New Delhi: Rahul Gandhi staked his party’s claim to lead the next government, sent out feelers to constituents of the rival coalition headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and did not rule out the possibility of becoming a minister in the next government should the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) come back to power.
Click here to watch video
Till the campaign began, he was content to focus on building the party, and avoided the limelight. Now, he has shouldered a major part of the campaign, visited 23 states, and addressed nearly 109 election meetings. In the past week, he has emerged as the face and voice of the party, even overshadowing his mother.
Gandhi expressed confidence about a possible revival of ties between the Congress and the Left, which supported the UPA without being part of the government for four years before breaking off over the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.
He said the Congress was open to a post-poll alliance with the Left, which is led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), as there was a “meeting ground” with the Communists. “On a lot of concepts, we agree with the Left, like education and health. There is a lot of meeting ground with the Left. There is absolutely no meeting ground with BJP,” he said. Gandhi, however, added that he personally felt the Left was hanging on to some old ideas.
The Left rebuffed Gandhi’s overture and termed it a sign of desperation. D. Raja, national secretary, Communist Party of India, said the Left was working to bring a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative to power at the Centre. “We withdrew support from the Congress-led government because we have serious differences with them. So, how can they expect us to extend support to them again? He (Gandhi) is saying all this because he is sensing his party’s defeat.”
Aggressive stance: Rahul Gandhi. Adnan Abidi / Reuters
Gandhi said he is confident the Congress will do better than it did in 2004, when it sent 145/152 representatives to the Lok Sabha. And he made it clear that a party other than the Congress could head the UPA only if it won more seats than the Congress.
“We’ll do better than we did last time. In state after state where the BJP swept last time, they are going to lose seats and we are going to win,” he said.
The BJP responded sharply to Gandhi’s comments. “We are not privy to the reason for Rahul Gandhi’s unfounded confidence. The remark of Gandhi vindicates the BJP stand that the UPA will emerge as political debris in the post-poll scenario, scavenging for survival,” the party’s spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy said.
The UPA and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are the main contenders in the general election slated to end on 13 May. The counting in 543 constituencies will take place on 16 May.
Rahul Gandhi also claimed the NDA was on the retreat. He said the NDA’s partners were looking for the alliance because “it exists only in the mind of the BJP. NDA does not exist on the ground. It is gone.” The young Gandhi also ruled out the possibility of the Congress supporting anyone other than Manmohan Singh as prime minister. In response to a question on Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar’s candidature for prime ministership, he said this could happen “if NCP becomes the biggest party in India”.
“If Congress becomes the biggest party, then we have already decided that Manmohan Singh will be (the) automatic choice. He is an extremely dynamic leader and he has done terrific things for the country... He is the best prime minister for the country.”
Gandhi’s media offensive has changed his perception among political analysts. N. Bhaskar Rao, chairman of Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies and a psephologist who has been closely following election campaigns and personalities in the country for the past three decades, says he had “underestimated Rahul Gandhi”.
“His performance in Parliament was very poor. But since he launched the campaign for this election, we are seeing a leader who has potential. He has emerged as more confident and effective.”
During the hour-long conference, the representative from Amethi also made overtures to some NDA allies such as Bihar’s Janata Dal (United) and Tamil Nadu’s main opposition All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, terming them “like-minded parties”. He also praised former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party, a rival of the Congress in that state.
Gandhi, who has usually evaded questions on ministership, said: “I will continue to work for the youth unless I am forced by the prime minister and my boss (Congress president), which they can do. But personally, I prefer to work for the youth.”
Gandhi was candid about allegations that the Central Bureau of Investigation was being misused by the ruling party. He said this was a “systemic issue” and that “all parties put pressure on the insitutions when they are in power”. He also admitted that it was “undemocratic” that the Congress was still led by a Gandhi. “But it’s the reality... My position gives me certain privileges... It is a fact of life in India that success in politics depends on who you know or are related to,” he said, adding: “I want to change the system of which I am a result. It’s ironic, but that’s the way it is.”
Ruhi Tewari and Santosh K. Joy contributed to this story.