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Polls 2014

Great Expectations

 

The Congress goes into a feverish overdrive to project Rahul Gandhi as prime minister while the BJP believes Narendra Modi is already there. Pramod Kumar and Anil Pandey report
PRAMOD KUMAR AND ANIL PANDEY | Issue Dated: March 2, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Congress | Rahul Gandhi |
 

A look at the interim budget this year will make it evident that it is virtually the election manifesto of the UPA government. It lays down the background of a prolonged electoral battle ahead that the party is gearing up for under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi to take them into the choppy waters of General Elections 2014.

Since it could well turn out to be a make-or-break campaign for Rahul in his bid for the country’s top job, the Gandhi family is firmly in command of the poll campaign. The 2014 full-blitz Congress campaign is, according to party leaders, based on ‘scientific’ inputs.

From the anointment of Rahul as vice-president Congress to the Jaipur Vichar Manthan to the special AICC session in Delhi where parameters for party discipline were strongly laid down, all are but one long chain of events organised with one singular view – the succession of Rahul Gandhi as the country’s prime minister.
With Narendra Modi as the arch rival, expect nothing less from the Congress. Party strategists are aware that if the party does badly at the hustings, people will cease to take Rahul seriously as a prime ministerial candidate. Hence party president Sonia Gandhi is herself directly involved in this Rahul-led campaign which has suddenly deluged the media – TV, papers, radio and social networks.

As the major thrust of the campaign, the UPA government’s accomplishments are going to be reflected in their social programmes – or more specifically the gains accrued from welfare schemes launched by Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC). These include RTI, Right to Education and Food Security Bill; to Rahul’s credit will go the 12 gas cylinder allotments annually or his attempts to get round the decades old one-pension one-rank scheme promoted just last week by the Congress scion at a meeting of ex-servicemen.

It is worth recalling that when Sonia Gandhi left abroad for medication, the affairs of the party was left in the hands of P Chidambaram, Ahmed Patel, Pranab Mukherjee (then Union minister) and Digvijay Singh. On her return, the news Sonia got was hardly designed to provide confidence: all her chosen few had spent time fighting with each other in her absence trying hard to impose himself as the supreme leader. It left with the Congress president no choice but to reach the inevitable conclusion that the party was safest in the hands of the family; Jaipur’s Chintin Shivir to promote Rahul Gandhi as the supreme leader then just became a matter of time. The baton of the unified command in the party, particularly its organizational affairs, had been neatly passed on to Rahul after Jaipur.

When the 10 Janpath-based Congress core committee met to work out and nuts and bolts of the overall Rahul campaign, they realized that the plan to initiate reforms in the Youth Congress that had been started by the Congress vice-president had been stymied by party leaders. During the UP assembly election campaign of 2012, senior Congress leaders had issued controversial statements and their infighting was seen as impediments in Rahul’s growth trajectory.

In September last year, senior party leaders Ahmed Patel, Janardan Dwivedi, AK Anthony, P Chidambaram, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Digvijay Singh and Kumar Selja advised Sonia that a special AICC session be convened in Delhi where Rahul should make it clear that decisions about the party could not be taken inside closed doors; party workers should be involved at all stages, including selection of Lok Sabha candidates. Importantly – and this could have future repercussions – the emphasis would have to be placed on new faces and winnable candidates. If old candidates did not fit these criteria, their names would be ruthlessly chopped off the list.

At the AICC special session, when it came to adopting the political resolution, some youth members were quite vocal asking those present to “Build a new Congress for Rahul’’ and do away with those who were becoming a liability for the party.  While presenting his set of proposals, this ginger group led by Mukul Wasnik while praising the role of Sonia Gandhi hinted obliquely that Manmohan Singh’s achievements, particularly in UPA 2, could not be enough for the party to win elections; instead what was needed was a larger than life role for Rahul to adequately counter Narendra Modi’s rising influence.

To achieve its end, Wasnik suggested that specialized ad companies need to be hired to take Rahul Gandhi’s image building projection to a level where it can become effective. In their considered view, more than 47 percent voters in India were young and it was among them that the Congress vice-president had to make his mark. According to a party leader, this ‘scientific’ approach will also be required in preparing the party manifesto.

 Soon after the AICC special session, a number of companies made presentations to the Congress high command but Japanese company Dentsu was chosen over the other suitors. According to party sources, this Japanese company could make a political appraisal related to food habits, clothes and customs of voters. The company also suggested that to counter Modi’s emotion-laden pitch, it was important that certain announcements be made in the interim budget which would give a clear signal to the people that the government meant business and that it could deliver, notwithstanding charges of corruption and inflation. Dentsu suggested that long standing issues like supply of gas cylinders to BPL kitchens, one rank-one pension scheme, loan waivers and subsidies to farmers be announced – and that is what happened during the interim budget.

