In a major strategy shift, aimed at trumping Narendra Modi in the upcoming Gujarat assembly elections, the Congress has gone back to its populist streak of the 1970s. The party is promising lakhs of houses and jobs to the poor, thus creating a scare in the BJP rank and file, but leaving Modi unfazed. Close on the heels of distributing 35 lakh forms to poor women promising low cost houses if voted to power, the Congress has promised 100 sq metre plots to poor women in rural areas and cheap medical service to the lower classes with free surgeries in critical illness. It is now planning to distribute forms amongst unemployed youths, promising jobs. The idea is to hit at Modi's base amongst women and youth. What created a scare amongst the BJP cadres were the serpentine lines of thousands of women in major urban centres to get the forms under the scheme labelled 'Own your House' and the Congress announcement that it will make at least 15 lakh homes for the urban poor in five years if voted to power. As to how the party will fulfill its promises, Gujarat Congress chief Arjun Modhwadia said: "A party that can bring a revolutionarylaw like the Right to Information Act (RTI) for the benefit of the common men can certainly build cheap homes for the poor and do much more. We shall implement each and every promise we are making to the poor and common men and end this Modi Raj of the rich alone." The Congress's confidence may be sending jitters among Modi's party cadre, but the chief minister's response has been robust. "Congress is out to exploit the poor with pollgimmicks that it has done in successive elections," Modi said. "Why is the nation stillreeling under poverty despite the party being in power for decades? This will have no impact. If my hard work of a decade is going to be erased by mere distribution of forms making hollow promises, then I have nothing more to say." Modi added that the BJP Government had built 16 lakh homes for the poor besides giving them 3.25 lakh plots since he came topower in 2001. Modi's strong response brought some strength to the BJP cadres. At many places the BJP women workers made a bonfire of the forms distributed by the Congress, dubbing the exercise a poll gimmick. BJP state secretary Bharat Pandya said: "In the 1970s, one prominent Gujarat Congress leader promised houses to the poor at R s. 1,but forgot the promise as soon as he came to power. The Sheila Dikshit government in Delhi too promised such homes to the poor before the last elections, but failed to implement it. The voters would certainly see through the Congress game of fighting the polls on empty promises." The Congress's populist move, however, has certainly given the party's worker something to cheer. Significantly, the Gujarat Housing Board (GHB), a mismanaged organisation since thedays of the Congress Government, has remained almost defunct during BJP rule. It has to recover dues, with interest, worth R s. 600 crores from the non-cooperative low cost housing beneficiaries. The dues are pending for more than two decades. However, the housing board still has 23 lakhsq yards of land on which it can build homes. This could become the BJP government's trump card. Interestingly, observers are waiting for Modi's next move to the Congress's populist streak. On the whole, the Gujarat CM has refrained from indulging in crass populism as he demonstrated in the case of farmers stealing power. By taking firm action against farmers indulging in power theft, Modi invited the wrath of the ryots initially in 2005-2006. But as farmers realised the worth of quality power supply in the absence of power theft, they fell in line. The coming weeks will reveal whether Modiwill try and match Congress's populist streak to win the upcoming elections or react with something else to checkmate the rival party's moves aimed at stopping him in his tracks in Gujarat so that he doesn't emerge as a threat to Rahul Gandhi for the top job in the 2014 Lok sabha polls.