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The soft touch and the hard sell
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 progress.
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 pull.
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.
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