Rahul stumbling, but Modi not yet a clear winner

The election scene is becoming clearer as the December 8 deadline of the assembly poll results draws near.

Since the Congress' hope of the dynasty energising the campaign hasn't come true, the party is seemingly banking on the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to ferret out the indiscretions of Narendra Modi and Co.

Apart from the fake encounter (extra-judicial killings by the state) cases in which Modi's Man Friday, Amit Shah, is implicated, the so-called snooping episode where a "big boss", code named sahib, reportedly ordered Shah to carry out the surveillance of a woman, is dominating the news channels.

No one knows what these investigations will uncover. But one thing is clear. Modi is no longer as brazenly confident as he used to be. It isn't only his embarrassing gaffes over historical episodes, including a faulty reference to his party's founder, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, which have put him on the back foot. He is now even pretending to be the injured party by voicing suspicions about conspiracies against him by sections of the "elite" in Delhi.

Moreover, by making a mistake over Gandhi's name - Modi thinks the Mahatma's first name was Mohanlal and not Mohandas - he has confirmed that he needs to brush up on his knowledge of history.

The fact that the combative he-man has come to believe that all is not going as well for him as he had expected is evident from his attempt to evoke sympathy by claiming that the privileged groups are targeting him because of his humble background as a chai-wallah (tea vendor).

True, a Samajwadi Party spokesman overshot the mark by arguing that a chai-wallah cannot become prime minister. But a more self-assured person would have laughed off the silly remark which Modi initially did by saying that he only sold tea, not the country. His pointing of fingers at unnamed conspirators suggests that he has begun to feel the heat, especially since crowds have not always been as large as he expected, as in several Madhya Pradesh towns recently.

For Rahul Gandhi, the gatherings have generally been below par, especially in a Delhi locality where groups of women even began to leave - in search of drinking water, as chief minister Sheila Dikshit explained. It has been no different in the case of Sonia Gandhi.

What the unsatisfactory turnouts indicate is that the dynasty has lost much of its earlier appeal. Yet, the Congress has no alternative but to depend on the party's first family because there is no one else in the organization who can enthuse the audience - neither Manmohan Singh nor any of his cabinet colleagues.

In the party itself, all that senior functionaries like Digvijay Singh can do is to wage a propaganda war on Twitter. But, since the effect of these battles in cyber space is unclear, the prospects of a party have still to be judged in the old-fashioned way of counting heads at public meetings.

To be fair to Rahul, it has to be said that he is giving his best. For the first time in his still brief political life - which has been marked by absenteeism from parliament - he has been on the road for a considerable period of time, even claiming to have suffered a tummy upset by drinking unfiltered water.

It goes without saying that he not only remains the party's best bet, but the only one. His problem, however, is that the Manmohan Singh government's failures over the last few years leading to an economic slump, low investment, high inflation, decline in the value of the rupee and the like have left him with little to say.

To make matters worse, he appears to have taken the wrong track by focussing on the Congress's concern for the poor, which only confirms the government's inability to improve their lot.

This pro-poor line paid political dividends in Indira Gandhi's time when the prevailing destitution was higher than at present. But its reiteration now is, first, a criticism of the economic reforms and, secondly, a hint that the party's mother-and-son duo favour the paternalistic mai-baap sarkar concept of a state-controlled economy with its emphasis on hand-outs like the rural employment scheme and the food security law.

This is an attitude which will alienate not only the middle class but even Rahul's targeted audience of the underprivileged who want to do well in life as a result of a buoyant economy and not be dependent on official doles.

It is not only Rahul's speeches which lack variety. Modi, too, sticks to his chosen text - development - in the place of the Congress's "vote bank" policies. Both of them, who have become virtually the sole spokesmen of their parties, have however avoided being specific about their economic line - whether statist or pro-market. The two are evidently playing safe.

Modi talks of development without mentioning capitalism and Rahul Gandhi refers to a benevolent state but not the licence-permit-control raj.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at amulyaganguli@gmail.com)

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