The five-state assembly elections are seen as a now-or-never, no-holds battle for the Congress, points out N Sathiya Moorthy.
The Election Commission has issued show-cause notice to former Congress president Rahul Gandhi for calling Prime Minister Narendra D Modi, a panauti (ill-omen via-a-vis the latter's presence at the cricket World Cup final, which Team India lost) and jebkatra (pick-pocket) as violating the Model Code of Conduct.
But the BJP rival that has initiated the Election Commission action against Rahul may have something coming if the losing candidates from the Opposition in the ongoing five-state assembly elections move post-poll election petitions against victorious nominees of the ruling BJP at the Centre, alleging 'corrupt electoral practices' in the form of Modi, Home Minister Amit A Shah and Defence Mminister Rajnath Singh, among others, promising free darshan for voters at the Ram temple in Ayodhya.
For the present, Congress President Mallikharjun Kharge has sort of shrugged his shoulders in response to the charges against Rahul Gandhi while party MP Manish Tewari has alleged bias on the Election Commission's part.
Tewari, while not responding to the merits of the accusations against Rahul, has questioned the Election Commission's response to Modi announcing the extension of the PM Garib Anakalyan Yojana when the five-state assembly election was on and the Model Code of Conduct was supposed to be in operation.
In poll-bound Telangana, Congress leaders have similarly questioned the prime minister for promising to consider the sub-categorisation of the Madiga caste within the scheduled castes category.
That he made this promise at a rally organised by the Madiga Reservation Porata Samithi has not gone unnoticed.
It is anybody's guess if by calling Modi names Rahul Gandhi hopes to bring down the prime minister's image before the voters.
He tried and failed the last time when he called Modi, the self-styled chowkidar, chor.
It was in relation to all the corruption charges against the Modi government, starting with the Rafale deal for 36 French fighter aircraft for the IAF.
Maybe, Congress strategists think that more of the kind, that too from Rahul, would make an impact this time. That remains to be seen however.
The reasons are not far to seek. The Congress seems to think that Rahul has been the victim of BJP jibes far too long, both during election time and otherwise.
The party has not forgiven the way the BJP used the party's IT wing to damage Rahul's image as a Pappu, 'someone too innocent for politics', if not unintelligent or dim-witted, through all these years of Modi regime.
Such personal attacks are banned under the law, but the Congress party did not move the Election Commission during the polls or the Supreme Court, post-poll, especially when Rahul was the party's prime ministerial candidate in 2014 and 2019 -- for reasons best known to them.
In effect, the Congress in general and Rahul in particular are seeking to pay back the BJP and Modi in their coin, but have failed. Or, so it seems.
In a way, the Lok Sabha polls next year and the five-state assembly elections now seen as a forerunner, are a now-or-never, no-holds battle for the Congress.
The party was re-energised after Rahul's successful south-north Bharat Jodo Yatra.
Why it did not take up the west-east second season of the yatra, running through the poll-bound states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, as originally planned, is anybody's guess.
Maybe, it has now reserved it for the Lok Sabha polls.
A fighter to the finish, the BJP and the Modi-Shah leadership too has not left anything to chance, or restricted it to the short-term.
Modi's promise to the Madigas in Telangana is even seen as the party's long-term three-M strategy in the southern state, with Munnur Kapu, Mudiraju communities completing the list.
Beyond the Election Commission's inquiry against Rahul, whether one-sided or not as alleged by his party, you cannot ignore the BJP's sentiments against equating verbal attacks on an individual political party leader with those against the one occupying the highest seat in the country, that of the prime minister -- or, the seat that the individual represents.
Of course, we have the Presidency above the PM but that is for another day.
However, the BJP has short-memory as its leaders tend to forget all the terms they had used to describe Modi's predecessor Dr Manmohan Singh of the Congress.
Mauni Baba or 'silent saint' was/is the most respectable of them.
BJP leaders freely quoted from The Accidental Prime Minister, a book written by Sanjaya Baru, Dr Singh's former media advisor.
The BJP's 'habit' (?) of hurtling of chaste epithets at the prime minister goes back by years and decades.
