Giving a clarion call to “confront corruption head-on,” Congress president Sonia Gandhi, on the second day of the party's 83rd plenary session, outlined an action plan in a powerful no holds-barred speech.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, Ms. Gandhi said, should seriously consider state funding of elections; fast-tracking of all cases that concern corruption by public servants, including politicians; legislating to ensure transparency in public procurement and contracts; and an “open, competitive system of exploiting natural resources.”

Simultaneously, she urged all Congress Chief Ministers and Central Ministers to review and relinquish all “discretionary powers,” particularly in land allocation, as she stressed that they “breed corruption.”

On Sunday morning — in a white tent festooned with party flags and portraits of past and present leaders, set appropriately in the bleak and barren landscape of Delhi's northern semi-urban fringe in Burari — Ms. Gandhi's presidential address was as much a call to arms against corruption, communalism and terrorism — and the Bharatiya Janata Party — as it was an attempt to infuse fresh energy into a party debilitated by its fall in public stock, thanks to a string of scams, and by the electoral disaster in Bihar and the fracturing of its State unit in Andhra Pradesh.

A new roadmap was clearly on Ms. Gandhi's mind as she announced that the party would soon hold a special conclave — on the lines of the Pachmarhi Vichar Manthan Shivir and the Shimla Chintan Shivir — so that the Congress leadership could introspect and “refresh its perspectives on crucial national issues and review the functioning of the organisation,” and set up a “professional party think-tank to be run on institutional lines.”

The Congress, she said, had always been “a party of ideas, responding to changing political and economic circumstances.”

If corruption was an important theme in Ms. Gandhi's address, she also took Central Ministers to task for their insensitivity to the “voices coming from the party organisation and ranks.” The “ordinary worker,” she reminded them, “is our ear to the ground, our hand on the pulse of the common man.”

Party activists in non-Congress ruled States, she stressed, had told her that Central Ministers did not appreciate the workers' concerns, saying: “They make a valid point. Such neglect is demoralising our workers who function in a hostile environment. Central Ministers must engage with the local Congress leadership and workers.” Understandably, this got huge applause from the delegates.

Making an oblique reference to the intrigue and backbiting in the Congress, and the growing perception that there was a gap between the party and the government, Ms. Gandhi warned her colleagues that the party's future would depend on its capacity to work together as a team and “not pull in different directions.”

She understood “individual ambitions,” but “when they are not fulfilled, the party's cohesion should not be jeopardised.” The party, she stressed, must always come before the individual.

Praise for Manmohan

And for the second time in seven days, as in her speech to the Congress Parliamentary Party on December 13, she underscored the fact that the party stood “solidly” behind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Describing him as “the embodiment of sobriety, dignity and integrity,” she said: “The BJP's personal attack on him is downright despicable. On your behalf, I want to compliment him for his wise leadership, for remaining calm amidst the storm and for his unwavering devotion to the progress and prosperity of the nation.”

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