Jaipur, Jan 18 (IANS) Congress chief Sonia Gandhi Friday urged party leaders to understand the "new India", not to alienate the middle class while honestly assessing its "strengths and weaknesses" as she set the tone for a three-day conclave that will draw an ideological and policy roadmap for the 2014 general elections.
"Such meetings provide a forum for an honest conversation amongst ourselves on our strengths and weaknesses," Gandhi told the leaders at the Chintan Shivir, a brainstorming session to review the past and finalise strategy for the future, here.
She said the Jaipur meet was different from the two previous ones held at Panchmarhi in 1998 and Shimla in 2003.
According to Gandhi, the conclave came at a time when the "party has been in power for nine years" but "is not governing a number of states and faces serious challenges in states long considered its bastions."
She also noted the significantly larger presence of younger leaders resonating with the demographic reality of the country and reflected the party's priority.
Besides Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi, around 350 delegates including central ministers, All India Congress Committee (AICC) leaders, state unit chiefs and Congress Legislative Party (CLP) leaders, besides members of youth Congress and NSUI are attending the meet.
They will debate issues like political and economic challenges, foreign affairs, women's empowerment, and organisational strength.
Atrocities on women were a blot on India's collective conscience, Gandhi said in the wake of the countrywide protests over the brutal torture and gangrape of a woman in Delhi last month.
She also exhorted the leaders to understand the "new India", keeping in mind the flash mobs that sprang up in the national capital on the gang-rape issue recently and on corruption last year and caught the government unawares.
People were fed up with corruption, Gandhi told party workers saying an increasingly assertive middle class can't be allowed to be alienated from the political process.
With nine states going to polls this year and a direct fight with the Bharatiya Janata Party in five of them, Gandhi asked party workers to be united and give up personal ambitions and egos.
"Why do we forget the simple truth that in the party's victory, lies the victory of each one of us," she said.
Gandhi said the party squandered many opportunities because it could not function as a disciplined and united team.
Stressing on building leadership at all levels, she said performance rather than patronage should be the ladder for rising in the party.
Gandhi also asked the leaders not to indulge in pompous displays of wealth, lead a simple life and be rooted.
Touching upon foreign policy, Gandhi said India has a vision of occupying its rightful place and exercising its unique influence in world affairs.
But dialogue with Pakistan must be based on "accepted principles of civilised behaviour", she said.
Urging the leaders to speak freely and frankly, Gandhi said the quality of debate within would be crucial to the Congress' future as a political force.
Senior party leaders felt the session will help the Congress address basic issues.
"Party unity is very important," former union minister Ambika Soni said.
"The meeting will help the party become stronger and bring the youth to the forefront," general secretary Birender Singh said.
"We will discuss all the issues and then reach a conclusion," another general secretary BK Hariprasad said.
The Chintan Shivir is being held at the 1,200-capacity Birla Auditorium in the heart of the city. The meet will conclude Jan 20 with the AICC session, likely to be attended by over 1,200 delegates from across the country.
Consensus reached here will be formally adopted by the AICC as the Jaipur Declaration.
(Amit Agnihotri can be contacted at email@example.com)