A day after Rahul Gandhi's anointment as party's vice-president, Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Sunday targeted youth, women and middle class in the party's quest for widening its base ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
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Opening the AICC session in Jaipur after the two-day chintan shivir, she also made some plain speaking to her partymen saying they should not indulge in nepotism and should show unity to face the challenge of elections which are 15 months away.
She said party leaders should work for the welfare of all and not restrict themselves to their "favourites".
"I am sure if we make the right efforts with unity, there is no doubt in my mind why we will not get the mandate again," she said.
Gandhi said she was happy with the participation of the younger colleagues in the brain storming conclave and hoped that it will help the party project new leadership.
With apparently the huge middle class in her mind, she spoke of women's empowerment in the context of the gang rape of the Delhi and of the need to fight corruption in public life.
Gandhi said after the Burari session of Congress, the UPA government had stepped up its fight against corruption and has introduced various measures in Parliament including the lokpal bill.
She said the Direct Benefit Transfer scheme, nicknamed 'aapka paisa appke haath' (your money in your hands) will benefit people by transfer of money meant for pensions and scholarships directly to the bank accounts of the beneficiaries.
The DBTS will eliminate corruption by middlemen, she said terming graft as a "deep-rooted malice" affecting all sections of the society.
Under attack over slow response to public protests in the wake of the gangrape incident in Delhi, Gandhi said people were right in demanding answers and actions in the case as safety of women was a fundamental right.
The sacrifice of the girl who was brutally raped and assaulted in a bus last month would not go in vain as it has shaken the conscience of the nation, she said in her address.
Gandhi said the young gangrape victim was "tragically the symbol of women and children who suffer similar fate" in the wake of denial of justice.
She also said the atrocities on women and children was a reflection of "shameful" social mindset which needed to be changed.
In her opening remarks, she deprecated the "shocking remarks" made by public figures in the wake of the rape incident and said they were unacceptable.
Gandhi said the UPA government has drafted laws for women's empowerment like providing them protection against sexual harassment at workplace and providing them better representation in panchayats.
The Congress president said she would personally press for the passage of the Women's Reservation Bill pending in Lok Sabha.
Gandhi made a strong pitch for electoral reforms and political funding saying people are getting disillusioned with the political process and there is a need to address the issue with sensitivity.
"We have to admit that people are getting disillusioned with the political process. We have to understand what the causes of this disillusionment are and we have to do away with this with sensitivity," Gandhi said striking an introspective note.
She also wanted that the attempts to tarnish the image of politicians and democratic institutions should be countered.
Gandhi also announced setting up of a special group within the party which would consider all suggestions and come out with a programme at the earliest.
"We have to make now time bound programmes to do it," she said.
In a veiled attack on BJP, Gandhi exhorted partymen to fight "forces" who challenge the unity and integrity of the country in a bid to "divide us".
Without naming, she also attacked non-UPA governments in states who have claimed credit for the flagship programmes of the UPA.
"It is (their claim) baseless. We should expose it," she said at the AICC session.
In an apparent reference to the recent decisions including the hike in diesel price, Gandhi said government was forced to take "tough" decisions due to financial crisis which were affecting the people.
She said there was need to explain to the people steps taken by the government to ease inflation.
Gandhi said India had remained more or less insulated from the global financial crisis, but now the country was facing its affects.
The Congress president said the UPA government under the leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has taken several decisions to benefit the common man and cited legislations like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Right to the Education Act and the proposed food security and land acquisition bills.
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi hugs his mother and party president Sonia Gandhi before his speech at All India Congress Committee (AICC) session in Jaipur. PTI/Subhav Shukla
Noting that the chintan shivir has given a useful opportunity to introspect, debate and plan for the future, Gandhi said that she is particularly delighted with the active participation of "so many of our younger colleagues".
"Engaging the youth more centrally to our organisation is necessary. Only in this way, we can develop and project our new leadership," Gandhi said.
Calling for developing leadership at all levels by identifying, promoting and training them, she reminded senior leaders of the party both in the organisation and the government that it was the party, which gave them these posts.
"Now it is their responsibility that they extend their limits and do not confine their cooperation only to their favourites but give it to all workers," she said drawing wide applause from the gathering.
Describing corruption at all levels as a "deep rooted malaise", she said that "we must, as a party, continue to lead a determined struggle to combat it effectively.
Recalling that she had flagged the issue of corruption at Burari session of the party in December 2010, she said the government has stripped ministers of their discretionary powers and instituted more open methods of allocating natural resources.
Referring to the Delhi gangrape, she said "we cannot tolerate the shameful social mindsets that lead to unspeakable atrocities on women and children. In the last few weeks, some public figures have come out with truly shocking statements reflective of these completely unacceptable attitudes."
Maintaining that Congress has always been in the forefront of the struggle for the full empowerment of women, Gandhi assured that she will personally continue to press for the passage of the law that would provide for one-third reservation for women in Parliament and state legislatures.
Hailing the leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as "very appreciable and effective", Gandhi said that "we have achieved fast and inclusive growth as per the main priorities of our government".
Taking a swipe at other political parties for making claims of development, Gandhi said development is in itself an election issue for which credit goes to the Congress' way of functioning.
"Nowadays every party makes claims of development. This is a fact that development in itself is an election issue and its entire credit goes to the Congress system of functioning," she said at a time when the BJP is making development in Narendra Modi-ruled Gujarat a big political issue.
She said that democracy, development, secularism and social justice are integral to Congress and no other party has such an ideological base.
Calling for reflecting this uniqueness of Congress, Gandhi also urged party men to highlight the achievements of the UPA government, which she said provided funds to all states without any political discrimination.