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Cong muted on twin elections

New Delhi, Oct. 3: The Congress appears less than enthusiastic about the Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh although there is dormant hope among senior leaders that anti-incumbency could hurt the ruling BJP’s chances.

It is difficult to find even one senior leader who could speak with confidence about defeating Narendra Modi. In Himachal, internal bickering has become a source of worry.

This is in contrast to the last round of Assembly elections. Although the party lost in Punjab and just inched past the BJP in Uttarakhand, the central leadership had oozed confidence before the polls and openly claimed to be in a position to sweep both states.

On Gujarat this time, the Congress is deliberately avoiding boastful rhetoric and has decided to run a low-key issue-based campaign. But it is in the grip of self-doubt in Himachal, wondering if former chief minister Virbhadra Singh’s clout would be enough to dislodge the BJP government, which is not facing any visible public wrath.

The pessimism is also the result of the general depression in the party in the wake of corruption charges and threats to the stability of the Manmohan Singh government.

Even in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh elections, where the Congress neither has organisational strength nor a committed support base, the level of activity and confidence was much higher.

In Gujarat, the Congress polled over 39 per cent votes both in 2002 and 2007 despite Modi’s domination in the communally polarised atmosphere. In Himachal, the Congress lost power in 2007 but polled almost 40 per cent votes, three per cent less than the victorious BJP.

Still the party has taken a tentative approach, choosing not to field Rahul Gandhi to lead from the front in Gujarat although he had run a fierce campaign against Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh just a few months ago.

Some leaders felt a no-hold-barred battle against Modi would have sent a positive message to minorities and secular voters across the country, giving Rahul invaluable political dividend even if the Congress lost Gujarat, but others advised him to avoid turning this into a personality clash.

Rahul will campaign sparingly in Gujarat, focusing on issues of public concern rather than Modi.

This strategy was reflected today when Sonia Gandhi kicked off the party’s campaign in Rajkot and did not once name Modi in her speech, talking instead of development and welfare.

A senior cabinet minister told The Telegraph: “Modi has laid a trap and is instigating the Congress to walk into it. He does not want focus on his misdeeds, on people’s miseries, on his pro-corporate governance and hence he is hyping up emotive, personality-centric issues. We have decided to haul him up for his failures, he is trying to bluster his way to glory.”

The party’s local unit, too, feels sticking to mundane issues would yield better results.

Party strategists say the groundwork is being done silently across the state, particularly in rural areas, where agrarian distress has the potential of becoming an issue against Modi.

The housing scheme promise has drawn an enthusiastic response and the Congress is keen to offer more such incentives in its manifesto. There is also a plan to highlight the CAG reports that point to scams worth thousands of crores in the state.