Jaipur: The Congress' number 2, Rahul Gandhi, hugged his mother and party president Sonia Gandhi on stage before and after making his first political speech as the party's Vice-President; he promised deep, effective change. "An impatient, young India wants change," Mr Gandhi said.
To his party, which has been getting battle-ready over the last three days for the Lok Sabha elections 2014, the man who shall lead them there said it must prepare 40 to 50 leaders who would not only lead states but run the country.
And he won a standing ovation when he narrated how his mother had come to him last night and cried. "She cried because she understands the power so many seek is a poison. She can see it because she is not attached to it. We should not chase power for the attributes of power, we should only use it to empower the voiceless," Mr Gandhi said, to much applause.
The 42-year-old Congress leader tore into a system that that he said was dominated by mediocrity, "excludes knowledge" and centralises "power grossly. "A system where a handful of people in power, removed from reality, made decisions that affected the aam aadmi or common man, was a flawed system, Mr Gandhi said. The answer, he said, was not in the running the system better, but in "a complete transformation of the system" to give the common man a role in the political space. "We don't empower people at the bottom. People feel they are outside of the system...why people are angry...because they are alienated from the system. Their voices are trampled upon," Mr Gandhi said. And he explained how his party, the Congress, had already put in place building blocks to enable that change.
Mr Gandhi began his speech in English, switched to Hindi, and then spoke in English again. He was in turn oratorical and conversational. He rarely smiled. He slammed "people who are corrupt but stand up and talk of eradicating corruption" or "people who disrespect women but talk of women's rights" and promised that his party will "support every Indian." (Read highlights of Rahul Gandhi's speech)
The speech was designed the show-stopper, and came at the end of a day-long All India Congress Committee or AICC meeting in Jaipur. There was pin-drop silence for most part as 1,500 people heard him speak. Before that, through the day, he sat to the right of Sonia Gandhi on the ground on a massive stage, flanked by many senior Congress leaders, listening keenly to other speakers. The mood in the Congress has been buoyant since last night when his appointment was announced and proceedings in the morning were delayed for some minutes as excited AICC delegates raised slogans in praise of Mr Gandhi, who smiled and raised folded hands in greeting. (Read: Rahul Gandhi, Congress' crown prince, takes charge)
Mr Gandhi thanked the party for appointing him vice president; the elevation was endorsed at the Congress' highest decision-making body, its working committee or the CWC, at the end of a two-day brainstorming session yesterday. It is expected to galvanise party workers after a series of demoralising electoral setbacks. Congressmen have been celebrating with drums, slogans and fireworks. Many Rahul Gandhi posters sprang up overnight in the national capital. (Read: Foreign media on Rahul Gandhi's elevation)
The Congress has said Mr Gandhi's promotion represents its commitment to representing the youth of the country. He is 42 and in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, his lead role in elections did not yield any real dividends for the party. He has to reverse that trend quickly. Assembly elections will be held in nine states in 2013, beginning February when three north-eastern states go to the polls. Elections will be held this year in crucial Congress-held states like Rajasthan and Delhi and in states that it hopes to wrest from main rival the BJP, like Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.
And then will come the big challenge on retaining power in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Mr Gandhi's detractors and political rivals are dismissive about the impact of his elevation. "If they are doing it with the assumption that the fortune of the Congress will shine in 2014, they are entirely mistaken," said BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad.
In Jaipur, there has been clamour that Rahul Gandhi also be declared the party's candidate for Prime Minister in 2014, but senior party leaders said that would happen later. Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh pointed out that the party traditionally did not name a candidate for PM before elections and that the new elected members of Parliament picked their leader. "Mrs Gandhi has rightly appointed Rahul Gandhi to the post of vice president. And as far as the prime ministerial post is concerned the party would decide about it later," said minister Sachin Pilot.
The party was quick to emphasise that Mrs Gandhi will continue to play a bigger role. "There is a younger India and we are the first party to include the youth. Sonia Gandhi is the supreme leader and she will help with decisions. She has a bigger role," Congress leader Sandeep Dikshit said.
The substantial presence of young delegates at the Jaipur session is seen as a sign of Mr Gandhi's increasing influence on the party. In her speech on Friday, his mother emphasised an urgent need to address an alienation from the urban middle class, especially the youth.
Recently, the Congress responded clumsily when thousands of students protested for weeks against the gang-rape of the young student on a moving bus in Delhi. Demonstrations demanded justice for the victim and better security for women, and there was huge anger at the failure of senior ministers to reach out to the protesters.
The day-long AICC session wraps up the party's deliberations in Jaipur to devise strategy for the general elections scheduled for 2014; a "Jaipur Declaration" will be adopted by the party today. As the head of the Congress' election committee, Mr Gandhi has charge of leading that strategy when the ruling party asks voters for a third straight shot at power.