As the leader of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP's parent, the late Balraj Madhok was credited with these lines while Parliament was paying tribute to the man whose supporters and sympathisers wanted to be remembered as the 'architect of modern India', way back in 1964.
'Nehru is dead. Let us bury his ideals with him.'
However, Madhok's up and coming party colleague, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, made up for it with his famous lines while paying tribute to Nehru: 'A dream has been shattered, a song silenced, a flame has vanished in the infinite...'
Nehru's admirers in the Congress party, Jana Sangh and all across the country saw in these Vajpayee's poetic lines traces of the deceased leader's famous 'Tryst With Destiny' maiden address to the nation at Independence.
Yet, as the BJP's prime ministerial hopeful during the Congress regime of prime minister P V Narasimha Rao (1991-1996), Vajpayee, along with L K Advani, had no compunction in demeaning the PM in the Lakhubhai Pathak case.
In what was mostly a 'trial by the media', the BJP stuck to the so-called claims/confessions of a London-based NRI businessman, who charged Rao with helping controversial godman Chandraswami to extract $100,000 from Pathak in 1984, by promising a contract for the supply of newsprint and paper pulp in India.
Rao was at the time external affairs minister.
That the court acquitted Rao of any wrong-doing came after he had left office.
Such a course has not altered the BJP's time-tested strategy of seeking to destroy a target-politician's credibility and character in the public eye, without caring for the damage caused to the institutions that he or she represented.
If Rao was a laboratory trial, Rahul Gandhi's case proved the efficacy of the strategy, with improved tools of mass communications in the social media era.
Yet, when it comes to use of religion and caste in election campaign, it is banned under the law and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court.
As the Supreme Court observed in 2017, earlier and later, too, 'Religion has no role in electoral process which is a secular activity. Mixing state with religion is not constitutionally permissible.'
The question has now arisen on the applicability of this dictum to senior BJP ministers, including Amit A Shah and Rajnath Singh, not to leave out PM Modi.
Will their public promise of darshan for voters in the current series of assembly elections at Ayodhya constitute 'corrupt practices' qualifying for disqualification of their BJP legislators in the poll-bound states?"
According to section 123 (3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, any '...appeal ... on the ground of religion, race, caste, community or language... would invite disqualification. There is an added question if the promise of 'free darshan' at Ayodhya (or Madhura in some instances) included travel and other facilitation expenses of the voters. If so, it could be an added prohibition under section 123 (1) ( A) (b) of the RP Act.'
As of now, the Congress has not protested enough before the Election Commission on the BJP's promise of a 'free Ayodhya ride' to the voters.
It is anybody's guess if the party's losing candidates could move the respective high courts with an 'election petition', post-poll, seeking to disqualify the 'elected' BJP rival.
Former Maharashtra chief minister and Shiv Sena (UBT) boss, Uddhav Thackery, has since sought to know the Election Commission's views in the matter.
At a news conference in Mumbai recently, he pointed out how the Election Commission had banned his late father and party founder Balasaheb Thackeray from exercising his franchise for his slogan, 'Garv se kaho hum Hindu hai'.
In English, it translates as, 'Say with pride, we are Hindus.' The poll panel called it a 'corrupt electoral practice'.
Uddhav recalled how Modi had ask the Karnataka voters to chant 'Bajrang Bali ki Jai ' and press the button' on the electronic voting machine.
He wondered about the Election Commission's possible reaction if he asked, likewise, for the voters to chant 'Har Har Mahadev' while casting their vote.
True, Modi did not ask the Karnataka voters to press the BJP's 'Lotus' button on the EVM, so the question arises if he was appealing to the voter as an altruist prime minister asking the voters to say their prayers while casting their lot, only with a hope of giving them a good government, or was appealing to their religious sentiments as a party leader.
At least in the first two general elections, voters across the country, both urban and rural, old and young, actually used to go to the places of their religious worship on the morning of polling, praying for 'good governance'.
It is another matter that the voters of Karnataka did not heed Modi's (religious?) appeal.
What more, they actually voted out the incumbent BJP government of chief minister Basavaraj S Bommai and brought back the Congress instead.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com