Election heat is on for Congress

Election heat is on for Congress
India's Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi (2R) is supported by Minister of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Kumari Selja (L) as she leaves Parliament in New Delhi late August 26, 2013. The chief of India's ruling Congress party Sonia Gandhi was released from hospital on August 27, hours after being admitted with fever, cold and a headache, a doctor and colleagues said. Gandhi, 66, was taken to hospital from the national parliament, where she had earlier been urging lawmakers to pass landmark legislation offering subsidised food to millions of India's poor.

INDIA - The naming of Mr Narendra Modi as a candidate for prime minister by India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has officially initiated the countdown for the 2014 elections and put pressure on the ruling Congress to firm up its own strategy.

Analysts say the Hindu nationalist party has stolen a march over the ruling Congress party by declaring its prime ministerial candidate early.

"The BJP strategy is clear and there is no confusion now over the leadership issue. They want to revive Hindu sentiments and the development agenda is an add on," said political analyst Sudhir Panwar of Lucknow University.

While the Congress said it was not "afraid" of Mr Modi, who has served three terms as chief minister of western Gujarat state, the ruling party is unlikely to announce Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate any time soon.

"The Congress is under pressure. They don't have a strategy yet," said Professor Ghanshyam Shah, a member of the Indian Council of Social Science Research. "It is Mr Modi who seems to be setting the agenda."

But, Mr Modi, a controversial politician himself, has his work cut out. The 62-year-old, who comes from an economically weak caste, has worked his way up the ranks of a party dominated by upper castes.

He has been praised by the business world for pushing the western state of Gujarat to growth rates that trigger comparisons with China's economic powerhouse, Guangdong province.

But Mr Modi is despised in equal measure by liberals for not doing enough to prevent one of India's worst communal riots in 2002, when hundreds - mostly Muslims - were killed. That incident prompted the US to deny a visa to Mr Modi in 2005 on the grounds of religious intolerance, and Washington has not indicated any change in policy.

The European Union broke a 10-year boycott of Mr Modi and started engaging with him early this year. A group of British parliamenterians also invited him to speak in the House of Commons.

The challenges he faces include uniting a party whose patriarch, Mr L. K. Advani, 85, has opposed his candidacy. Reaching out to new allies to cobble together a winning coalition may be another big challenge, as will increasing his appeal where neither he nor his party have much sway, like in southern India.

In a bid to reach out to potential allies, the BJP strongman tweeted that he was seeking "blessings" and "good wishes" after the announcement on Friday, to no avail so far.

"A challenge for Mr Modi is his own personality," said Prof Shah.

"If you see Gujarat, he has turned the party there into an extension of himself, with almost all other important leaders sidetracked or thrown out," he said, adding that as a national figure, Mr Modi will now need to accommodate the views of other leaders and work towards building a strong base.

As for the Congress, it is facing anti-incumbency after over eight years in power. Despite announcing ambitious schemes like the Food Security Bill, which expands the list of those entitled to subsidised food grains, it also faces ire due to rising food prices, a slowing economy and a volatile rupee rate.

For now the Congress is taking the high road.

In a cheeky suggestion that Mr Modi's selection long before the country goes to the polls was too early, Education Minister Kapil Sibal said: "Some people want to advance their Deepavali celebration, but we will celebrate Deepavali on time."

gnirmala@sph.com.sg


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