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Congress’s ‘realistic’ target: 120-140

New Delhi, April 13: The Congress is counting on gains in Assam, Karnataka, Punjab and Kerala to improve on its 1999 tally of 113 seats in the 16th Lok Sabha, according to highly placed sources.

They said a realistic target of 120-140 seats has been set and vice-president Rahul Gandhi was personally monitoring the party’s poll prospects every day.

According to the Congress’s internal assessment, the party faces a bleak and uncertain future after May 16, when the results of the general election will be announced. It is hoping to cross the 100-seat mark and play the role of an effective Opposition under Rahul’s leadership.

A section of the Congress is veering round to the view that the Narendra Modi-led alliance will be able to stitch together a coalition with the help of some regional allies known to be anti-Congress. However, Rahul is still optimistic that the Modi-led BJP will fall short of the majority mark of 272, leaving an opening for a “third front”-led government, mainly consisting of regional players backed by the Congress.

While Sonia Gandhi is focusing on the campaign, Rahul and his team have taken charge of the elections. Rahul is said to be taking instant decisions to fine-tune his electoral strategy.

For instance, within 24 hours of levelling personal allegations against Modi, Rahul scaled down the criticism in Amethi yesterday, clarifying that he was merely stating facts mentioned in the affidavit of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and did not wish to get personal.

The change in stand was reportedly based on Team Rahul’s feedback that raking up Modi’s marital status had not gone down too well with voters.

Congress veterans feel that the Manmohan Singh government’s failure to communicate and the perception that the Prime Minister had two yardsticks on morality — relating to self and his council of ministers — has harmed the UPA immensely.

In retrospect, Congress insiders said, harping on Singh’s clean image appears to have been counter-productive when the Prime Minister had failed to act against tainted ministers and those accused in the 2G, coal and Commonwealth Games controversies. “Voters seem to be upset with the dual standard. Moreover, a hawkish judiciary, the media and other institutions like the CAG eroded the government’s credibility,” a senior Congress leader said, requesting anonymity.

“We are paying the price of a 10-year rule. There is a huge anti-incumbency factor working against us. No amount of sops, policy initiatives and poll promises are helping,” a Congress leader involved with strategy planning said. “Nothing seems to be working for us.”

The party leaders also feel Singh, Sonia and Rahul should have interacted more with party workers, the masses and the media to showcase the achievements of UPA II.

Some leaders, however, feel that while it would be unfair to put the blame entirely on Singh, the PMO was a big disappointment. “It failed to accelerate the economy, take foreign policy initiatives and enhance science and technology missions,” a party leader said, wondering if PMO mandarins felt “convenient” to blame Sonia and the party for the “policy paralysis”.

Going by the current mood in the party, it appears that fireworks are likely in the grand old party after May 16.