The Congress' official machinery has been pipped at the post by a group of its own members — which included several ex-MPs, some former Ministers and party functionaries and one sitting MP. Even as the party waits for the leadership to announce a date for the ‘chintan shivir' Congress president Sonia Gandhi had announced at the party's plenary session in Burari last December, a ginger group went ahead and held a brainstorming session of its own.

On Thursday, 300 Congress members, at the initiative of former MP, Union Minister and ex-Olympic hockey player Aslam Sher Khan, gathered at the Constitution Club here to put their heads together to “revitalise” the party and come up with a roadmap for the general elections slated for 2014. Those who attended the meeting, apart from Mr. Khan, included ex-State Minister Ram Lal Rahi, ex-MPs Harikesh Bahadur, R.R. Sahu, Kamal Chaudhury, Virendra Katariya, the former Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister P.K. Thungon, the former State unit president of Goa John Fernandes, Mirajuddin Khan, Sunil Shastri, and sitting Manipur MP Thokchom Meinya.

The burden of the speeches was that a coterie around Ms. Sonia Gandhi and general secretary Rahul Gandhi had effectively blocked others in the party from meeting them. There was also a clear animus against the party's coalition partners, who were held squarely responsible for the stink of corruption emanating from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

In his letter of invitation to Congress colleagues (the letter, dated June 27, was mailed to all the Congress Working Committee members, MPs, Ministers, Chief Ministers, senior party leaders at the Centre and in the States), Mr. Khan had written: “The recent civil society movement bears evidence of the fact that...corruption can no longer go unnoticed in the country…The era of coalition politics has been the biggest factor giving rise to unprecedented levels of corruption in government.” He therefore, urged his party colleagues to collectively work to bring the Congress back to power with a simple majority of 272.

In the letter, he also recalled that at an AICC meeting at Talkatora Stadium, Ms. Gandhi had said that “neither she nor Shri Rahul Gandhiji has a magic wand that will bring back the Congress to power.” But Mr Khan stressed, “There is no need for a magic wand; all we need is a selfless, united and honest approach to serve the people of the country.”

An ex-MP who attended Thursday's meeting said: “In the speeches, it was pointed out that the interaction between party workers and Soniaji or with Rahulji has been reduced in UPA 2. If workers are to feel energised, then those who come from far-flung areas must be able to meet the top leadership, just as it was possible in the past to meet Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi.”

He said it was not just enough to meet the “two to four leaders” who surrounded Ms. Gandhi, if the party was serious about tackling the twin challenges of communalism and corruption. “These issues need open discussion,” he said.

At the meeting, it was pointed out that the Congress' image had taken a battering, largely because of its partners — thanks to one partner, the Telecom Ministry had been looted, thanks to another, the Railways had been ruined. The Congress, speakers said, needed to shed its lethargy and rebuild the party.