NEW DELHI — India's national election is not expected for a year, but the campaign has already begun.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which has resisted naming a candidate from among its many leaders, began coalescing around a successful, deeply polarizing, politician who launched a scathing attack against the `'termites" of the ruling Congress Party.
Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi, long assumed to Congress' candidate, hinted he might not want the job after all, even as he laid the groundwork for the coming vote by plowing through nonstop meetings with coalition allies and party lawmakers.
All of this portends a long campaign that could distract a government struggling to revive India's sputtering economic growth.
`'A year goes by quicker than you realize, so you have to put things in place," said Sidharth Bhatia, a political analyst.
Congress, which won the last two national elections, appears especially vulnerable this time around. Economic growth that reached 9 percent two years ago has plummeted to an expected 5 percent in the fiscal year ending this month.
And the ruling party has suffered a barrage of corruption scandals, the latest involving allegations of bribes and kickbacks in a $750 million contract for 12 luxury helicopters to ferry top leaders around the country.
Amid the uncertainty, Gandhi – who would be the fourth generation in his family to be prime minister – opened the door, just slightly, to the possibility he might not want the office the party has been preparing him to assume since it took back power in 2004.
`'The prime minister's post is not my priority. I believe in long-term politics," he said, according to local media.
That raised speculation he might opt for an arrangement similar to the one his mother, Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, has with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: Singh runs the government, while Sonia Gandhi is the power behind the throne.
Party leaders quickly came out to shoot down the idea Rahul Gandhi's candidacy was in doubt, saying he was just showing his belief that the party was more important than any one man.
But political analyst Neerja Chowdhury said she believed he really meant it.
`'He's been saying that to colleagues and friends for a long time," she said.
In the unfavorable political climate, Congress might not want to tarnish Gandhi's name with a severe election loss, she said.
Rahul Gandhi's perceived ambivalence stood in contrast to Narendra Modi's forceful push to secure the candidacy for the main opposition BJP.
The chief minister of Gujarat has been praised as an efficient manager who has brought high growth and development to his state. He has attracted Indians hopeful he can bring order to the chaotic country.
But the Hindu nationalist politician also stands accused of looking the other way in 2002 when Hindu mobs rampaged through Muslim neighborhoods in his state, leaving more than 1,100 people dead. He has never expressed remorse for the violence.
The incident led the United States to refuse him a diplomatic visa in 2005. And just last week a conference at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania withdrew his invitation to make an address via Skype because of protests.
Neverthless, Modi was greeted with a standing ovation and chants for him to be prime minister at a recent national party meeting.
The famously outspoken Modi launched a call to arms against the ruling party.
`'Congress is destroying the country like termites. It is very difficult to deal with termites, you finish them in one place and they rise in another," he said.
He then tore into Singh, saying the party chose him as prime minister because he was an easily manipulated `'night watchman."
The normally soft-spoken Singh hit back in Parliament, saying the opposition has been recklessly optimistic in the past, including in the 2009 election when it ran an `'ironman" against the `'lamb that Manmohan Singh is." Singh noted he won that election and was confident Congress would get elected again.
In another speech Friday in the upper house of Parliament, he dismissed the BJP with a quote from Roman senator Tacitus: "When men are full of envy, they disparage everything, whether it be good or bad."
Chowdhury said Singh's uncharacteristically energetic speech might mean the 80-year-old economist is angling for another term.
`'Nothing is ruled out in Indian politics," she said.
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