Ahmedabad/New Delhi: The result of the Gujarat elections is so pre-determined that the campaigning in the last days before the state votes seems almost coy.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi made his first appearance today, declaring Mahatma Gandhi his role model, before criticising chief minister Narendra Modi for over-selling the famous development of his state.
Mr Modi retaliated on twitter. "If Rahul Baba is walking on Gandhiji's path, why is Bapu's 1 wish incomplete - to disband Congress after Independence?"
But Gujarat is not a battle of equals, which is why the posters for the Congress are devoid of the party's national leaders, in an attempt to spare the stars the ignominy of a pre-ordained defeat.
"For the first time, the Gandhis have disappeared from election posters. Isn't this an absolute admission that there is no leader to take on Modi?" asks BJP leader Arun Jaitley. "The Congress seems confused about how to fight Modi. First, they thought that they could attack him. Now they just seem in awe of him."
Congress sources say that by excusing the top rung from posters, the party has made it clear that Mr Modi is a state leader, at best, not comparable to leaders like Mrs Gandhi or her son. But others say the party may have self-goaled with its low-key campaign.
"They could have at least put Nehru on the posters. They needed to project a much clearer message. This campaign is not working," says advertising guru Alyque Padmasee.
In speeches, Congress A-listers have restrained themselves from referring to the riots of 2002, in which 1, 200 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in Gujarat. Mr Modi was in charge of the state at the time; different commissions and courts have investigated his alleged complicity, and so far, he has not been indicted.
In the last election in 2007, the Congress tried to pin the riots on the chief minister, a pernicious misstep that saw voters closing ranks around Mr Modi. Sonia Gandhi declared the chief minister "maut ka saudagar" or "merchant of death." He responded by calling her an Italian "bahu" or daughter-in-law.
In this campaign, that sort of invective has been absent and the focus has largely been on local issues of development.
The one-sidedness of the battle here means that both sides have accepted that elections in Gujarat are only an advertisement for the national play-offs, set currently for 2014, where many expect Mr Modi to be pitted against Mr Gandhi for prime minister.
Yesterday, Ahmed Patel, who is Mrs Gandhi's political advisor, confirmed that Mr Gandhi will design and lead the Congress' campaign for the general election. Mr Modi has been endorsed recently by senior BJP leaders like Sushma Swaraj and LK Advani, who reportedly believe they deserve to be their party's candidate for prime minister.
"Congress has always ruled from the centre, so the central leader is charismatic...but not the state. The state imagery faded into background. Here is Modi, grown from the state, and now he is going to be projected as the national leader. This is the fundamental difference. Congress is unable to put up a person who holds this larger than life image today," said Sudarshan Iyengar, Vice Chancellor, Gujarat Vidyapith.
The Congress argues, however, that Gujarat's political rhythms do not resonate in the entire country, and that too much is being read into its strategy of exempting its big names from the most elementary of publicity material -the electoral poster.