NEW DELHI // India's Bharatiya Janata Party met in Indore last week to hammer out a new strategy to fight back against a resurgent Congress Party, and try to dispel the stench of defeat now surrounding the Hindu nationalists. A new leader, Nikin Gadkari, 52, rallied members together, urging them to reach out to all sections of society. But after two successive defeats, few believe the BJP presents much of a challenge now for Congress.
"The real issue is their ideology, and the declining appeal of their ideology," said Zoya Hassan, a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Hindu nationalism no longer resonates in a country of a billion people, two-thirds of them under 40. Instead, India's young hearts and minds increasingly favour Congress and the inclusive growth espoused by Rahul Gandhi, the 39-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
"All the political parties are concerned. They can see there is some kind of a revival of the Congress," said Sanjay Kumar, a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. Congress has always been a political force in India, ruling uninterrupted for 30 years after the country's founding in 1947. Party instability allowed the BJP to grapple its way to power between 1996 and 2004, but Congress has been rebuilding its base ever since - driven largely by Mr Gandhi, great-grandson of the country's founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
The BJP general secretary, Ananth Kumar, hit back as the meeting opened, trying to switch the conversation away from "the Rahul Gandhi factor" and towards inflation, now a serious problem for Congress. "The factor now is the misrule of Congress, the failure of the Congress at the Centre in the settling of the price rise, in controlling inflation, and in stopping terrorism," he said. The BJP's problem, however, is that it confronts a credibility crisis; the Congress Party's optimistic message of development and inclusion fits this youthful country like a glove, while also highlighting the BJP's divisive history. The party was directly implicated after an important mosque in Uttar Pradesh, the Babri Masjid, was torn down in 1992, sparking major riots and thousands of deaths that remain an open wound for many in India.
Mr Gadkari tried to promote a more inclusive approach by kicking off the Indore event with a meeting with Dalits or "untouchables", but his efforts produced only an unfavourable comparison; "Gadkari does a Rahul," read the headlines. Mr Gandhi, a former management consultant with international experience, started listening to the grievances of Dalits years ago as part of a new strategy to reach out to youth, Muslims and other minorities - some accounting for vote blocks of 100 million or more.
"If Congress had not done well in 2009, all these efforts would have been dubbed as cheap gimmicks," Mr Kumar said. "But since Congress has managed to improve its tally of votes, and its vote share, and its seats, a large part of the credit for that goes to Rahul Gandhi." Mr Gandhi has consistently rejected government posts to work at the grassroots level, organising massive membership drives at the country's universities, and searching for ways to make the elderly Congress Party more democratic.
"I would not have been here if I was not from a political family," he said. "If you do not have money, a family or friends, you cannot enter politics. I want to change this." This determination to reward merit rather than privilege is appealing in a young, upwardly mobile country, and seems to be working. "At the moment, the deep underlying trend seems to suggest this is now Congress's game to lose," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the president of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. "Clearly Congress has an inclusive growth agenda, and that has gone down well not just with minorities but with large sections of the electorate."
Many of Mr Gandhi's hand-picked candidates in 2009 were overlooked by party elders, but went on to win - something that is only now coming to light. Congress secured first or second place in 400 of 545 seats in the Lok Sabha, or parliament, making Congress competitive in most areas of the country for the first time in more than a decade. Mr Gandhi has now announced that instead of relying upon local alliance partners, Congress will run its own candidates in 2011 state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous province. In the 2009 general election, Congress won 22 out of the state's 80 seats despite having very little organisational structure in the state.
"He is getting support from the youth," said Nirmal Pathak, a newspaper commentator in Uttar Pradesh. "There is a cynicism about these politicians. "They always talk about castes, religion [but] he is talking something different. He's talking about IT and development. They find him a little different from other politicians." @Email:email@example.com