the issue isn’t who’s coming into politics. The issue is what happens after they enter politics.” You can bring a new politician into the party in a cleaner way, in other words, but he enters the same old political structure, where winning elections typically requires either a great deal of money or powerful patrons.

In any democracy, Mehta observed, new entrants will manage to find their way into the electoral process; that’s not the problem that needs fixing. “What is it about this new process,” he asked, smiling briefly, “that should make us think that the new lot will be different from the old lot?”

“The fact is that one of the biggest disappointments in the last five years has been the performance of young parliamentarians,” he said. After suggesting that the “professionalisation” of politics, with its recruitment strategies drawn from the world of business management, had produced politicians wary of taking a stand on anything controversial, Mehta drew a contrast with the 1970s. “There was a massive wave of young people into politics,” he said, “but they had clear political identities at a young age. You knew what Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad stood for in 1974. I don’t know what Rahul Gandhi stands for.”

It doesn’t take too many taps on the keyboard to sum up just how bad things have gone for the Congress in the last nine months. CWG. 2G. Radia. And then Anna. Whatever the flaws in Hazare’s methods and arguments, the self-styled Gandhian and his “fast unto death” against corruption could never have seized the nation’s attention if the government hadn’t first set the stage with a bumper crop of scandals.

On 9 April, the same day that Hazare broke his fast after the government agreed to form a joint committee to draft the anti-corruption measures he was demanding, former Supreme Court judge V R Krishna Iyer sent Rahul Gandhi a sharply-worded letter.

“If you are sensitive about the people’s needs and aspirations, you must attack the big corrupt persons in power,” Iyer wrote. “Why are you silent?

“Like most right-thinking Indian people,” Rahul responded,

I feel exactly the way you do. I spend a lot of my waking hours thinking and working to improve what I see as a rotten system. The difference is that I cannot get away simply with writing letters and complaining as you can. I am faced with the reality of changing things which requires much more than the periodic release of emotion.

It was a well-argued reply, and perhaps even a persuasive one in the eyes of an objective observer. But it betrayed the possibility that Rahul may have badly misjudged the patience of the people he wishes to lead, people wanting to see someone fight the system instead of just calling it rotten, people who may lack the stamina for a marathon.

Not long before Anna’s hunger strike, I met Rajeev Satav, the Youth Congress national president, who didn’t seem to be worried about the criticism raining down on his party over corruption. Nor did he see a need to campaign on the issue. “We are for the downtrodden,” Satav told me, “We are focusing on solving problems. No other youth wing does that.”

Satav, whose mother was a Congress politician, is already a rising star in the party. The 36-year-old scored a huge success in his electoral debut: as a first-time MLA candidate, he broke the Shiv Sena’s 20-year hold on Maharashtra’s Kalamnuri assembly seat.

Now he was in a hurry. He had been travelling constantly for two months, from Delhi to Kerala to West Bengal, and he was leaving for Tamil Nadu the following day. Outside his room, a crowd of supporters and party workers were waiting. “Last question,” he told me, ensuring I didn’t exceed my allotted five minutes.

“Why don’t you take any stand against corruption?” I asked.

“Let me ask you a question,” Satav replied. “Is Karnataka government a clean government?”

He didn’t present an argument for how his party could tackle corruption; instead he turned to the same old tactic of blaming the opposition. When I asked him whether the Youth Congress would criticise corruption in the Congress government, he got unnerved and raised his voice: “We cannot take a stand against our own party,” he said, “because we know Congress has punished many of its corrupt leaders and BJP has punished none.”

His answers were no different than those you might hear from any assembly-level youth leader; he used the words “transformation” and “democratisation” repeatedly, the way assembly-level workers do. He brought up Rahul’s name and achievements over and over again. And he praised the party endlessly.

“We are not at all worried with this opposition agenda,” he said as I left his office. “Because we are seeing that for the next 20 years the Congress is going to rule.”