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Vacuum versus Modi model
- Cong pays for absence of local leader

New Delhi, Dec. 23: As the message from Gujarat started sinking in, the few Congress bravehearts who had popped up to face the media at the party headquarters shuffled out.

By late noon, when it was clear the Congress wouldn’t even touch a respectable 70, the main door leading to the offices of Sonia Gandhi, Motilal Vora, Digvijay Singh and other senior functionaries was locked.

The canteen, ordered to stay open till late tonight in anticipation of a “celebration”, was shut.

The lawns, normally crowded with hangers-on and favour seekers even on a holiday, hosted only TV crews who had ample space to put out their online broadcasts.

Next door, 10 Janpath looked equally deserted. There was nobody to say who met or phoned Sonia.

Functionaries daring enough to speak to journalists on a bad day whispered the state of things: “Madam was badly misled. Even yesterday, Bharatsinh Solanki (the Gujarat Congress chief) told her the party would win 103 seats comfortably,” a party official said.

There were hints that Sonia’s normally circumspect political secretary, Ahmed Patel, had stuck his neck out and “confidently” spoken of Narendra Modi being unseated.

True to Congress style, nobody would yet say what went wrong except for alleging that those “in the know” were unwilling to speak “the truth”.

B.K. Hari Prasad, the general secretary in charge of Gujarat, sought to thwart the blame game by accepting responsibility. “Something, somewhere has gone drastically wrong. We did not do as well in Saurashtra as we expected.”

Prasad admitted that “certain organisational weaknesses” prevented the Congress from converting the “huge” turnouts at Sonia’s meetings and Rahul Gandhi’s roadshows into votes.

But he appeared to touch the nub of the problem when he added that the Congress may have missed the bus by failing to create a line of local leadership in Gujarat.

As election 2007 became increasingly Modi-centric, there had been niggling doubts in the Congress — never forcefully articulated — about what the inability to project a face would mean.

“Traditionally we have never declared a chief ministerial candidate because it only leads to infighting,” a leader had said.

He had explained the “suspense” over who would be chief minister would “motivate” potential candidates such as Solanki, Arjun Modhwadia, Shankersinh Vaghela and Dinsha Patel to bury their differences and “work unitedly”.

Today, sources acknowledged that in the television era with its premium on communication skills, the strategy needed an “urgent” review before the next slew of elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

It was important to create a space for regional leaders and not depend just on Sonia and Rahul to net the votes, they said.

For instance, the Congress had failed to zero in on a leader in Karnataka after banishing S.M. Krishna, the former chief minister with a pro-reforms and hi-tech image, to Mumbai’s Raj Bhavan.

In Rajasthan, the party is groping to find a face to counter Vasundhara Raje who, party sources fear, may assume a “larger-than-life” persona like Modi in the run-up to next year’s elections.

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