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Sonia backs reforms as Rahul dominates show

At a key party conclave, Sonia Gandhi threw her weight behind economic reforms - which some senior leaders later criticised - and gave her prescription for the 2014 polls: focus on youth, inclusive growth and alliances. Varghese K George & Aurangzeb Naqshbandi report.Respect alliances, revive party in weak states: Soniavideo-icon

jaipur Updated: Jan 19, 2013 09:22 IST

At a key party conclave, Congress president Sonia Gandhi threw her weight behind economic reforms - which some senior leaders later criticised - and gave her prescription for the 2014 polls: Focus on youth, inclusive growth and alliances.

Making the opening speech at the party's two-day brainstorming session, or chintan shivir, Sonia said: "Around one crore youth seek productive jobs year after year… This requires us to be pragmatic in encouraging investment, which is the only way our employment goals can be achieved."

She said growth was the only way to fulfill new aspirations.

"It is lack of employment that thwarts aspirations and fuels frustration, crime and violence," she said, going on to elaborate on the issue of youth anger, an apparent reference to recent protests on Delhi's streets and on social media against issues like corruption and violence against women.

The Congress-led UPA government has bitten the bullet on economic reforms under finance minister P Chidambaram, moving to open up multi-brand retail to foreign investment, cut subsidies on cooking gas and free up diesel prices.

But even after their leader had broadly endorsed reforms, two senior party men took pot shots at the measures, behind closed doors.

Sources said Union minister Vayalar Ravi said the opening up of the retail sector to FDI did not benefit the "poor and the tribals", while Kerala Congress president Ramesh Chennithala said deregulating diesel prices would make the party unelectable as it would be difficult to face the people after such hardships had been imposed on them.

As the entire exercise is aimed at gearing up the party for the 2014 elections, Sonia laid emphasis on three distinct priorities - one, connecting with the 'new India'; two, balancing between organisational rejuvenation and alliances; and three, continuing attention to anti-poverty programmes by the government.

"We have to recognise the new changing India, an India increasingly peopled by a younger, more aspirational, more impatient, more demanding and better-educated generation," Sonia said.

On the party's alliances in states where it is weak, she said: "We have to strike a balance between respecting these alliances and ensuring that the party's rejuvenation is not compromised."

Sonia was also quick to emphasise the inclusive politics that was the foundation of the party's 2009 election victory.

Stressing that growth and social justice are two sides of the same coin, she said: "Our fight against inequality and poverty is a continuing one. This is why it is important to sustain our poverty alleviation programmes."

The 350 participants at the shivir started deliberations in five groups - on political challenges, emerging socio-economic concerns, discrimination against and atrocities on women and children, India's changing role in the world and party organisation.

The party is expected to formulate approach papers on all these by Saturday, which will be endorsed by the session of the All India Congress Committee on Sunday.