Around January-February, an angry Rahul Gandhi seemed omnipresent as the face of the Congress campaign in Uttar Pradesh. Even if he was not physically seen in all constituencies, he invaded every household through TV and print ads that ended with two words: Zara sochiye (Just think).
But an election hyped as Rahul's final test dented his aura, and also set the tone for a redrawing of political equations at the Centre.
Nine months later, the Gujarat election is billed to be equally important for the the political future of the country, but there is a big difference: the man who is officially expected to write the Congress party's destiny in the next parliamentary polls is MIA - missing in action.
Rahul Gandhi is not only missing in popular discourse, but he figures nowhere in the Congress party's ad campaigns - whether print, TV or audio-visual.
The only question is why: has the Congress given up on Gujarat, and hence doesn't not want to burden the heir-apparent with another defeat, or is the Congress party in the state unsure about whether Sonia Gandhi and her son have any electoral utility in the state?
Local leaders are also not sure when Sonia and Rahul will come to Gujarat for their final rounds of campaigning.
An electoral ad war is in full swing between the Congress and the BJP. The Congress has brought out a series of ads with the slogan Disha Badalen, Dasha Badalen (Change the course, change the situation), but none of the ads carry any picture of Sonia or Rahul. The ads merely talk of the Gujarat Congress.
In sharp contrast, in the BJP it is all Modi and very little BJP.
A dejected local Congressman told Firstpost, "how can we be expected to win when our top leadership already seems to have given up? They are not even willing to associate their names, at least at this stage. The question many of us are internally asking is, Rahul tum kab aaoge (Rahul, when will you come?)."
Gujarat Congress president Arjun Modwadia's explanation for the lack of Sonia and Rahul pictures in ads is simple. "There was no need to have a face in TV ads. We put up our top leaders' pictures where required (public rallies)." Party spokesman Manish Joshi expanded on the idea of why Sonia and Rahul pictures are missing: "This is because the ads are on local issues. Even the photographs of local leaders are also not there. Currently we are trying to educate the voters on the performance of the Modi government."
But then, did the Congress ads in Uttar Pradesh not reflect local issues? Congress leaders here are not willing to respond officially to this query.
Seizing on this opportunity—the lack of projection of leaders both at the local and national levels—one BJP ad mocks at the Congress' lack of leadership, while another talks of corruption in UPA-2 at the Centre.
As electioneering enters its more crucial stages, Congress leaders are hard-pressed to answer when Rahul will come to challenge Modi. In the last elections in 2007, Rahul had held a series of rallies and road shows, but this time the Congress is wary of pitting Rahul against Modi. Modwadia did not respond directly to a query on this issue. He merely said: "Soniaji has already addressed a huge rally of over one lakh people in Rajkot. Rahulji will come for sure and will address several rallies in the last phases of campaigning."
Modwadia also offers this argument on why Rahul is not in battle gear this time. "He has to take care of 25-26 states in the country; he can’t devote the same amount of time as he did in UP. UP is his home state."
To keep the morale of party workers up, for now Modwadia put the onus on himself. He says: "We will win. This time we will have to win." The Congress has to put up a good show since it has not won in Gujarat since 1995.
Is the non-appearance of Sonia and Rahul suggestive of the Congress lack of confidence in its ability to breach Modi's fort this time too?