The frontrunner to become prime minister after the five-week
election starting on Monday is opposition Hindu nationalist leader
Narendra Modi, although opinion polls suggest he will fall short of
a majority and will need to form a coalition.
On Friday, the last major poll before the election had the BJP and
its allies winning up to 246 seats in the 543-member parliament.
Congress, which has ruled India for over 50 of the 67 years since
independence, was forecast to win between 111-123.
Apparently resigned to a poor performance in this election, some
Congress insiders have started trying to put a positive spin on a
likely spell in opposition.
"Being in opposition in democratic politics gives a great
opportunity to the party," Mani Shankar Aiyar, a senior Congress
official and former government minister, told Reuters. "We need to
democratize the party."
Another senior party member said: "This is a tough election. At the
moment, the BJP appears to have an advantage."
Officially, Congress says the opinion polls have got it wrong and it
will emerge as the single largest party.
"We're extremely confident," said party spokesman Sanjay Jha. "After
Rahul Gandhi said we'll win, we've been especially upbeat. Poll
findings will have no bearing."
Nevertheless, some Congress members have said the inability of
43-year-old Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty,
to effectively counter Modi has led to its woes. And although Gandhi
has vowed to revitalize the party, they doubt he has the acumen to
eventually lead it back to power.
Some senior members of Congress favor his younger sister Priyanka,
the Times of India newspaper said this week. It quoted senior
general secretary Janardan Dwivedi as saying that Priyanka Gandhi
had been interested in "political developments and the language of
politics" since an early age.
In a party where Rahul Gandhi is at least publicly seen as the
unquestioned heir, the report created a storm.
Jha, the Congress spokesman, said the comments about Priyanka Gandhi
were speculative. "She's not said anything personally. I would say
any statement on what she will do in the future is a matter of
speculation," he said.
Priyanka has restricted her political activities to supporting her
brother and campaigning in her mother Sonia Gandhi's constituency.
But many Congress faithful see her easy campaign style and marked
resemblance to her grandmother, former prime minister Indira Gandhi,
as a sign that she could revive the party's fortunes.
DOESN'T HAVE CONFIDENCE
On the stump, Rahul Gandhi, the son, grandson and great-grandson of
former prime ministers, draws crowds but even those in the audience
do not fancy his chances.
Kept waiting for hours, thousands of listless young supporters in
Aurangabad, a down-at-heel district in Bihar state, come alive as
Gandhi's helicopter descends, throwing up a plume of dust.
With a designer stubble and wearing white cotton 'kurta' tunic over
blue jeans, Gandhi strides onto a rickety stage. Pushing up his
sleeves, he appeals in his speech to core Congress voters.
"We want the poor to feel that they are a part of this nation. This
is our dream for India," Gandhi tells a crowd that appears enthused
more by his celebrity appeal than his rhetoric.
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Despite criticism that his brand of Hindu nationalist politics is
divisive, Modi has dominated the campaign. He has focused on
effective government and creating jobs, which has resonated better
with the country's 815 million voters.
Congress, which has been in
power for the last decade, has struggled to overcome a series of
corruption scandals, slowing economic growth and an inability to
At the election meeting, insurance agent Dharmendra Singh came early
to get a ringside view of Gandhi. But he will cast his vote for
Modi, impressed by a stint working in the western state of Gujarat
which the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate has led for the past
"There's no graft. There's 24-hour electricity," says the
25-year-old. "I want to see Narendra Modi as prime minister."
Away from the rally, teacher Kamala Devi has come to Aurangabad to
visit the district school office. A lifelong Congress voter, she
shakes her head vigorously when asked about Rahul Gandhi.
"He doesn't take a stand. He doesn't have confidence," says Devi,
56. "What they want to do is good. Their thinking is good, but they
don't get things done."
The turning point of the election campaign, many analysts say, was
Gandhi's first major television interview in January, which he
Asked if he was afraid of losing the election to Modi, he replied in
the third person: "Rahul Gandhi and millions of youngsters in this
country want to change the way the system in this country works.
Gandhi appeared nervous and ill-prepared and the interview was
widely criticized as a public relations disaster. He has not given
any others since.
"How can he reform the system that made him what he is?" said Mohan
Guruswamy, a political analyst. "It would have been a smart strategy
if he was an outsider. But now it looks contrived."
Although any talk of a role Priyanaka Gandhi may have in Congress is
nascent, it has begun. One strategist, however, described her as an
ace in the sleeve, and not to be used now.
"There's the feeling that this is not the best election in terms of
our prospects, so why waste our ace?" said the strategist, who, like
others, spoke on condition of anonymity due the sensitivity of the
(Additional reporting by Nigam Prusty in New Delhi and Sharat
Pradhan in Lucknow; editing by Douglas Busvine and Raju
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