With the first stage of balloting just ten days away, Congress president Sonia Gandhi's visible absence from the campaign trail is causing unease in the party.
Although Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha reiterated to the IANS Thursday that the Congress is fighting the 2014 general elections under a collective leadership headed by party president Sonia Gandhi, her absence from the campaign trail is evident and is being talked about in the party.
Her office is, indeed, being flooded with requests from state units all over the country to boost their candidates' chances at the hustings.
That is quite expected, given that party vice-president Rahul Gandhi failed to be a major draw during the elections to five state assemblies in late 2013. At his rally in Dakshinpuri area of Delhi Nov 18 last year, then Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit was seen pleading with the crowds to stay on as they started leaving as Rahul stood up to address them. Only a week later, Sonia's massively attended rally at Shastri Park in Delhi was an obvious hit.
Sonia, known for her pragmatism in cobbling valuable alliances, is engineering a transition of power where her son Rahul hold the reins of the party. But the experiment has quite not paid off yet.
"Rahul is known to be stubborn and likes to take decisions by himself. His stubbornness is coming in way of stiching up alliances," said Manindra Nath Thakur, Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU.
A case in point was the Lok Janashakti Party (LJP), which was hopeful of alliance with the Congress in Bihar. There have been reports that when Ramvilas Paswan, LJP chief, met Sonia Gandhi for seat sharing talks, he was advised that his son Chirag pursued the matter with Rahul. The result was that the LJP moved to the NDA fold.
When asked about this, Congress leader Rashid Alvi told IANS he had no knowledge of the incident. He added, "Alliances are decided by the party after due consultations with senior members. It is a collective decision for which you cannot blame any one individual."
Rahul is learnt to have miffed DMK chief Karunanidhi too, an erstwhile Congress ally. Karunanidhi recently said he was not shown enough "respect." Experts believe he was referring to Rahul having made no effort so far to meet him for a possible tie-up.
Alvi was quick to defend Rahul on this score too. "DMK has been an important ally. If the party wants to join the UPA, it can," he said. He asserted that it was not too late in the day to find new allies, and there will be some key announcements in the days to come.
Apparently, Rahul has been ignoring many senior leaders of the Congress who are increasingly feeling alienated. It may not be a coincidence then that many senior leaders, including P. Chidambaram, G.K. Vasan, K.V. Thangkabalu, and Jayanthi Natarajan, said they would not contest in the elections. But Alvi pointed out, "All senior leaders, except Chidambaram, are fighting. Chidambaram opted out to let his son Karti contest from his Sivaganga constituency."
That does not explain why party veterans such as Jagadambika Pal and Satpal Maharaj crossed over to the BJP.
"Rahul is instrumental in sidelining the oldies in the Congress. He may have realised that the Congress might lose the election and hence he is focusing on long-term revival of the party," argued Thakur.
The old guard, on the other hand, has realised that it would not have much space even if the Congress returned to power. The stalwarts will be more comfortable if the Congress loses this general elections and Rahul is forced to go back to Sonia Gandhi way of politics. She gave the pragmatism of the veterans more weightage in all important party matters and election strategy.
"It stands to reason that the old Congress leaders whom Rahul is sidelining will benefit if the Rahul-led Congress fared badly in this election. This is how they will be able to come back to prominence, and manoeuvre a space for themselves in the Congress," Pradeep Kumar Datta, who teaches political science in Delhi University, told IANS.
Experts believe that Rahul may be seen as immature but not dishonest, and that might help the Congress eventually. "If the Congress loses and the BJP does not do well after coming to power, Rahul will emerge as a kind of alter-ego for Modi and he may soon catch the public imagination," remarked Thakur.
But that certainly does not offer any solace to the Congress, which most opinion polls have predicted is up for a humiliating defeat. Perhaps that is why, the Congress leaders are rushing to Sonia to take up the poll mantle again.
"We are fighting the election under Sonia Gandhi. You will see her campaigning across the country soon," reassured Jha.