He may be at the sunset of his career but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has had enough of being lonely at the top. He has few confidantes who can give him a sense of personal empowerment and not many hands to supply him with ideas on the move.
Stung by the audacious campaign of the saffron challenger Narendra Modi who has contemptuously given Singh sobriquets like “night watchman” and attacked him on matters like secularism and Sardar Patel, the Prime Minister seems to have had a belated realisation that he has no stormtroopers of his own, unlike party supremo Sonia Gandhi or her son Rahul.
Consequently, he is on a discreet recruitment drive for a crisis team of his own with a handful of senior members and ministers from his party. Cabinet colleagues like Law Minister Kapil Sibal, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma and I&B Minister Manish Tewari are in parley with Singh on a regular basis on ways to checkmate Modi on issues like secularism, foreign policy, economy, public image and governance.
They have also decided that, if need be, Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo and politically and intellectually savvy Science & Technology Minister Jaipal Reddy would be fielded to highlight the Manmohan-led government’s stellar programmes and achievements to the public.
The chief ministers who have been commandeered into the ‘Manmohan Parivar’ are those of the states where the Modi blitzkrieg is expected to be extensive . They include Prithviraj Singh Chavan of Maharashtra, Oommen Chandy of Kerala where the survival of the scam-ridden Congress is at stake, Tarun Gogoi of Assam where anti-Bangladesh riots claimed many lives and Siddaramaiah of Karnataka where the Congress is determined to defend its hard-won citadel.
But this is not an easy task and not just because the PM’s time and energy are being perennially consumed by the usual conveyor-belt of issues like Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the CBI’s legal status, food inflation among others. The bigger problem is that Modi has covered a lot of ground, having already traversed most of the country and addressed over 15 election rallies in Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Hyderabad, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. On the other hand, the PM had his first rally address in Raipur, Chhattisgarh on Saturday.
In his election address in Raipur, Manmohan attempted to lure the public by taking on the NaMo brand of politics with alternative plans, apart from making a direct attack on Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh.
A senior minister with whom the PM recently had a strategy discussion was surprised to see that instead of becoming dispirited, Manmohan is taking a keen interest in developing a strategy to counter the Modi campaign.
The PM’s team conceded that Modi has successfully used the state elections to promote himself on the national arena.
The focus, the PM feels, should be to bring the whole debate back to national issues and not allow it to be reduced to “name-calling”.
As part of this plan, the Prime Minister is in the process of meeting all chief ministers of Congress-ruled states (barring perhaps Andhra Pradesh CM Kiran Reddy).
The idea is not only to highlight to the public the Congress’ social schemes, record in human indices and business environment, but also seek their opinion on how to put Modi down in his own game.
The PM, it seems, is trying to find an alternative poster boy to take his governance model forward. Maharashtra, being an industrial hub and agriculture heavyweight, is being seen as a possible state that can be projected to bust the Gujarat myth.
One of the CMs, who had met Singh recently party president Sonia Gandhi wants to focus on governance at the moment as she feels the last stretch before the election would be crucial.
But the PM seems convinced that the election campaign cannot be delayed for too long as he believes that if the Congress does badly in the five assembly polls, it would be difficult to turn the tide.
One of the members of Manmohan Mahasabha said since much of the negative perception about UPA-II arose due to scams such as coal allocation and 2G spectrum, an attempt would be made to pin Modi down on the same issues.
“He (Modi) has been getting mileage by saying the Congress has been giving away coal mines. Then let him tell us how he plans to change this. Our government brought legislation. What is his plan?,” a Congress Chief Minister said.