A young media professional, his face creased by the worried thought that he might soon be turning 30, was quite certain about the precise moment at which Rahul Gandhi lost the trust of the young. That point, he said, came in the passionate aftermath of the brutal rape of a young lady on a Delhi bus, a rape which this heroic woman eventually did not survive.
All Rahul Gandhi had to do, he said, was show solidarity with the thousands who had come out to protest. The young wanted him at their side at a pivotal moment in their consciousness. But Rahul Gandhi was missing, from both the scene and the ensuing debate. In retrospect, it does not much matter whether Rahul Gandhi was on another holiday, or at home. He was not on the streets. Is this a Delhi-centric explanation? Perhaps. But when Delhi was watching what Rahul Gandhi would do, the country was watching what Delhi would do.
Was this an aberration? It soon became evident that it was part of a pattern of indifference which the government displayed towards the young who had voted the triumvirate of Dr Manmohan Singh, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi into power in 2009.
The Congress leap to 206 seats in 2009 was powered by the youth vote. This was most evident in the cities, but the ripples extended into the adjoining countryside as well. There is a youth vote now, which extends beyond geography, and is rising above the traditional metrics of caste and creed. Its priorities are centred around the principal objectives of a young person's life: jobs and the cultural freedom to live life without the tensions of a moral police.
If any observer has any doubts about this phenomenon, clarity will come after the 2014 elections. There are going to be 150 million new voters in the general election starting this week. This is more votes than any party got in the last election. Add the numbers of votes of the second-time voter and this bloc rises from formidable to phenomenal. No one can win an election, regional or national, without its support.
The bad news for any establishment is that this is also an unforgiving vote. If its hopes are powerful, then punishment for betrayal is merciless. This vote is also mature beyond its years. It does not decide on either a whim or emotional high. It examines its options through the experience of governance. Frustration with Congress and UPA did not emerge overnight, but slowly, as it quietly discovered that the government was not interested in creating an economy which could generate jobs.
Rahul Gandhi was blessed with extraordinary good fortune, since for 10 years he has had a national government at his beck and call. Even if he was unwilling to join the ministry, he could have led the public debate over jobs, and demanded — to give just one specific instance — that infrastructure projects, a fertile breeding ground for employment, should become a reality instead of repeatedly being aborted on government files because of the whims and fancies of individual ministers.
This simmering, and possibly subaltern, frustration became volcanic lava with the revelations of corruption. The Lords of Theft should take care not to leave jokey metaphors lying around political space. The purchase of toilet paper at heaven knows what outrageous price for the Commonwealth Games is still good enough to kindle some bitter laughter. It has become an epic reference point for radio disc jockeys.
A survey by the American institution, Pew, done in the second week of December reported that 63% of India wanted a BJP-led government in office, as against only 19% for Congress and its partners. This huge gap can only be explained by the drift of the young vote away from the establishment, since the young constitute such a large part of the electorate. If Narendra Modi has become the new icon, it is primarily because he delivered on the economy. The interesting bit is that Modi succeeded in the same decade during which the Congress failed. The environment was same for both; the financial climate similar; and Gujarat's bureaucracy emerged from the same schools as the nation's. The difference lay in the culture of decision-making. You knew where you stood in Ahmedabad, while you ran from obsolete pillar to mute post in Delhi.
It is too late for promises now. There is nothing you can say in the ten days before an election that can negate a gloom thickened by layers over ten years. So when Rahul Gandhi suddenly offers 100 million jobs in the next five years, the sceptical response is inevitable: why did this not happen in the last 10 years? Modi will harvest this anger now, but the danger is obvious: he will have to deliver faster than his predecessors. The difficulties in winning an election are nothing compared to the excruciating pains of delivery when in power.