AURANGABAD, India On the eve of India's mammoth general election, even some members of the ruling Congress party appear to have accepted it will not return to power, raising a question mark on the future of its leader, Rahul Gandhi.
The frontrunner to become prime minister after the five-week election starting on Monday is opposition Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi, although opinion polls suggest he will fall short of a majority and will need to form a coalition.
On Friday, the last major poll before the election had the BJP and its allies winning up to 246 seats in the 543-member parliament. Congress, which has ruled India for over 50 of the 67 years since independence, was forecast to win between 111-123.
Apparently resigned to a poor performance in this election, some Congress insiders have started trying to put a positive spin on a likely spell in opposition.
"Being in opposition in democratic politics gives a great opportunity to the party," Mani Shankar Aiyar, a senior Congress official and former government minister, told Reuters. "We need to democratise the party."
Another senior party member said: "This is a tough election. At the moment, the BJP appears to have an advantage."
Officially, Congress says the opinion polls have got it wrong and it will emerge as the single largest party.
"We're extremely confident," said party spokesman Sanjay Jha. "After Rahul Gandhi said we'll win, we've been especially upbeat. Poll findings will have no bearing."
Nevertheless, some Congress members have said the inability of 43-year-old Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, to effectively counter Modi has led to its woes. And although Gandhi has vowed to revitalise the party, they doubt he has the acumen to eventually lead it back to power.
Some senior members of Congress favour his younger sister Priyanka, the Times of India newspaper said this week. It quoted senior general secretary Janardan Dwivedi as saying that Priyanka Gandhi had been interested in "political developments and the language of politics" since an early age.
In a party where Rahul Gandhi is at least publicly seen as the unquestioned heir, the report created a storm.
Jha, the Congress spokesman, said the comments about Priyanka Gandhi were speculative. "She's not said anything personally. I would say any statement on what she will do in the future is a matter of speculation," he said.
Priyanka has restricted her political activities to supporting her brother and campaigning in her mother Sonia Gandhi's constituency. But many Congress faithful see her easy campaign style and marked resemblance to her grandmother, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, as a sign that she could revive the party's fortunes.
DOESN'T HAVE CONFIDENCE
On the stump, Rahul Gandhi, the son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers, draws crowds but even those in the audience do not fancy his chances.
Kept waiting for hours, thousands of listless young supporters in Aurangabad, a down-at-heel district in Bihar, come alive as Gandhi's helicopter descends, throwing up a plume of dust.
With a designer stubble and wearing white cotton 'kurta' tunic over blue jeans, Gandhi strides onto a rickety stage. Pushing up his sleeves, he appeals in his speech to core Congress voters.
"We want the poor to feel that they are a part of this nation. This is our dream for India," Gandhi tells a crowd that appears enthused more by his celebrity appeal than his rhetoric.
Despite criticism that his brand of Hindu nationalist politics is divisive, Modi has dominated the campaign. He has focused on effective government and creating jobs, which has resonated better with the country's 815 million voters.
Congress, which has been in power for the last decade, has struggled to overcome a series of corruption scandals, slowing economic growth and an inability to push policy.
At the election meeting, insurance agent Dharmendra Singh came early to get a ringside view of Gandhi. But he will cast his vote for Modi, impressed by a stint working in Gujarat which the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate has led for the past decade.
"There's no graft. There's 24-hour electricity," says the 25-year-old. "I want to see Narendra Modi as prime minister."
Away from the rally, teacher Kamala Devi has come to Aurangabad to visit the district school office. A lifelong Congress voter, she shakes her head vigorously when asked about Rahul Gandhi.
"He doesn't take a stand. He doesn't have confidence," says Devi, 56. "What they want to do is good. Their thinking is good, but they don't get things done."
The turning point of the election campaign, many analysts say, was Gandhi's first major television interview in January, which he fluffed.
Asked if he was afraid of losing the election to Modi, he replied in the third person: "Rahul Gandhi and millions of youngsters in this country want to change the way the system in this country works.
Gandhi appeared nervous and ill-prepared and the interview was widely criticised as a public relations disaster. He has not given any others since.
"How can he reform the system that made him what he is?" said Mohan Guruswamy, a political analyst. "It would have been a smart strategy if he was an outsider. But now it looks contrived."
Although any talk of a role Priyanaka Gandhi may have in Congress is nascent, it has begun. One strategist, however, described her as an ace in the sleeve, and not to be used now.
"There's the feeling that this is not the best election in terms of our prospects, so why waste our ace?" said the strategist, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity due the sensitivity of the matter.
(Additional reporting by Nigam Prusty in New Delhi and Sharat Pradhan in Lucknow; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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