Modi ups ante; Cong plays catch up ~ kalyani shankar
The two main national parties – the BJP and the Congress – are getting into poll mode. Hectic preparations are on in 9 Ashoka Road and 24 Akbar Road with meetings and strategy sessions giving an indication of the fight ahead.
The BJP has stolen a march with its campaign committee chief Narendra Modi launching off ahead of the Congress. He has already visited Delhi, Punjab and Orissa, addressed workers in Bihar, and is making preparations to visit Hyderabad soon. His controversial statements have kept him on the front page of newspapers and in TV channel discussions.
Secondly, Modi has established his supremacy within the party after  BJP chief Rajnath Singh set up 20 committees for election preparedness this week. Although the old guard finds some place in these committees, the fact that everyone other than L.K.Advani and Rajnath Singh report to Modi has established him within the party hierarchy. He has effectively edged out his rivals. So for all purposes the BJP team is ready to march.
However, is it all that smooth for the BJP? Modi is untested outside Gujarat and the BJP has taken a huge gamble putting all its eggs in Modi&’s basket. Will the new team be cohesive?  Will other senior leaders like Sushma Swaraj, Nitin Gadkari, Arun Jaitley and Murli Manohar Joshi work under Modi or sulk?  Above all, the BJP&’s decision to go back to its basics while holding on to the development plank may or may not work. Shiv Sena&’s reluctance to endorse Modi’s leadership should also worry the party.
The challenge for Modi is to launch a sustained campaign, as he has begun too early and may peak soon.  Congress-bashing and media publicity alone may not get new voters, as the BJP has to come out with concrete programmes. People want to know how prices will be contained, inflation would be brought down and the economy would be lifted up. But he has made one thing certain – that while he may be criticized or condemned he cannot be ignored.
The immediate challenge is to ensure victory in Assembly elections to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Delhi. The stakes are high for Shivraj Singh Chauhan (chief minister of M.P) and Raman Singh (chief minister of Chattisgarh). It is not Modi but the performance of Chauhan and Raman Singh that would get them votes. In Rajasthan the party is depending on the anti-incumbency factor and on the popularity of former chief minister Vasundhara Raje. The BJP is reconciled to losing Delhi for a fourth time.  Getting one more state would make the atmosphere better for the party. The Congress is also chalking out its strategy to face the 2014 polls. Party vice-president Rahul Gandhi has taken over the management after becoming the campaign coordinator The war room is set up, generals to fight the war are identified, foot soldiers are getting ready to take their place and in short an atmosphere is being built up.
The biggest challenge for the Congress is to improve its connectivity with the electorate and also its communication skills.  The image of the party and the government is sagging.
It is going to be difficult to energize the party when Sonia Gandhi is slowly taking a back seat and Rahul Gandhi is still a reluctant leader. The old guard feels left out while the younger leaders are pampered. The organization has to be energized in many states including U.P and Bihar. The Congress citadels like Andhra Pradesh are shaking.
The other challenge is the slide in the economy, price rise and inflation, which are beyond control. The manufacturing sector, industrial sector and other areas are in decline. The fiscal deficit and trade deficit are growing. The new reform measures are yet to take effect. The party is depending heavily on its welfare measures including the Food Security bill to bail it out. The Congress needs to propagate the government&’s achievements and defend the scams.
The immediate goal is to arrest Modi&’s rise politically but Modi&’s strident style is helping the Congress in a way and so are his efforts at polarizing the voters. Modi is the best bet for the Congress which feels that the Muslim voters may turn to it as they did in the 2009 polls in UP and other states.
The next three months are crucial as by November it has to face polls in four states. While the BJP has strong state leaders, the Congress has not developed any. The Congress managers are keen to ensure at least status quo is maintained so that the electoral atmosphere for the 2014 may be favorable.
Secondly, Rahul Gandhi has been spared so far from Modi&’s tongue lashing except when he talks of the dynasty. The Congress is quite relieved, as it does not want a personality clash in the elections. It suits the party to keep the Gandhi family above all these debates.
Thirdly, the Congress would like to make the 2014 elections a contest between communalism and secularism. The BJP has fallen into this trap by talking with a forked tongue and bringing back its core issues like Ram mandir. Modi himself is a divisive figure.
The battle has just begun and it is too early to predict the future. In the case of a hung Parliament, the Congress is better placed than the BJP in getting more allies. It all depends on how successful the two parties are in projecting themselves. And improving their electoral chances.