It is keeping this in mind that Rahul’s many photos with youth workers is currently swamping TV screens, newspapers and dominating the general media blitz. The Japanese company is also in charge of the overall publicity coordination of Rahul Gandhi. According to all indications, his new media blitz has been well received; which means Dentsu is in the good books of the party.  The chain of developments that have followed the Jaipur Chintin Shivir has placed Rahul at centre piece of the Congress poll campaign. According to the road map laid out by the Japanese company, Rahul should spent more time with young voters so that his voice can be heard loud and clear. That is also the finding of the survey and research carried out by Dentsu and Rahul’s support team. Says Congress general secretary BK Hari Prasad: “It has been decided that Rahul is going to spent most of his time with young voters because tomorrow belongs to them. It is important for him to meet such people and gauge for himself what they want.’’ Rahul’s itinerary is decided by the war room at his 12 Tughlaq Road residence headed by Kanishka Singh - son of former foreign secretary SK Singh. There is yet another parallel group which functions as his advisers; this includes Mukul Wasnik, Jairam Ramesh, Ghulam Nabi Azad and some senior party functionaries whose job it is to provide inputs to Rahul when required. The decision on holding a Rahul meeting, who he should meet, what he should say - an audience with students is naturally going to be different from a meeting with  panchayat heads – is decided by Rahul and sister Priyanka who put their final seal of approval.

According to sources, two days before the interim budget was presented, Rahul met with ex-servicemen and assured them that their demand would be included in the interim budget and it was because of this assurance that last minute changes were introduced in the budget to include this long-standing demand. Says BJP’s Jaswant Singh: “Even though it is right that the one-rank one-pension scheme has been introduced in the interim budget, this is no way to entice servicemen. That is not right.’’  Counters information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari: “Jaswant Singh was union minister for finance, defence and foreign minister. He did nothing. Now he sees politics in the Congress move.’’

Likewise, students from Bangalore who were demanding a waiver on their educational loans have been accommodated. According to one estimate, nearly nine lakh students are going to benefit from this exemption prompted by Rahul.

Needless to say, at the apex of the Congress campaign is party president Sonia Gandhi. Keeping the elections in view, she is tinkering with the party organization wherever required. She has with her a list of 50 leaders whose job it will be to visit specific areas according to their expertise and interact with voters: most importantly they will be told what to say and what not to say. The party is petrified of a situation where a leader like Beni Verma issued off-the-cuff statements during the UP assembly elections and it was left to other party leaders to do damage control. Says Manish Tewari: “After the UP experience, seeing how party leaders made statements that landed the Congress in trouble, certain yardsticks have to be laid down. ”

According to Congress sources, since Rahul is the focal point of the campaign, it is only fair that he get his own pick inside the Lok Sabha. Therefore the Sonia-led central election committee has started finalising the list of party candidates for Odisha, Jharkhand and Karnataka. The Congress president and vice-president are extra sensitive about UP and are reportedly unhappy with the demands of certain state party leaders to change their constituencies. Instead, they want leaders like Beni Prasad Verma to make way for younger leaders. Says Congress observer for UP Madhusudan Mistry: “Names of candidates will be declared along with the election announcement so that they get enough time to canvass. The party also intends to hold an orientation programme for first time and young candidates."

While the results of these various maneuvers will be known only later, there is little doubt that the Gandhi family is worried about the outcome of the elections not just on the party but on themselves as well. Three members of the ruling family have their hands full, their schedules worked out till the end June. Clearly, the family is taking no chances.

  'AAP has been exposed'

Congress spokesman Mohan Prakash talks in an interview. Excerpts:

Rahul vs Modi. How do you see it?
Modi is the prime ministerial candidate for the opposition party. But it would be incorrect to say that he is a threat to Rahul. Only election results will prove how popular the BJP candidate is.
 
What will be the main issues in the elections?
Since we are in power, we will project our achievements. Our election manifesto will project a prosperous India. Our efforts will be to include the young and get tribal voters into the mainstream.

Inflation and corruption are two issues plaguing the Congress and Modi is leaving no stone unturned to highlight them.
The government has managed to control inflation. UPA 2 is interested in pushing growth rates. We have taken several steps to counter corruption. Whether it is the Congress or any of our allies, those who are corrupt have not been spared.

Do you see the Third Front as a challenge?
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has been exposed. The Congress supported them but they were caught in their self-created web. AAP had made promises but since they were unable to fulfill them, the Kejriwal government quit. Only time will tell how much of an impact AAP makes but the Third Front is no threat to us.

Rahul has been backing the induction of fresh faces in the party Lok Sabha list. How will the Congress get this mix of old and young candidates right?
When Rahul talked about new faces, he meant more inclusion of young faces, women and tribals. Naturally, it is the young who have to rule tomorrow. It is naturally going to upset some veterans but it is better to have fresh faces than time tested candidates who are unable to win elections. This time the party position is very clear: only those candidates who have the support of the local rank and file would be given tickets. There is no point imposing someone who has no local roots. Also party discipline is an important issue this time.

How much will AAP’s Kumar Vishwas impact Rahul’s chances from Amethi?
AAP has no influence out of Delhi. As for Kumar Vishwas’s candidature, there is no comparison between the two. that will be very evident when the elections are held.

According to poll surveys, the Congress could be restricted to double digits.  
Question marks have already been raised about these poll surveys.
 

 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017