The young rise in India's Grand Old party

The elevation of Rahul Gandhi as vice president marks the rise of the young brigade in India's ruling Congress party, a 125-year-old outfit long in the iron grip of an old guard that was wary of change.

Youthful at 42 compared to India's ageing leaders, Mr Gandhi is expected to put young members in important party positions.  

But his elevation to No.2. in the party is aimed at sending out a wider signal to India's urban youth that has increasingly grown frustrated with an out-of-touch political class on a wide variety of issues from corruption to law and order.

If the massive street protests against corruption in 2011 underlined the hunger for change in the middleclass, educated youth, their simmering rage simply boiled over during popular demonstration against violence on women triggered by a gang-rape just over a month ago.

Those protests marked the rise of the otherwise apathetic middleclass and the young. It became impossible for the Congress party not to heed the clarion call of the young, eager Indian.

While Mr Gandhi's anointment may have been expected, given that he is heir-apparent of the Congress party and a potential prime ministerial candidate, it is significant that the tone for the generational shift has been set by the old guard itself.

A higher number of youth members were allowed to attend the party's three-day brainstorming conclave that elevated Mr Gandhi. More of younger members also found their place in the various sub-committees that the party set up in the conclave to device strategies. 

Only senior leaders had attended the only two previous such brainstorming sessions of the party in 1998 and 2003.

The unmistakable aim to woo the young was evident even in party chief Sonia Gandhi's  remarks: "A significant number of the participants are from the younger generation. This reflects our priorities and resonates with the demographic reality of out country," she said to rousing cheers from young Congress workers.

Consider this: Nearly half the country's 1.2 billion people are below the age of 25; about a tenth of India's population use the Internet -- almost all of them of voting age or will get the right to vote by next year when national elections are due.

Now consider this: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is 80, Mrs Gandhi is 66. The average age of the Indian cabinet is around 60 years. Mr Gandhi has no Twitter account neither is his mother, Mrs Gandhi, seen as a traditionalist, visible on social networking sites.  

It maybe a loose example of the disconnect the Congress suffers with the young population but it is also a snapshot of one of the many challenges the party faces in boosting its appeal with that section of the Indian society.  

Mr Gandhi has been long seen as diffident and reluctant to assume higher responsibility. He is also accused of prolonged periods of silence over burning issues, leaving people to wonder about his political acumen and policy ideas. 

But he has one major thing going for him: His youthfulness. How he capitalises on it may greatly influence his party's prospects in the months to come.

mkritti@sph.com.sg