As the Hindi heartland prepares for the fifth phase of polling on Monday, the Congress has nuanced its campaign tactics to make it appear less of a contest between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Rahul Gandhi. It has also decided to sidestep the BJP’s core plank of nationalism to focus on issues of unemployment and farm distress.
The Congress leadership is set to travel in unreserved compartments in trains heading to and from some of the poll-bound states, particularly Madhya Pradesh, next week to spread the message of its key promise of ‘Nyay’ or minimum income guarantee of Rs 72,000 a year to 20 per cent of India’s poorest families.
Addressing a rally in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur district on Friday, Rahul Gandhi in a reference to the Jan Dhan Yojana said the Congress would deposit Rs 72,000 annually in the people's bank accounts “opened” by Prime Minister Modi.
In Rae Bareli, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra advised the PM to protect the fields of farmers. “You are protecting people from Pakistan’s aggression. This is a big achievement. Everyone is happy. But you should also protect the fields of farmers. That is nationalism as well,” she said.
The campaigning for 51 seats in the fifth phase across seven states ends on Saturday evening. Congress leaders, including party chief Rahul Gandhi and general secretary Priyanka Gandhi, kept focus on issues that had brought the party victories in the December Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
The BJP leadership spent the day targeting the Gandhi family since Amethi and Rae Bareli Lok Sabha seats, considered strongholds of the family, go to polls on Monday. The BJP leaders kept the debate centred on the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and criticised the dynastic leadership of the Congress.
In terms of seats going to the polls, it is the smallest of the seven phases. Seats in Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal will have polling in this phase. In 2014, the BJP had swept most of these seats.
Congress sources said the party has changed its campaign tactics as the elections has entered the north Indian states. In southern India, where the election is now over, the Congress had portrayed its party chief Rahul Gandhi as a more able and tolerant leader than Modi. This is based on party surveys that showed that Rahul Gandhi’s popularity and acceptance is much more than that of Modi in southern India. However, that is not the case in northern India states, where the PM remains popular.
In Bharatpur, Rahul Gandhi accused the PM of deceiving youths by promising 20 million jobs and leaving them unemployed. "Forget about Rs 15 lakh in bank accounts, he (Modi) did not deposit even Rs 5. He thinks that people of the country do not understand anything. He kept assuring that money will come in bank accounts he had opened," Gandhi said.
"He (Modi) deceived youths the most by promising 2 crore jobs and left lakhs of them jobless," Gandhi said, adding that the Congress would provide 22 lakh government jobs within a year of coming to power and 10 lakh jobs at the panchayat level.
In his speech in Rewa in Madhya Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi said the country's youth will not have to obtain any permission for the initial three years to run a business. "When Congress government comes to power in 2019, no farmer will be sent to jail for not repaying bank loans, he said at an election rally here.
Taking a dig at Rahul Gandhi, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Friday wondered how the Congress president could damage the image of Prime Minister Modi who is riding on the peak of his popularity. The dynasts have self-illusionary opinion about themselves and tend to become megalomaniacs, he said adding "Rahul Gandhi is no exception", he stated in a blog.
Jaitley was referring to Gandhi's statement to NDTV that "I have dismantled Modi's image... I will damage his image". In a blog titled 'A Dynast's non-existent revenge against the man who defeated him in 2014 – I Dismantled PM's Image', Jaitley said, "But how do you damage the image of a person who is riding perhaps at the peak of his popularity? How do you damage the reputation of a person who is known to be incredibly honest?"
"Can image be destroyed by a person who belongs to a family which has been tainted through generations with charges of corruption? How do you claim to have succeeded in damaging the image of a powerful personality where Prime Minister Modi's acceptability ratings are close to 70 per cent and Rahul is finding it difficult to even breach the 20 per cent mark?" he added.
In a letter written in Hindi, the Congress president made an emotional appeal to the voters of Amethi urging them to re-elect him and promising to give momentum to the development works in his Lok Sabha constituency "blocked" by the BJP government.
Addressing a poll rally in Multai in Madhya Pradesh, senior BJP leader Nitin Gadkari said Congress was the cause of poverty in the country and claimed there was no "serious policy" earlier to develop agriculture and villages.
In New Delhi, BJP leader Piyush Goyal said Rahul Gandhi will lose from Amethi as he has not done any development work there.