Narendra Modi, says T V R Shenoy, is 'busy trying to woo back two constituencies that were crucial when the BJP won power in the elections of 1998 and of 1999, namely UP (and the Hindi belt in general) and educated youth.'
In April, just three months ago although it seems so much longer, the Congress came up with a simple plan after the DMK walked out of the United Progressive Alliance. It would push a Food Security Act through Parliament, wait a few weeks until the Karnataka assembly polls gave the BJP a bloody nose, and then dissolve the Lok Sabha.
Has the Congress missed the bus by waiting too long for just the right moment?
First, public attention was drawn by the State-sponsored execution of Sarabjit Singh in Lahore's Kot Lakhpat Central Jail. Quick on its heels came the news that Chinese troops had entered Indian territory in Ladakh.
To be fair to the Congress, there is probably little that any government in New Delhi could have done to prevent either the mindless brutality of the Pakistanis or the arrogant adventurism of the Chinese. But it was the meekness of the Manmohan Singh ministry's responses that drew fire.
External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid hosted Raja Pervez Ashraf at lunch at Jaipur's Rambagh Palace when the Pakistani prime minister decided to visit Ajmer Sharif barely ten days after Sarabjit Singh's death. The external affairs minister also chose to keep a scheduled appointment to Beijing barely two weeks after Chinese troops planted their flag on Indian soil.
And then came the biggest embarrassment of them all -- the Central Bureau of Investigation's revelations, under pointed questioning by the Supreme Court, that it had shared the fruits of its investigations into the Coal Allotment Scam with the same government that presided over those flawed, highly suspicious allocations of mining rights.
Changes were made, which went to the heart of the matter in the Supreme Court's opinion, in the report placed before the apex court. And the finger of suspicion seemed to point to the highest in the land, since Dr Manmohan Singh was the Union coal minister at the time when the allotments were made.
The Congress lost its nerve. The party could not even take advantage of its victory in Karnataka because that news was eclipsed, through sheer coincidence, by the Supreme Court's angry strictures on the same day -- May 8 -- as the poll results.
The Food Security Bill remained in cold storage, and the Lok Sabha was not dissolved.
Is it now too late?
Let me quote what I had written back in April, when commenting on the Congress's plan: '...the economy is in poor shape, far worse than anyone -- inside or outside of government -- wants to let on in public.'
The rot is now out in the open. Since the beginning of May, just two-and-a-half months, the rupee has plunged by roughly 12% against the American dollar, making imports -- particularly petroleum -- that much dearer.
The government has been forced to raise the price of fuel -- petrol, diesel, cooking gas -- repeatedly, or risk the utter collapse of the oil marketing firms.
The Reserve Bank has been forced to raise interest rates in an effort to attract hard currency and prevent speculation, but those same high rates make Indian industry uncompetitive.
And looming ahead is the threat of degradation of India's rating once the full costs of the Food Security Bill -- still an ordinance, not a full-fledged Act -- are calculated. The Congress may be able to woo voters, but it cannot pull the wool over the eyes of money-managers abroad.
India has been living beyond its means under the stewardship of the 'economist prime minister', and the Food Security Bill could be the tipping point that throws India back to the crisis days of 1990-1991 (when the same Dr Manmohan Singh was the Chief Economic Adviser).
It is no longer a question of whether matters could worsen, but of when they shall worsen. And this puts the Congress in a bind -- does it go in for a winter election, as mapped out in April, or does it wait until summer?
And whether in October-November or in April-May, whom does it project as prime minister, or does it put up nobody at all?
The one thing that the Congress knows for certain is that it wants to avoid any direct comparison between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi.
Simply put, that is a face-off that the Congress 'Yuvraj' cannot win because there is no record of achievement in Rahul Gandhi's bio-data.
The dithering Congress has thus been reduced to a thoroughly reaction-ary party, by which I mean that it merely reacts to Narendra Modi, without taking any initiative of its own. Unless the occasional flare-up in the media is the handiwork of the Congress?
Remember that silly controversy about 'Modi in Rambo act, saves 15,000' as a newspaper headline put it, allegedly based on remarks by a BJP representative from Uttarakhand? Three weeks later, the same newspaper wrote: 'Mr Baluni did not say that 15,000 people had been “rescued”. He neither tried to exaggerate facts nor mislead us. We regret any inadvertent inconvenience caused to any individual by the article. We are mortified by the controversy surrounding the report.' Those interested may read the full statement.
Narendra Modi, meanwhile, has not been bothering to react to the Congress's jibes. He has been busy trying to woo back two constituencies that were crucial when the BJP won power in the elections of 1998 and of 1999, namely the giant state of Uttar Pradesh (and the Hindi belt in general) and educated youth (who tend to be concentrated in urban areas).
The BJP's campaign manager is choosing his audiences carefully. He has spoken to the students and faculty of Delhi's elite Shri Ram College of Commerce and at the historic Fergusson College in Pune. He addressed the Bharat Chamber of Commerce in Kolkata and women entrepreneurs at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, timing the latter days after Rahul Gandhi had spoken, in a damp squib of a speech, to the Confederation of Indian Industry.
Was it this last performance that led the Congress to decide once and for all to avoid any direct confrontation between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi?
This has left the Congress groping in the dark to find the response to three questions.
First, will Narendra Modi's star burn out by winter, or shall he continue to gain momentum all the way up to May?
Second, just how bad could the economic situation get, meaning will it be worse in April-May of 2014 than it will be in October-November of 2013?
Third, will there be any more bad news from the ongoing investigations into multiple scandals, and, specifically, will the prime minister's name be dragged in any deeper into the muck of Coalgate?
The Congress should have stuck to its original strategy, got the President to sign a Food Security Ordinance in April, taken advantage of the Karnataka results to push it through Parliament, and then dissolved the Lok Sabha.
True, it could not have avoided embarrassment in the Supreme Court over Coalgate, but a lot of the media attention would have dissipated as the BJP and its National Democratic Alliance allies squabbled over Narendra Modi's role.
That last bit is now a done deal. Narendra Modi is firmly in command, and is setting a clear agenda, while the Congress can only respond.
Even his provocative statements -- the 'puppy under the car wheels', the 'burqa of secularism' -- seem to be calculated comments, designed to leave the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Janata Dal-United fighting over, and dividing, the Muslim vote in the crucial battlegrounds of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
What will the Congress decide even as its window of opportunity starts to close? I have no idea. How can I know when the Congress is itself undecided?
For more columns by Mr T V R Shenoy, please click here