New Delhi: Scotching speculation that she is keeping a low profile, Congress president Sonia Gandhi—widely credited with crafting the Congress’s 2009 election win—seems to be getting ready at last to plunge into the election campaign with a heavily packed campaign schedule that will see her criss-cross the nation.
Despite apparent ill-health, Gandhi, who has passed on many of her party responsibilities to son Rahul Gandhi in the run-up to the April-May general election, is expected to address at least two rallies in nearly every state, said a person familiar with the developments.
Gandhi is scheduled to kick off her hectic schedule with election rallies in Assam on Saturday and New Delhi on Sunday. She is expected to be in Bihar on 1 April to attend two rallies in Sasaram, the constituency of Meira Kumar, Speaker of the outgoing Lok Sabha.
The Congress party chief is also travelling to Jharkhand, Odisha and Maharashtra in the first week of April, having attended two rallies in Kerala last month. Lok Sabha elections are scheduled to be held in nine phases beginning on 7 April and ending on 12 May. The counting will take place on 16 May. Congress, which has been in power since 2004, faces a strong anti-incumbent mood, according to several opinion polls, and is struggling to keep its strongholds intact.
The party’s main political opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is projected to have a clear edge over the Congress, under a cloud after soaring inflation and a series of corruption charges involving its leaders.
Sonia Gandhi, 67, who has been the centre of Congress activity over the last decade, appears to have deliberately taken a back seat in the key process of candidate selection and campaign strategy for this election.
Her partial retreat from the centrestage has been attributed by some to her apparent ill-health—Gandhi was treated in the US for an undisclosed illness in 2011—and her attempts to create a generation shift in the party.
Congress leaders familiar with the developments said it was Rahul Gandhi, 43, who took key decisions regarding party strategy. He has already addressed 20 rallies and attended public meetings in Karnataka, Odisha, Maharashtra, Gujarat and North eastern states among others. He also held 27 interactions for drafting the party manifesto, which was launched on Wednesday
However, political observers said senior most Congress leaders—other than the Gandhis—appear to be missing from the election scene while Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, has been unleashing a torrent of criticism on the party and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government that it leads at the Centre. Modi has already addressed more than 100 public rallies and is scheduled to address 185 more covering 295 Lok Sabha constituencies.
The BJP has prepared a schedule of many of its senior leaders and chief ministers for campaigning across the country. The list includes party chief Rajnath Singh, senior leaders Arun Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari, Sushma Swaraj and even disgruntled patriarch L.K. Advani, who have all been asked to campaign in states other than those where their own election constituencies are. At least three Congress leaders, including one general secretary, said on condition of anonymity that although the election campaign was heating up, many senior leaders of the Congress were not visible. One of them pointed out that defence minister A.K. Antony did not issue any statement after Modi’s attack on him on Wednesday accusing him of playing into Pakistan’s interests. Similarly, petroleum minister M. Veerappa Moily failed to articulate a defence when the Aam Aadmi Party and its leader Arvind Kejriwal repeatedly attacked him with allegations of collusion with corporate houses over gas pricing.
While the Congress party in its list of star campaigners submitted to the Election Commission has named Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, missing from it as of Thursday are the names of finance minister P. Chidambaram and A.K. Antony.
This list however can be updated ahead of other phases.
Among notable heavyweights missing from the national scene are Chidambaram, who is busy in Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu, where his son Karti P. Chidambaram is contesting the election, and urban development minister Kamal Nath, who is contesting from Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh.
Also absent is Mani Shankar Aiyar, who stirred a hornet’s nest after referring to Modi as a tea seller, prompting the BJP to launch its chai pe charcha outreach programme. Home minister Sushilkumar Shinde has not been seen or heard defending the party or its policies.
“It’s true that many senior Congress leaders behave as if this election should be fought only by the Congress president and vice-president. It’s also a fact that both the leaders (Gandhis) on the public front and Priyankaji (Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra) in the background are the most active. At a time when the party has to be on the offensive, most of them (front-ranking leaders) have withdrawn,” said a senior party leader who has been active in the party’s preparation for elections since the late 1980s.
Political analysts say Congress leaders appear to have given up already. “Congress leaders may be reconciled to the party’s destiny because they must be feeling it is going to lose,” said Bidyut Chakrabarty, professor, department of politics in Delhi University. “But there is also a slow but definite change in the leadership in the Congress party.
“Rahul Gandhi’s moves have not been appreciated by the senior leaders. In their heart of hearts, they feel that they will not be a given due place in his realm of affairs,” Chakrabarty said. This, he added, could be the reason for the leaders’ apparent disinterest in the ongoing election campaign. However, Congress spokesperson Shobha Ojha defended the seniors’ silence, saying it’s not worth the party’s while to respond to all of Modi’s charges. “Most of the remarks and the allegation made by the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate are baseless and without any evidence to substantiate. One does not feel it is important to react. Many of them are not serious in nature,” Ojha said.
Young leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot are expected to attend rallies after voting takes place in their respective states. Scindia, asked if he will campaign in other states, said: “Yes, but post-Madhya Pradesh elections...wherever the party decides.”