Ruling party leaders acknowledge that the going may be tough in the general elections, given the government’s handling of corruption and the economy.

Has the UPA government conceded defeat a good five months before the 2014 General Elections? And accepted that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, is giving it sleepless nights?

It would seem so if you take the recent statements made in quick succession by two of its ministers, both from the Congress. Last week Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Rural Development, gave a pretty good hint of the defeatist mood within the Congress echelons in his interview to Reuters.

The clear message was that all would not be over for the much younger Rahul Gandhi if the Congress emerged the loser in the coming election. But if the BJP failed to make it to power, “if Modi loses 2014, his story is over, his balloon is burst. If (Rahul) Gandhi does not do well in 2014, he is still going to be around”.

In the next breath Ramesh voiced the “frustration” of many senior Congress leaders over the lacklustre leadership of their vice-president and unnamed prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi when he said: “My frustration is that he (Rahul) is too forward-looking. He is talking of structure, systems; he’s talking of building up Congress in the long term whereas we are now faced with fighting an election in the short term.”

PC throws in the towel?

And now we have the much more powerful Finance Minister and senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram admitting that thanks to a mix of factors such as slowdown in economic growth, dysfunction in the executive and a plethora of corruption charges against the government, there was a feeling of “negativity” in the voter’s mind against the UPA.

Interacting with the media on the sidelines of the Think-Fest in Bambolim, Goa, Chidambaram said his government had made certain mistakes. “Now, we realise that if we look in retrospective effect, some policies could have been different”, to lessen the adverse impact on economic slowdown, inflation, corruption charges and the tepid job market. “This potent mix of factors has brought high degree of negativity towards the government,” he said.

While putting up a brave face on the UPA government’s ability to pull out of this crisis soon, Chidambaram was honest enough to admit that if the “negativity” in the voter’s mind could not be reversed, “then we’ll have to accept whatever verdict the people give”. He went as far as to admit the possibility that the UPA may have to pay a price for its failures in the upcoming polls.

Interestingly, while other Congress leaders have been dismissing the “Modi” effect as hype promoted mainly through the social media, Chidambaram tacitly accepted that Modi was indeed a “challenger” to the Congress. “We can’t ignore him. We have to take note of him.” Ramesh, while dubbing the BJP “the world’s greatest experts at hype”, conceded that “certainly Modi is somebody whom we have to contend with. We can’t just airbrush him aside”.

While Chidambaram refused to comment on the leadership provided by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he did say his “personal opinion” was it was time “to hand over the torch to the younger generation”.

Shaky political wicket

While politically neither Ramesh nor Chidambaram is a heavyweight — Ramesh is a Rajya Sabha MP and Chidambaram barely made it from his Sivaganga constituency in 2009 — both have substantial clout within the UPA government. Ramesh, an alumnus from IIT Bombay and Carnegie Mellon University, has been named the Congress convener of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and entrusted with its election strategy. Credited with the party’s pro-poor and pro-people policies, he is tech savvy and one of the Congress thinktanks capable of taking on the high-intensity social media campaign unleashed by Modi and the BJP.

With the DMK in sulk mood and the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa’s antipathy towards Chidambaram well known, speculation is rife in Tamil Nadu that one of her top priorities will be to ensure his defeat in the next election, and hence the Finance Minister may contest the 2014 Lok Sabha poll from Pudycherry.

But despite Ramesh’s non-existent political base and Chidambaram’s shaky wicket in his home State, both are considered among the brainiest in the Congress ranks. Not only their body language, but also the actual utterances in media interactions, have this tinge of defeatism and negativity regarding the Congress’s prospects in 2014. The adrenalin this will inject into Modi’s campaign and the BJP rank and file will be tremendous.

Call it pragmatism, reading the writing on the wall or defeatism, for them to say so is hugely significant. Ramesh, of course, qualified his comments in the Reuters interview by saying that while the Modi hype was confined to the social media, he was picking up opposite signals in remote parts of India.

The intelligentsia’s take

While all this is great news for Modi and his BJP, what must be worrying both would be the gentle, and yet firm, voices of people like writer and historian Rajmohan Gandhi, who said in a recent interview that Sardar Patel, whose legacy Modi is claiming so righteously and vigorously, would certainly not have endorsed him as successor.

This grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and biographer of the country’s first home minister, said at the time of the Gujarat 2002 riots, Patel wouldn’t have felt Modi had fulfilled his ‘rajdharma’, a word the Prime Minister of the day, A.B.Vajpayee had used then to censure Modi. “I think it is quite obvious that he (Patel) would have been very disappointed, very pained and saddened not only as an Indian statesman but also as coming from Gujarat, that this should not have happened in Gujarat and the government of the time was not able to prevent it,” said Gandhi.

In another television discussion on Sunday where Gandhi’s recent book on Punjab was being discussed against the backdrop of Indians no longer being interested in issues such as communal tension or secularism, wanting only development and economic growth that Modi is pushing so earnestly, Gandhi said that the attempt to “paper over” the underlying communal tensions in society, thinking that “development would unite everybody” was a dangerous premise.

And then he went ahead to say he was optimistic about the future because “the people of India, and I would say the people of Pakistan, are on the whole wonderful people. They may have prejudices but they don’t want to fight and hate and kill. And they keep their prejudices under control…. Pakistanis are not all horrible people and Pakistanis must not think that Indians and Hindus are all horrible people. They are not.”

Today, it does require courage to say that Pakistanis are not all horrible people.

(This article was published on November 11, 2013)
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