Home / Politics / Policy /  Will 2014 be Rahul vs Modi after all?

New Delhi: The Indian National Congress on Monday sent out the clearest signal yet of its intent to nominate party vice-president Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate, setting the stage for a face-off with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) choice, Narendra Modi, in the 2014 general election.

Even as a final decision seems likely only in January, the Congress’ move-in-the-making has raised the political stakes for both men. A loss for the Congress, widely predicted by many opinion polls and experts, could raise serious questions about Gandhi’s political leadership. If it wins, unlikely as that seems at this point in time for a party that suffered severe setbacks in the recent assembly elections, Gandhi will silence his critics—within and outside the party.

Congress secretary Priya Dutt, who addressed the media at the Congress headquarters in New Delhi on Monday, said there was a “consensus" in the party over anointing the 43-year-old Gandhi as the party’s nominee for the post of prime minister. “Right now Congress party wishes that Rahul is projected as PM candidate... If this announcement is made, we all will be very happy. Right now there is a consensus in the party on his leadership... Today we feel people are looking at a face," Dutt said.

Dutt was then pointedly asked if the youth in the party think Gandhi should be named as the candidate for the prime minister’s post in the All India Congress Committee (AICC) session to be held on 17 January.

Her comments acquire significance in the context of party president Sonia Gandhi’s comments on 7 December, responding to her party’s loss in four assembly elections, when she hinted that the Congress would also name its own prime ministerial candidate.

It was always clear that Rahul Gandhi would lead the Congress into the election, explained Dutt, but this was never articulated. “His projection has never been aggressive, unlike some others that we see today," Dutt said in an indirect reference to Modi.

Ever since his nomination by the BJP as the prime ministerial candidate in July, Modi has sought to create a narrative that pits himself against Rahul Gandhi. It is a rare public meeting when Modi does not make a jibe or two at Gandhi. Political observers have interpreted Modi’s focus on Gandhi as an attempt to turn their political rivalry into a personality battle.

After results for four state assembly elections were announced on 8 December, the BJP leadership categorically stated it was a verdict on the political leadership of Rahul Gandhi and that the ruling party should look for an alternative leader.

Despite pressure from the rank and file of the party, the Congress’s leadership has thus far resisted a long-standing demand to formally nominate Gandhi for the top job.

In the recent round of state polls, the Congress lost the elections to the ruling BJP in Madhya Pradesh, where its tally came down from 71 to 58 in the 230-member assembly. In Rajasthan, where it was the ruling party, it was reduced to just 21 representatives in the 200-member state assembly. And in Delhi, which it has ruled for 15 years, the Congress dropped to the third position, behind the BJP and the debutant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). It fared better than it had the last time in Chhattisgarh, where the BJP eventually prevailed.

While a section of the party blamed Gandhi’s poor leadership and decisions for the debacle, another section argued that the Congress vice-president should be empowered further. Dutt’s surprising admission at the party’s official platform reflects what the young (people in the party) feel, said a Congress lawmaker who did not want to be identified.

The AICC session is expected to chalk out the party’s strategy for the general election due in May 2014. At least two people familiar with the developments said the session is likely to witness a “generational change" in the party “more than ever". Gandhi, they said, would take more “decisions, incorporate more young people of his choice and plan programmes that would capture the imaginations of the youth."

The BJP has dismissed any changes in the political scenario with the likely anointment of Gandhi.

“No individual can save the Congress party in this election," said M. Venkaiah Naidu, a BJP parliamentary board member and former party president.

“The Congress party has every right to choose its leader, but people have already made up their mind and they want Narendra Modi as the prime minister. It is the prerogative of the Congress party to decide and the decision of the people to reject that decision."

Naidu pointed out that the Congress, once in alliance with key regional parties, has been left with very few choices now. “Six months are left for the Lok Sabha election and the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) has already announced that it will not align with the Congress. The Trinamool Congress had left the alliance long back. It seems the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party are also waiting for the right time to withdraw support to the Congress party," he added.

Jai Mrug, a Mumbai-based political analyst, said Gandhi remains the best choice in the given scenario for the Congress. “Rahul Gandhi has so far been distanced from the government. Whatever little credibility the Congress can claim is on persons outside the government. Therefore, he fits the bill," Mrug said.

Still, he admitted that Gandhi’s anointment might not make much of a difference in the election. “The voters have seen two terms of the UPA (Congress-led United Progressive Alliance) government. They have made up their mind and will not modify it."

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