NEW DELHI: It is a fight to the finish. No one had expected the Congress to place the BJP on the defensive in Gujarat, but this is how it seems to be at the moment with Rahul Gandhi shedding his ‘Pappu image’ for a more decisive, witty, and confident leader---ironically in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state.

But now that the Congress campaign is off the ground, there is serious worry within the party about the allocation of tickets. In the past, Congress sources said, the party has been beaten in the elections partly because of the popularity of PM Modi but also because of its choice of candidates, many of whom known to be close to the BJP and without ground links. “Rahulji is well aware of this and is trying his best to ensure that the seats go to winnable and popular candidates,” the sources said.

How? Well to begin with the Congress Vice President has cut out the senior leaders from undue interference by placing a young team as zonal heads. He is no longer relying on the old guard ---from the state and outside---for a feed back but consults with Rajeev Satav, former Youth Congress president, Harshvardhan Sapkal, MLA from Maharashtra, Jitu Patwari, MLA from Madhya Pradesh, and Varsha Gaekwad, former Maharashtra minister. This team along with others has been camping in Gujarat for the past four months. They have set up the booth committees, are in touch with district workers, and their views weigh more with Rahul Gandhi, say the sources, than even Rajya Sabha MP Ahmed Patel now.

The four operate like PCC presidents, have full freedom, and the vice president’s ear. So much so that the candidates for over 100 Assembly seats are presently under a review and a re-check even though these had been almost finalised earlier. The reason, sources said, is to ensure that no one is fielded because of patronage but only on merit and popularity with the grassroots.

These 100 odd seats identified as winnable by the Congress are being monitored closely by Rahul Gandhi and his team of national secretaries and zonal heads, to ensure that possible victory is not squandered away by unsuitable and non-serious candidates. Earlier, the sources added, the old guard would distribute the seats accordingly without a thought for the winnability of candidates. “Rahulji is trying his best to avoid this through an almost foolproof monitoring system,” the sources added.

Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and Pattidar leader Hardik Patel are in touch with the Congress party but are not contesting the elections themselves. Negotiations are on for some seats, with the Congress keen for the two young men to support their candidates instead. They have been asked not to spread their resources thin, as the sources put it, and to ensure that their candidates are not open to the lures of BJP president Amit Shah.

There is a spring in the step of the new Congress leaders in Punjab with the exit of Shanker Sinh Vaghela being hailed all across as “very welcome.” The mood against GST and demonetisation, the Congress feels, has cut into the popularity of PM Modi who is “no longer talking of his Gujarat model”. But as they rush to add, “it is a long way to polling day as yet, and we cannot let our guard down.”

However, there is relief that Rahul Gandhi is becoming increasingly acceptable even in polarised Gujarat. “A year ago people would have said that Gujarat would be his Waterloo but clearly it is turning into a potential launching pad. Nothing is sticking to him, not even Pidi (his tweet about his dog) that is now generating laughter and applause,” a well known activist in Ahmedabad said.