Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi: Will they run the race or bow out?

Some may call it a Hobson’s choice — between the BJP’s Narendra Modi, a dynamic, enterprising  but polarising figure who has alienated an entire community (the Muslims) by his brand of politics, and Rahul Gandhi, a symbol of dynastic politics who has neither the depth nor the understanding of complex Indian politics and affairs of state. Yet, the mantle of prime ministership could well fall on either of them as the nation prepares for general elections latest by May 2014. And who knows the winner between them may overcome his weaknesses and emerge as a catalyst of change for the better.

Modi is confident and aggressive to the point of being arrogant and dictatorial; Rahul is relatively shy and reticent but has an army of wheeler-dealers and unscrupulous hangars-on to egg him on, sometimes in the wrong direction.

Modi has run Gujarat efficiently and decisively as the chief minister for nearly a decade and is rated highly as an administrator and organiser. Under him, Gujarat has become a role model for the country in economic management. Rahul, on the other hand, has no administrative experience and has spearheaded the Congress election campaigns in U.P., Bihar, Tamil Nadu with lacklustre results. He is, however, seen as genuinely inclusive and one who carries all sections of India’s famously diverse people with him.

It is bad enough that as a member of parliament Rahul has never spoken on serious economic issues in the House of the People or from a public platform. Despite the loud pronouncements by Congressmen that he is their first choice for prime ministerial office, he has never taken a position on major issues that engage and exercise the minds of millions in the country.

When he recently spoke at a CII convention in New Delhi many thought it was a golden opportunity for him to lay out his economic vision for India. But while he talked of problems and failures, he offered no solutions. He did not implore industry to proactively invest in a new India in the making or hold out hope that he would strive to ensure that roadblocks like bureaucratic red tape that are hampering industrial activity would be removed. Strangely, Rahul did not even mention corruption which is uppermost in the minds of people when they talk of the Manmohan Singh government’s much-talked about misgoverance or policy paralysis. Nor did he dwell on inflation whose burden on the common man has been back-breaking. He did talk about the need for a closer partnership between business and government, but he treaded the same beaten path without any specific direction. As in the recent past, all his attention was focussed on redistributive justice but even in that he had no solution to offer, no road map to follow. He had no new ideas, no new insights to spur growth in the country.

Narendra Modi, on the other hand, has no qualms about lashing out at the Manmohan Singh government on all sorts of issues, but having never held any office at the Centre or shouldered the daunting task of running a coalition, he is untested in the art of holding together a diverse political combine with potentially competing agendas.

On the other hand, Modi has had an enviable record as the chief minister of Gujarat with an annual growth rate of 10.08 per cent for the state in the seven years through March 2011 at constant prices. In the eight years through March 2002 (Modi took office in October 2001), it was 6.16 per cent.

If Modi overcomes all challenges on his way, including a perceived image deficit, and does eventually don the prime ministerial mantle, he will need to learn to be more conscious of the compulsions of taking the allies along in a coalition. He will indeed have to live down his imperiousness and to be more accommodative.

Yet, there is no doubt that though his potential on the national stage is untested, his reputation for not hesitating to take hard decisions will stand him in good stead. Coming after a prime minister who is seen by some as be ‘spineless’ and given to surrendering his authority to Congress president Sonia Gandhi on critical issues of national importance, Modi will essentially be his own man, wielding real power. However, if he carries his strong exercise of authority too far, he could well ruffle feathers within the coalition.

Strong rule tempered by tact and understanding would perhaps be the way forward. In reaching out directly to the cadres, Modi has been shrewd enough to lavishly praise other BJP chief ministers and leaders, hinting to them that he would not ride roughshod over them if the mantle falls on him. Clearly, since the time he was catapulted to power for another term as chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi has made the right moves. His earlier decision to address students of the Shriram College of Commerce in Delhi University, spurning the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s invitation to him to address the saffron congregation at the Kumbh mela at the same time, sent out the right signals to the youth. His systematic courtship of businessmen and industrialists at the investor meets he spearheads every two years in Ahmedabad has already won him ardent supporters in business and industry.

Modi’s weak spot continues to be his role in looking the other way when angry mobs attacked minority Muslims in the wake of the Godhra train burning in 2002 but some sort of regret expressed closer to the elections could still nudge a section of Muslims to gravitate towards him and away from the Congress towards which they have been leaning per force for want of a better alternative.

It is the Muslim vote bank’s antipathy towards him for his role in the 2002 riots that is making it difficult for the BJP to find enough friendly parties to support him if he is a contender for prime minister and the elections throw up a hung parliament with both the NDA and UPA vying for allies. Modi will be torn between the option to continue to seem a Hindu hardliner and the other option of holding out the olive branch to the Muslims by regretting the events of 2002 in unambiguous terms.

It remains to be seen whether the BJP and the Congress finally settle for Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi respectively. While the BJP cadres are overwhelmingly for Modi and it would be extremely difficult for the party high command to foist another leader, Rahul is an unsure starter though he has solid support from Congressmen. He is still groping whether he should jump into the fray or not.

By Indian political standards both Modi and Rahul are young, the latter more so, but Modi’s charisma is built around his fiery rhetoric while Rahul’s pull has more to do with his personality, his good looks and the mystique of the Dynasty. It’s an epic battle that holds out a promise of fireworks and bitter clashes between their supporters , but the million dollar question is ‘will they be the chosen ones or would either or both of them bow out of the race before it starts.’

(Kamlendra Kanwar is a senior journalist and commentator on political and business issues).