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Rahul believes ‘absent’ PM has dented Congress chances

As Congress hunts for an antidote to the ‘Modi effect’, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s “absent” leadership is being seen as a key factor prompting voters to eye the Gujarat chief minister with favour. Five years after his policies were credited for powering Congress’s return to office, party strategists feel Narendra Modi could be benefitting in comparison to Singh’s “ineffective” leader image.

The PM’s reluctance to check allies and ministers has made Modi come across as a decisive leader, said sources involved in framing campaign strategy for Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi.

Rahul’s backroom feels Singh’s image as a leader who is not decisive and who has been unable to prevent mega scams like telecom and coal allocations is a big stumbling block for the party’s 2014 campaign.

Though blaming Singh for Congress’s weak campaign might seem unfair given the Gandhi family’s say in government and party matters, the PM’s ‘retiring ways’ — once seen as a mark of humility – are appearing a liability.

In 2009, the Manmohan Singh government’s rural employment guarantee scheme, farm debt waiver and a strong economic stimulus to counter the 2008 global slow down had helped counter negatives like the 26/11 attacks.

Then the prime ministerial contest between Singh and BJP leader L K Advani was settled decisively in the incumbent’s favour as the saffron stalwart was unable to dent the PM’s appeal in the middle classes.

This time, the story is different, admit sources, who say UPA-II looks worn out and its leadership jaded. Ceaseless fire-fighting to contain the political fallout of scams, a slowing economy and a PM under siege helped Modi’s projection as a leader willing to grapple with problems and take swift decisions.

Singh has vigorously rebutted the “weak PM” charge in the past, saying he did not equate strength with Modi’s record of presiding over rioting and deaths, a sharp reference to the Gujarat 2002 riots.

The PMO has also pushed initiatives like the cabinet committee on investment and a project monitoring group to counter the impression that a policy paralysis had made investors cool to India.

The problem, feel sources, lies in the push coming too late to correct the impression that Singh was captaining a ship that was increasingly unresponsive to his commands as the government’s authority took a beating.

While Singh has had to overcome resistance in the Congress to accelerating reforms, the larger problem has been his reluctance to influence political management and a failure to discipline errant colleagues.

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