The contours of the eagerly anticipated Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi clash are finally taking shape. It&’s going to be a battle by proxy and the theatre is Uttar Pradesh. Modi threw down the gauntlet by getting close aide Amit Shah appointed to oversee the BJP&’s election campaign in this politically important state. This week, Rahul accepted the challenge. He handpicked Madhusudan Mistry, who ran the winning Congress campaign in Karnataka on his behalf, to take Shah on.
The appointments add a delicious twist to the battle for the heartland. Both Mistry and Shah hail from the same state, Gujarat, and were once on the same side of the saffron divide. Mistry left the fold with Shankersinh Vaghela, the former BJP chief minister who crossed over to the Congress when he was drummed out of the parivar. But their saffron links are not the only similarity. Both Mistry and Shah are babes in the woods in UP. Neither has any previous experience of the state&’s politics. Nor do they understand the complexities of UP&’s caste equations, which have tripped better politicians than them in the past. Late prime minister V P Singh was among those who burnt their hands badly in UP&’s caste cauldron.
It&’s clear then that Mistry and Shah are merely front-desk men. They may be nominally in charge, but they will do the bidding of their masters.  By pushing in men they trust, Rahul and Modi have signaled the importance of the battle for the heartland. With 80 Lok Sabha seats up for grabs in the state, the one who bags the highest number will rule Delhi in 2014. UP then is where Rahul and Modi will take each other on.
The irony is that both seem to be taking the challenge from the regional satraps in Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav lightly. They seem to be suffering from the misplaced conviction that national parties are better equipped to fight a Lok Sabha election. Unlike the Congress and the BJP, however, the SP and BSP are grounded parties with solid grassroots organisations. Mayawati and Mulayam certainly know their UP better than Rahul and Modi. Who knows, they could run away with the prize, leaving their national opponents standing empty-handed in the ring.
Upstaging the Dikshits
Congress equations in Delhi are set to change with the appointment of Ajay Maken as chief of the party&’s high profile media department. Once a protégé of Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, Maken has turned into her main baiter. And while his new role may keep him out of her hair during the upcoming Delhi state polls, it gives him a huge leg-up in terms of visibility and status.
So, is Maken being groomed as his party&’s future face in the post-Sheila era? For some time now, Congress circles in Delhi have been buzzing with speculation that Sheila was pushing for her son and MP from east Delhi, Sandeep Dikshit, to take over from her. Sheila is, of course, a hot favourite with Rahul but the Gandhis have never taken kindly to the creation of smaller dynasties in the party. Note what happened to Y Rajasekhara Reddy&’s son Jaganmohan in Andhra Pradesh after his death. Jagan wanted to be his father&’s heir. He&’s now in jail, facing a CBI investigation into allegations of financial misdeeds.
Maken&’s appointment has put Sandeep in a piquant situation. Now that he heads the communications department, as the media cell is now called, will Maken supervise the party&’s panel of spokespersons, which includes Sandeep? In other words, is he now Sandeep&’s boss? Congress circles are agog with anticipation. Significantly, the day the organisational rejig was announced, Sheila Dikshit had a private meeting with Sonia Gandhi. Wonder whether the mothers discussed their sons?
Divided RSS
It is now abundantly clear that the elevation of Narendra Modi as the unchallenged head of the BJP&’s poll campaign committee did not have the blessings of the entire RSS. It seems that when party president Rajnath Singh bounced the plan off the Sangh&’s second-in-command, Bhaiyyaji Joshi, he was told that the party was free to take whatever decision it wanted provided there was consensus on it.
When the BJP national executive meet began in Goa, the Sangh&’s joint general secretary in charge of political affairs, Suresh Soni, flew in for consultations, as is the custom. It was he who prodded Rajnath to bite the Modi bullet and make the announcement, Advani or no Advani. He is reported to have told Rajnath that he represents the RSS and if Joshi were to raise any objections, he would handle them. Soni&’s confident words gave Rajnath the courage he needed and he bowed to pressure from the Modi-Arun Jaitley duo to defy Advani and go ahead with the appointment.