The sense of despondency that appears to have overtaken several senior leaders of the Indian National Congress, to the extent of shying away from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when they should be ideally leading from the front, manifests not great moral dilemmas but lack of confidence. Most noticeable among the big guns in the Congress who chose not to contest this time include the Union Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, and the Shipping Minister, G.K. Vasan, both from their Tamil Nadu home turf, and Defence Minister A.K. Antony, who was under some pressure to contest from Kerala. The ‘not contesting’ list includes some of the equally resplendent faces relatively lower down in the party hierarchy, like the Information and Broadcasting Minister, Manish Tiwari, whose Ludhiana seat in Punjab was given to Ravneet Singh Bittu this time. Some of these leaders are sitting Rajya Sabha members like Mr. Antony, and there are some others whose terms in the Upper House are due to end shortly. There is also a third group of leaders who have traditionally favoured the Rajya Sabha route to Parliament. The reasons adduced range from ushering in the younger generation — as in the case of Mr. Chidambaram who opted out of his long-held Sivaganga turf for his son Karti Chidambaram — taking on larger campaigning responsibilities in their respective States as with Mr. Antony, to a few other Congress leaders prematurely feeling bearish about the poll prospects for want of a proper regional ally, as exemplified in Tamil Nadu.
However, in stepping aside it is not so much their reasons for not contesting this election, however valid personally or logistically they may be, that have triggered hard questions, but the wider political context in which these decisions have been made. There could have even been rumblings within over finding safe seats. The larger issue, nonetheless, is that when the country faces one of its most challenging general election in the coalition era, amid fears of communal forces gaining the upper hand as brought out in opinion polls, senior Congress leaders keeping away from the heat and dust of an electoral contest is most likely to send the wrong signals over an already discounted performance of the UPA government. The consolidation that the Congress could have hoped for — leadership transition issues notwithstanding — in further cementing its inclusive agenda and gains from solid anti-poverty programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, may have been unwittingly lost in this retreat of some senior leaders. Yet, there are several exceptions of seniors like Mani Shankar Aiyar, Kamal Nath and Ajit Jogi soldiering on in challenging circumstances.