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General Rahul takes baton
Rahul targets Modi, talks up workers

New Delhi, Jan. 17: Rahul Gandhi, in his first speech after being named the leader of the Congress campaign for 2014, ripped into Narendra Modi’s pet theme of a “Congress-free India”.

Aware that the “Congress-mukta Bharat” refrain at every Modi meeting had demoralised workers, Rahul hit back with full force at the AICC meeting today. “Those who dream of finishing the Congress would be wiped out themselves,” he declared, to incessant applause.

The Congress, he said, was an idea — of brotherhood, love and respect — that was ingrained in the Indian conscience for 3,000 years.

Congress ek soch hai. Ye soch hamare dil mein hai. Bhaichare ka soch, prem ki soch, ijjat ki soch. Ye nayi nahi hai, 3,000 saal se chali aayee hai, Gita mein hai, Mahabharat mein hai. Ashok mein hai, Guru Nanak mein hai, Akbar mein, Gandhi mein, saare Bharat mein hai.”

Congress workers were trustees of this idea, he said, and would fight for it. “We have assembled here not as individuals but as trustees of this idea. We are going to defend this idea….”

He continued: “We will fight with all that we have within us. We will not rest. We will not lose courage. And we will not stop till the battle is won.”

The words acted as tonic on the workers, who had pleaded the whole day that Rahul be named the prime ministerial candidate. Their frenzied sloganeering forced Sonia Gandhi to underline: “We have taken a decision on Rahul yesterday and that is final.”

But the workers wouldn’t be silenced. Janardan Dwivedi, who was conducting the session, asked why they felt any need for such an announcement.

“Whenever the question of next Prime Minister will arise, is there any other option except Rahul? Can there be any alternative to Rahul? Has there been any dilemma about the leadership in the Congress? If not, why don’t you all understand a straight message?” Dwivedi asked.

But the clamour continued. Rahul himself intervened, promising to “speak within a few hours and make the position clear.”

Speaker after speaker before Rahul talked of a generational shift and projected him as the future leader. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “We are sure Rahul will bring new enthusiasm and energy in the 2014 campaign and I have no doubt that Rahul will lead us to success.”

When it was his turn, the Congress vice-president pointed out that the Indian Constitution says that the Prime Minister will be chosen by elected MPs. “We will fight the election and win. But ours is a democratic party and the MPs will choose their PM,” he said.

Then he all but said what the gathering wanted to hear. Rahul told the AICC workers he would do anything they wanted him to, take any responsibility they wanted to give him.

Rahul spoke today as the future leader. While he took on Modi, he also promptly addressed vital concerns such as inflation, making a public request to the Prime Minister to raise the quota of subsidised cooking gas cylinders from 9 to 12. Within hours, the petroleum minister issued the notification.

But he took care to hail Manmohan Singh’s leadership and described all senior leaders as his “source of strength”.

On transparency and empowerment of the people, the vice-president was combative, asking the Opposition which party had done more than the Congress.

Rahul also addressed a grievance of every Congressman — the importance given to the outsiders. “People come from other parties during elections and get tickets. This will change. Election will be fought by true Congress workers. We don’t want to shut doors on outsiders but prominence will be given to those whose heart beats for Congress. Jiske dil mein Congress hai,” he promised, to loud applause.

But he kept the focus on the BJP. “They are not people like us. They say anything they like. Unke paas chamak hai, gana hai, naach hai. Marketing bahut badhiya hai. Ganjon ko kanghi bech dalenge (they have lot of shine, song and dance. Their marketing is excellent. They can sell combs to the bald),” he said of the BJP.

“Some new people have come…. They offer haircuts to the bald,” he laughed, a reference to the Aam Aadmi Party.

The Congress’s rivals were complaining about everything without offering solutions, Rahul said, and asked the workers to go out and tell the people about the decisions the UPA had taken in the past 10 years to empower them.