Beni Prasad Verma says 2014 polls will be Rahul Gandhi vs Narendra Modi

Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh: The Congress and the BJP are yet to get there, but Union Minister Beni Prasad Verma today declared that the 2014 general elections would be a direct contest between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi.

Mr Verma’s effort aimed not so much at declaring the election plans of his party, the Congress, or indeed at predicting who the BJP’s candidate for prime minister two years later would be. He was trying to spite Mulayam Singh Yadav, his party chief for many years before he quit the Samajwadi Party to join the Congress. It rounded off a trip that has seen the minister make faux pas after faux pas.

The Steel Minister has been on a steady anti-Mulayam tirade on a visit to Uttar Pradesh. Today he said, “Do you think Mulayam Singh Yadav will form government at the Centre in 2014? It will either be Rahul Gandhi or Narendra Modi who will form government. These parties in-between will be nowhere, they are wasting the people’s time.”

Talk of a Rahul-Modi contest is not new. But the Congress has so far seemed queasy about a direct comparison between the two. So much, that Rahul Gandhi’s campaign programme for the Gujarat elections, to be held in a few months, is still not even in the works. Narendra Modi is the Chief Minister of Gujarat and is widely seen as the BJP’s best bet to lead the party in the 2014 general elections.

Many senior Congressmen have been hinting broadly that it is time for Rahul Gandhi to take on a bigger role. But Mr Verma’s rather direct assertion juxtaposing Mr Gandhi with Mr Modi is unlikely to win him many fans within the party. Especially as it comes from a leader who has worked closely with Rahul Gandhi in UP; though this is not the first time Mr Verma has put foot in the mouth when talking about Mr Gandhi. In February, during the UP election campaign, he had said aloud what was only discussed in whispers – that Rahul would replace Manmohan Singh as the Congress’ candidate for prime minister in 2014.

Congress leader Keshav Rao tried to play down Mr Verma’s words today saying, “Every party is talking about Rahul Gandhi. He stands out…There are internal contradictions as far as BJP is concerned, so you cannot say anything about Modi as you can about Rahul.”

The BJP has no such problems and is grinning. Party spokesman Siddharth Nath Singh said, “Mulayam Singh Yadav’s efforts to form a Third Front are indeed like a mirage. It will be either a Congress-led government or a BJP-led government in 2014.”

The Congress’ more immediate task will be soothing the ruffled feathers of Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mr Verma’s words today came on top of what he had said yesterday. “Mulayam Singh has gone mad. His dream of forming a government at the Centre will never be realized,” he told reporters in Barabanki near Lucknow.

Mr Verma accused Mr Yadav of interfering with the UP government that the latter’s son Akhilesh Yadav runs and said the father was not allowing the son’s government to function properly. Akhilesh was spared his ire; he said the UP chief minister was like a son to him and he wouldn’t blame what he called the government’s failings, on him.

The SP has called the Congress minister’s comments irresponsible. Parliament is in session and the Congress-led UPA, with its tenuous numbers, counts on Mulayam Singh Yadav’s friendship and support. It will find it difficult to defend its runaway minister’s latest comments.

This is not the first time that the Congress has had Beni trouble. In February this year, Mr Verma was in trouble over his remarks on the minority sub-quota at an election rally in Farukkhabad during the UP Assembly elections. He was let off with a warning by the Election Commission, but many in the Congress blame much of the party’s UP debacle on him.

At yesterday’s function in Barabanki, the minister courted more trouble when he said he was happy with the rising prices of the food items as it would benefit farmers. “Dal, atta, vegetables have all become expensive. The more the prices rise, the better it is. I am very happy with inflation,” he said.

Mr Verma’s inflation rationale has been slammed by the Opposition. “The Congress leaders are not affected by inflation at all. They are turning a blind eye to what inflation is doing to people. Hence, they are saying senseless things like farmers are benefitting from inflation. This shows the Congress’ mentality,” BJP’s Shahnawaz Hussain said.

The Congress today tried to distance itself from Mr Verma’s comments. “We put a stop on interest rate to control inflation. You should know that inflation is a matter of concern. I will offer sweets to him (Beni Prasad Verma) and ask him to keep his words sweet,” said Union Minister Salman Khurshid.

Mr Verma is a powerful leader of the Kurmi community in Uttar Pradesh and served as Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Public Works Department (PWD) Minister in UP. But he fell out with the Samajwadi Party chief in 2007 and contested the 2009 Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket.

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