New Delhi: Rahul Gandhi's elevation as the Congress' number 2 has heightened anticipation that the General Elections 2014 will be a personality clash between him and the BJP's Narendra Modi. The Congress, always loath to make comparisons between the two, dismisses it as a "media joke."
Even as the clamour in the Congress to declare Rahul Gandhi the candidate for Prime Minister for next year's elections reached a fevered pitch at the party's poll strategy meet in Jaipur over the weekend, senior Congress leaders quickly pointed out that the party traditionally does not name a leader.
Party general secretary Digvijaya Singh told NDTV, "The Congress party does not declare the PM candidate because we don't want to take away the right of newly-elected legislators to choose their leader. This is basic in parliamentary democracy. Therefore, we don't declare our leaders for PM candidate."
"That (Rahul Gandhi vs Narendra Modi in the 2014 elections) is a big joke made by the media," Mr Singh added.
In Jaipur, senior Congress leader and minister Jairam Ramesh said in India elections were not a contest between people, but between parties. "2014 will not be a contest between Modi and Rahul. It's always party versus party," he said.
The BJP is reportedly set to appoint Mr Modi - who just registered a huge win in the Gujarat Assembly elections to get a fourth term as the state's chief minister - as the head of its election campaign committee. In that role he will be the face of the opposition party for next year's elections. Mr Gandhi has already been given similar charge of the Congress' committee for election strategy, making comparisons inevitable.
But Congress leaders cast Mr Modi as a regional satrap; Mr Gandhi, they say, is a leader with a pan-India appeal.
What Digvijaya Singh did admit in his interview with NDTV last night was that the Congress had failed to mentor leaders, which had cost the party dear in states which had strong individual leaders or regional parties. "The Congress party has not been able to build up reasonable leadership'...whether you see Bihar or UP or West Bengal or even Tamil Nadu we have this problem," Mr Singh said.
It was true of Gujarat too, he admitted, but there he saw a problem for the BJP, Mr Singh said.
"In Gujarat also Narendra Modi has created a cult for himself. Of course, the first casualty after Narendra Modi goes is the BJP itself, because there is no BJP there, only Narendra Modi."
Mr Singh was analysing Rahul Gandhi's much-watched first speech after he was appointed Vice-President of the Congress. Mr Gandhi asked his partymen to help reverse a system in India where power was "grossly centralised" and said 40 to 50 leaders, all capable of running the country must be identified and mentored.
And an unimpressed Arun Jaitley, one of the BJP's seniormost leaders, said of Mr Gandhi, "The world's largest democracy cannot be put to risk by risking ourselves in the hands of those whose actual potential we don't know, whose opinions on various subjects we do not know, whose policy regarding various issues we do not know."
For the BJP, said Mr Jaitley, "It will be tried, tested and proven ability. The best will become our leader." Mr Modi's supporters in the party say he is that man and that he should be named the BJP's candidate for PM. But the party has multiple claimants to top posts. It also has to contend with the fact that Mr Modi does not enjoy universal acceptability among partners like the Janata Dal United in the National Democratic Alliance it leads.