Gearing itself for the Gujarat Assembly elections in December, the Congress is trying hard to focus the electorate’s attention on local developmental issues and working to ensure that the spotlight does not fall on its prime minister-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi.
This is even as Narendra Modi, Chief Minister for over a decade, launched a month-long electoral campaign on Tuesday, slamming the Congress for “misusing” the CBI against him, and issuing a challenge to the Prime Minister to face a probe by a special investigation team into the coal blocks allocation.
“Mr. Modi is determined to turn these elections into a Gandhinagar versus Delhi contest,” sources in the Congress said adding, “but we want to keep the polls ‘local’.” For the Congress, pinned down by Coalgate, its strategy in a State, where it has not been in power since the early 1990s is to pick holes in Mr. Modi’s development model and hope, that under scrutiny, it will crack.
On Tuesday, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari, when asked to respond to Mr. Modi’s accusations on the coal blocks scandal, said: “On June 19 this year, a delegation of Congress MPs met the Central Vigilance Commissioner to submit a 750-page document of 17 scams in Gujarat, estimated to be worth Rs. 1.17 lakh crore. I want to ask the Gujarat Chief Minister whether he is ready for a special investigation team probe into these allegations. Is this the Gujarat model about which he is boasting?”
In the continuing season of scams, the Congress is pinning its hopes on being able to dent Mr. Modi's carefully cultivated aura of being a “Vikas Purush.”
The Congress sources also stressed that the party’s campaign would be handled by its “local leaders” who would take on Mr. Modi.
Mr. Gandhi would address some public meetings, they said, but the electoral battle would not be centred round him. The official response too was guarded.
Asked whether Mr. Gandhi would campaign in Gujarat as he had done in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, Mr. Tewari said State elections were fought on local issues and all senior leaders, who were asked to campaign there, would fulfil their responsibilities.
All this comes against the backdrop of the Gujarat Chief Minister’s prime ministerial ambitions for 2014, and a recent opinion poll conducted in 28 cities across the country by a Hindi news channel and Nielsen, in which Mr. Modi emerged as the favourite ahead of Mr. Gandhi.
Clearly, the beleaguered Congress cannot afford to take a risk with Mr. Gandhi’s fragile reputation again, so soon after his image took a severe beating after the party’s disastrous performance in U.P.: it needs to preserve him for the big battle in 2014.
For over a year now, the Congress has been trying hard to highlight the “loot” of the exchequer, as revealed in State Comptroller and Auditor-General reports, attempting to expose “hollow claims” on the developmental front made by the Modi government.
Simultaneously, the party has toned down criticism of his conduct during the 2002 carnage in the State.
Even the recent victory in the courts, where a former Minister of Mr. Modi’s government, Maya Kodnani, was arrested for her role in the 2002 riots, and sentenced to 28 years in jail, is not being played up.
But can the Congress destroy the Modi mystique?
Earlier this year, in a battle fought in cyberland, the Congress tried to generate negative votes for Mr. Modi in a Time-sponsored poll about the 100 most influential people. But he remained bang in the centre of the frame.
And, now in the recent opinion poll, there he is, apparently the hero of urban India, ahead of Mr. Gandhi.