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New Delhi: Under attack for its economic policies as well as a spate of corruption scams—involving both ministers and members of the Congress party and its first family—the ruling party resorted to a massive show of strength in a Sunday meeting that sought to highlight its three strengths: organizational ability, the TINA (there is no alternative) factor, and Sonia Gandhi.

It remains to be seen if these can help a government and a party under whose watch the economy (and the country’s finances) have headed south, and that has spent much of its second term in office fighting charges of corruption.

Still, as shows of strength go, the meeting at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, also the site of anti-corruption rallies by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, was impressive. The message was clear—if you can gather crowds at the maidan, we can do better. Around 100,000 people from Delhi and surrounding north Indian states attended the meeting.

The defiant Congress, inspired by its president, Sonia Gandhi, launched an aggressive counter-attack against critics and showcased its big-ticket, yet controversial, reform initiative of allowing freer foreign investment in multi-brand retail.

Refusing to be painted into a corner, the ruling party appealed to the gathering that only the Congress can steer the country towards a stable and prosperous future.

The response comes in the backdrop of the second tenure of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) being racked by a series of alleged acts of graft in public office and, more recently, a concerted attack to discredit the Gandhi family. It also came on the day Himachal Pradesh went to polls, where the Congress has mounted a political challenge to unseat its principal political rival, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP).

Gandhi, backed up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and her political heir and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi, said the Congress will face the current challenges confidently.

“We have called this rally to clarify it through your medium that today, when the country is facing political, social and economic challenges, we are determined to fight it headstrong and succeed in it," Sonia Gandhi said. “Several kinds of allegations are being made against the party and the government; it is very important to judge and know what is true and what is false."

Reiterating its intent to fight corruption, which the Congress president referred as “cancer", the Gandhis reminded those assembled that it was their government that had initiated transparency by creating legal provisions such as the right to information (RTI) law. “Such a law can only be brought by those who want to eradicate graft. Ask yourself, will anyone bring such a law if the intent is to hide corruption," Sonia Gandhi said.

Gandhi, whose speech, coming just a few weeks before the winter session of Parliament, reflected the party’s resolve to take on the opposition aggressively, particularly the BJP. “They constantly obstruct the working of Parliament. Why do they do this? There is one clear answer to this, which is that they don’t want public welfare laws to be passed; they don’t want to discuss important national issues," she said, adding that those who talked about corruption now find themselves in the “muck of graft".

Both the Prime Minister and Rahul Gandhi, too, defended the government. “It was BJP which first talked of FDI (foreign direct investment). They had a weak heart, we are strong-hearted and so we did. But when we did it, they said ‘no’ to it in Parliament," Rahul Gandhi said. “The farmers will benefit from FDI, the cold storages will go to them."

“At a time when there is a positive atmosphere for the country and the world says that India is emerging, the opposition is engaged in opposing every measure of the government without giving a thought to it," he said.

The UPA faced a political setback when three of its cabinet ministers, including one from the Congress party, had to quit over allegations of corruption. Recently, anti-graft activists led by activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal have made fresh allegations of misconduct in land deals by Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi. Janata Party chief Subramanian Swamy last week alleged charges of wrongdoing against Sonia and Rahul Gandhi over what he described as the “fraudulent" purchase of a firm that used to run two newspapers. Congress has denied both the charges.

In his speech on Sunday, Singh, however, focused on the economy. “The central government’s subsidy bill is increasing. In order to save ourselves (from economic losses), we took some tough decisions in increasing the price of petroleum products but we have also kept in mind the needs of the poor, which is why no increase in kerosene oil was done," Singh said.

Significantly, the Congress president continued to be the big draw and succeeded in striking a chord with the public. Although Rahul Gandhi is tipped to take over the reins of the party, his speech was not inspiring.

“Sonia Gandhi remains the most inspiring leader in the Congress now. She has the vibrancy and can create trust among the crowd through her body language," Badri Narayan, a political analyst and a professor at G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Jhusi, Allahabad.

“Sonia Gandhi told people very effectively that the opposition parties have been targeting us for no reason and that the people should know about it," Brahmanand Shinde, a party member from Maharashtra for over 40 years, said at the end of the rally. “The best part of the rally was the vigour of Sonia Gandhi, the way in which she gave her speech, the public was happy," Shinde, who liked the Congress president’s speech the most among all, said.

Experts concurred.

“The Congress has been attacked very strongly, both at personal and public levels," said B.G. Verghese, visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research. “When strong charges are made against you, you respond also strongly."

“It is not a show of strength but an attempt to show that people in India are supportive to the idea of opening Wal-Mart stores here," BJP leader Prakash Javadekar said. Asked about Sonia Gandhi targeting the opposition on corruption, Javadekar said: “It is like thieves blaming policemen for theft. The country has seen their corruption that starts from the Congress office. History will not forget CWG (Commonwealth Games), 2G (second-generation telecom spectrum) and coal scams."

Sahil Makkar contributed to this story.

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