Monday, October 15, 2012

The soft touch and the hard sell Inbox x

The Rahul versus Modi scenario is not just about the two leaders. For, Rahul will be riding on two terms of UPA and the record of a government he has not been part of till now. Modi still has to get his party’s endorsement

The battle does look like one between David and Goliath. Despite
being leader-in-waiting of a party in power since 2004, a Rahul Gandhi
versus Narendra Modi contest doesn’t look even at all. On the one
hand, Modi has been chief minister since 2001 with a formidable string
of election victories while Rahul is still seen to be a work in
    Neither the BJP nor the Congress has decided on their prime
ministerial nominees. But as things stand, Rahul-as-PM seems the
unsaid message behind the Gandhi scion’s decision to assume greater
responsibilities in Congress — perhaps along with a cabinet job — as
it is quite clear that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is unlikely to
seek another term.
    Modi is clearly pitching for the prime ministerial tag in 2014,
riding on his image as a leader who can deliver on development and the
economy while coming across as a tough guy on terrorism. Business
leaders fall over one another in hailing Modi’s Gujarat as an
investment destination and the saffron mascot ruler has barely faced a
challenge from political opponents.
    As CM, Modi’s report card on development is impressive. The state
has clocked high growth rates and unemployment is lower than in many
others. The man from Mehsana has turned Gujarati pride into a
formidable political weapon against those who seek to run him down.
Critics have argued that Modi’s record is a bit fluffed up, but they
haven’t been able to dent his popular image as yet. Modi does have a
few chinks in his armour, though. Try as he might, political rivals,
activists and minority groups have refused to let him forget the
post-Godhra riots of 2002. Arrested terrorists from groups like Indian
Mujahideen have regularly reported how Gujarat riots are used to farm
new recruits to the jihadi cause. The CM has been tried and tested in
Gujarat, but his appeal elsewhere has not. In fact, the BJP was forced
to ensure he did not campaign in Bihar for the 2010 assembly election
as its ally Janata Dal would not hear of it. Bihar chief minister
Nitish Kumar made it clear that Modi will be a red rag for Muslims who
could shed their neutrality he had worked hard to cultivate. Indeed,
the Gujarat riots were seen as a reason for Muslims voting
aggressively against the NDA in 2004, ensuring that the BJP’s bid to
tout Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s peace initiatives with Pakistan as a
milestone were contemptuously brushed aside by the community. Muslim
anger took a heavy toll of the BJP’s prospects in states like UP and
Bihar and its allies like JD(U) and TDP suffered as well. In contrast
to Modi’s hard image, Rahul’s is a softer touch. He is schooled in
welfarist, entitlement-driven politics that has seen UPA make rural
employment guarantees and loan waivers the bedrock of its political
outreach to the poor. The success of these schemes during the UPA’s
first term convinced Rahul that hurting India would acknowledge its
debt to the Congress. His forays into tribal hinterlands, dalit homes,
meeting families devastated by farmer suicides and photo ops while
lending a hand to casual labour are all indicative of his grounding in
the dole school.
    As he has not held an administrative post, it is unfair to compare
Rahul’s record with Modi. The young leader has not yet come across as
a powerful orator as the Gujarat CM is. His chances lie in his pitch
for inclusive politics that include a preparedness to play the quota
card for minorities. The minority reservation promise did not work in
UP earlier this year, but it is still viewed as a potent election
    Although criticised for being thin on substantive political ideas,
the shades of class warfare in his politics cannot be wished away. In
his bid to bat for "poor India", there is more than a hint of
criticism of those who are better off. His critics say this is nothing
less than punishing the India that is enterprising and innovative, but
Rahul’s positioning can be appealing to rural vote banks.
    The Congress general secretary has been in charge of youth
organisations where results are mixed. His appeal for a meritocracy in
politics has attracted many to Congress while the call to change
politics-as-usual is also well received. The electoral results are not
encouraging and the new implants have found the going tough in a party
where the older hierarchy has a stranglehold on the organisation.
    The Rahul versus Modi scenario is not just about the two leaders.
For Rahul will be riding on two terms of UPA and a record of a
government he has not been part of till now. Modi still needs the
endorsement of his party as he faces considerable resistance from
inner-party rivals. There are factors he cannot fully control, such as
the final vote in the inner chambers of the RSS and the state of the
BJPled NDA when the next poll comes along.
    For both leaders, circumstances rather than individual merits and
a presidential-style contest may end up determining the result.