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Rahul lines up Varanasi tit for tat

New Delhi, May 6: Rahul Gandhi has decided to campaign in Varanasi against Narendra Modi in a tit for tat, taking it upon himself to answer the BJP leader’s attack on his family at a time the Congress’s reaction has been muted.

Congress sources said Rahul took the decision against senior colleagues’ advice after the BJP prime ministerial candidate breached political etiquette by travelling to his constituency of Amethi and lambasting the Gandhis.

Rahul is expected in Modi’s constituency either on May 9 or 10, the latter being the final day of campaigning in this general election, where the last votes will be cast on May 12.

Congress sources said many party seniors were against Rahul travelling to Varanasi, particularly as party candidate Ajay Rai was not on a firm wicket.

But some others want a strong “last push” to counter the impression that the Congress has thrown in the towel — especially amid whispers that many party seniors have stopped criticising Modi for fear of antagonising the “next Prime Minister”.

In Varanasi, Rahul is expected to answer Modi’s barbs against his father Rajiv Gandhi, who too represented Amethi.

Responding to Rahul’s allegations about his “politics of anger”, Modi had recalled Rajiv’s public humiliation of then Andhra Pradesh chief minister T. Anjaiah to hurl the charge back at the Gandhis.

A few Rahul aides today scoffed at Modi’s “outlandish” comparison of an angry outburst at a personal level to an “ideology based on hatred”. But such arguments were offered in off-the-record conversations, and the party’s official response to Modi’s Amethi assault was surprisingly tame.

Usually, whenever any criticism is levelled at the Gandhis, senior Congress leaders fall over themselves to defend the family in a flurry of statements from all directions.

But the seniors were missing in action today, lending credence to the theory that most of them were reluctant to fight Modi. Quizzed about it, some Congress leaders started a game of finger-pointing.

Asked why leaders such as Janardhan Dwivedi, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Salman Khurshid were not confronting Modi on his Amethi speech, a senior leader agreed that “their silence is indeed baffling”. But he also asked why “those running the party” were silent.

“Where is information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari, who used to comment on sundry matters till three months ago? Why is Jairam Ramesh not defending Rajivji? Where are Ajay Maken and Randeep Surjewala?”

Modi’s tactic of construing Priyanka Gandhi’s barb at his “neech rajniti (low politics)” as an attack on the lower castes has enraged Congress workers. But at the party’s media briefing today, it was left to the reporters to broach the subject.

Prodded, Kapil Sibal said: “Low-level politics has nothing to do with caste; they are entirely different things. This is the political game he plays; that’s what Modi is.”

Later in the evening, P.L. Punia, party leader and chairperson of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes, issued a mild statement. But the top guns remained silent although Digvijaya posted a tweet demanding an apology from Modi.

Even Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati, who slammed Modi over the remark, wondered why the Congress was not confronting him. Lower-rung Congress leaders were aghast, wondering why Priyanka had been left to fend for herself.

Among the senior ministers, P. Chidambaram, Sibal and Anand Sharma have been taking Modi on. Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, Ahmed Patel, recently broke his usual silence and gave a spate of interviews to counter the BJP propaganda.

But generally, the party headquarters has been wearing a deserted look with most of the general secretaries staying away.

Some Congress leaders today expressed surprise at reports suggesting that parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath had opposed the probe into the “snoopgate” controversy swirling around Modi.

“Isn’t this the worst signal that the Congress has surrendered before Modi?” one of them said.

“Why did the cabinet okay the inquiry in the first place, then? And if it did, why the delay in appointing the judge and why this shameful somersault now? Are we fighting Modi or seeking anticipatory bail from the next government?”