In long-awaited speech, Rahul Gandhi tries to boost Congress party

NEW DELHI Fri Jan 17, 2014 7:22pm IST

1 of 4. Congress party vice president Rahul Gandhi speaks during the All India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting in New Delhi January 17, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Rahul Gandhi, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty scion, promised on Friday to combat corruption and warned of an opposition trying to split India on religious lines in his first speech since being named to head the embattled Congress party's campaign in a general election.

Broadcast live across India, the address was touted as a coming-of-age event for a 43-year-old politician struggling to follow in his family's footsteps as a statesman and fiery orator capable of galvanising a new generation of voters.

"We want to give the country anti-graft bills which will transform the country, punish the corrupt and protect the honest," Gandhi told a meeting of the ruling Congress party.

"Change is coming to the Congress party."

Flanked by his mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he often shouted into the microphone to hundreds of delegates in an impassioned speech aimed at firing up the party ranks.

His politically-powerful mother earlier said Rahul Gandhi would not be prime ministerial candidate, following a Congress tradition of naming leaders only after winning elections and also protecting her son from a likely election defeat.

Gandhi's speech was aimed at a resurgent Hindu nationalist opposition party and a new anti-corruption movement that have profited in opinion polls from the Congress Party's weakness as it tries for a third term in an election due by May.

Some senior ministers had pushed for Gandhi's name to be announced as prime ministerial candidate to help revitalise a party hit by corruption scandals and overseeing a moribund economy.

Sonia Gandhi's address was punctuated by chants of "Rahul PM" from some supporters in the stands.

Rahul's mother made clear that option was off the table, with some party members worried that it would expose him to a confrontational campaign against opposition leader Narendra Modi.

Modi, prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is seen as more charismatic.

ADDRESS STRESSES CONGRESS ACHIEVEMENTS

Rahul's speech underscored the touted achievements of the Congress party in its two terms of power and called for further efforts to protect the poor and the rights of women and religious minorities.

"We do not respond by turning people against one another, by lighting fires of communal hatred," he said to bursts of applause from party members. The Congress accuses Modi of a deep-seated bias against the country's Muslim minority and blames him for failing to control deadly riots in 2002.

Modi denies the allegations and a Supreme Court ordered investigation has absolved him of any responsibility.

Rahul's father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers in post-independence India,

But critics deride Gandhi as a political lightweight who depends on his family name for power and has barely registered his presence in parliament despite being a member for the last decade.

"The strength of Indian democracy will be proved when a former tea vendor defeats a dynasty representative," tweeted senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley, referring to Modi's more modest background. "Let this be the battle of 2014."

Prime Minister Singh conceded earlier this month that the government had failed to create manufacturing jobs, control inflation and combat corruption. He said he would step down and strongly suggested the reins be handed over to Gandhi.

But Gandhi has struggled to fight the new Common's Man Party (AAP), formed by an anti-corruption activist less than a year ago.

The AAP defeated Congress in New Delhi in a state election last month and plans to field candidates across India, increasing the chances of a weak coalition emerging from the general election.

(Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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