At the sprawling colonial headquarters of the ruling Indian National Congress party in Delhi, dozens of reporters camp by the lawn, waiting for a sound byte or scribbled quote. The political beat has taken on the fervour of a Hunger Games death match as the largest democracy in the world — with 1.2 billion people and 543 constituencies — gears up for national elections, expected by May.

Having ruled for the last decade, Congress mouthpieces are doggedly putting up a positive front. “We in the Congress party believe that we will be able to form a government, and with the UPS structure, with our alliance partners, we will be successful,” secretary and spokesman Tom Vadakkan said from his small, modestly furnished office.

But step outside the property’s iron gates on Delhi’s prestigious Akbar Road and the mood is far less positive for the party that has dominated Indian politics since the country won independence from Britain in 1947. “The people are fed up with Congress, they want something new,” said Meha Pant, a masters student at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It has many corruption charges against its name.”

The 128-year-old party is struggling in local opinion polls, battered by a string of corruption scandals, rising food prices, policy paralysis and fierce anti-incumbency mood. A new anti-corruption party, Aam Aadmi Party, and resurgent Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, have won voters over with their respective promises to tackle India’s endemic dirty politics and kick-start the stuttering economy. Growth in GDP has nearly halved in recent years, dropping to 5% in 2012-13 from 9.3% in 2010-11.

At a party meeting on Friday, Congress formally announced that Rahul Gandhi would lead its election campaign. The 43-year-old heir of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is expected to be prime minister if Congress forms government, but the party has a tradition of naming the leader only after victory.

But many believe this latest move to project Gandhi as the new leader will not be enough to save Congress come polling day. “Even if Rahul Gandhi was named as the Congress’ prime ministerial candidate on Friday, it would only marginally help the party arrest its rapid decline in the face of anti-incumbency of the last five years of the UPA,” said Dr Satish Misra, a senior fellow at Delhi think tank the Observer Research Foundation.

Dr Misra says the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty is fast losing its shine in India, having cemented its place in history when grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru became the country’s first prime minister after independence. “Older Congress leaders have enjoyed power because of the loyalty and charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi family, but that aura is increasingly reducing and constricting,” he said.

Gandhi, whose mother Sonia is Congress’ president, has been seen as a reluctant heir who has remained in the shadows since first entering politics in 2004, winning his father’s old seat Amethi. Dr Misra blamed Gandhi’s lacklustre political performance on “bad timing and his reticence … He has come at a time when a new order is struggling to take birth and the old order is refusing to die or make place for the new”.

Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has won over voters with his promise to bring India — where 68% of people live on less than $US2 a day (2010 World Bank figures) and 60% don’t have access to a toilet (2010 UN report) — to the forefront of development.

“Either we wake up to their aspirations, or we have no business to claim that we represent them.”

The 63-year-old is chief minister of Gujarat, one of India’s most prosperous states, described as a place where “so many things work properly that it hardly feels like India” by The Economist in 2011. BJP’s success in winning three of five state elections last year, while Congress lost power in four states, is widely credited to the “Modi phenomenon”.

But Modi remains a polarising figure, accused of looking the other way during 2002 communal riots that left thousands of Muslims dead in Gujarat. While no Indian court has found him responsible, he was denied entry to the United States in 2005.

The surprise story of the election battle so far has been the phenomenal success of the Aam Aadmi Party, which formed a year ago off the back of activist Anna Hazare’s 2011 anti-corruption protest. AAP stunned political watchers by winning 28 seats in Delhi’s December election and taking power in a coalition with Congress, which plunged from 43 to just eight seats. No sooner had the party’s leader, 45-year-old former tax official Arvind Kejriwal, settled into his new job as Delhi’s chief minister than he announced AAP would contest the general election.

AAP — which means “common man” in Hindi — has struck a chord by promising not just to clean up politics but to revamp the entire system, ending the VIP culture and decentralising power. The party conducted a referendum asking Delhi-ites if it should join hands with the “tainted” Congress party before forming the coalition, while Kejriwal rode the metro to his swearing-in ceremony and has refused to move into a big government bungalow or take up security.

Local commentators have likened Keriwal’s actions to Mahatma Gandhi, the father of India’s most famous social movement that saw it gain independence from the British. Dr Misra had a more measured opinion: “The AAP is using some of the Gandhian tools but to sustain that kind of momentum there has to be a Gandhi who knew India’s soul and I don’t see a Gandhi in either Arvind Kejriwal or any other AAP leader.”

The former political journalist said AAP’s success was being fuelled by Congress’s failings: “It has benefited from 10 years of the UPA rule which witnessed scams, scandals and cases of corruption.”

At the start of this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conceded Congress had failed to combat corruption and control inflation while announcing he would step down after the election. The 81-year-old strongly recommended the reins be handed to the young Gandhi.

Gandhi has been remodelling himself in recent months as a maverick, fighting corruption and trying to shake up the old order in Congress. In his speech at the All India Congress Committee meeting on Friday, he spoke frankly about the changing mood in India and new demands of its people:

“This is not just another turn in the history of India, another election to be fought, won or lost. This is a turning point in our nation’s journey. Either we wake up to their aspirations, or we have no business to claim that we represent them. The change that is taking place around us is unstoppable. The imperative before us is not whether to change, but when and how to change.”

India is at a crucial moment in history. With more than half the population under 25, while China faces an aging population, it is pegged by some as the world’s next superpower. The demographic dividend brings the opportunity for huge pay-off, but also potential disaster if the aching demands for education, jobs, infrastructure and overall development are not met. The people seem to want fresh leadership to tackle it.

Peter Fray

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