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Rahul versus Modi face-off

Time for centre stage?

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POLL STARS: While Modi has established his hold on urban voters his pull is more muted in rural areas;Rahul can be a crowd puller with a pan-Indian appleal but nuts and bolts of election are best left to regional leaders

With Narendra Modi's hat-trick in Gujarat, everyone's speculating about a dramatic face-off with Rahul Gandhi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But the cheerleaders would do well to remember that in the Westminster system, elections are won by parties, and not individuals.

Narendra Modi began his Delhi campaign even before the final results of the Gujarat assembly elections were in. In the end, he was down a couple of seats with a vote share that had fallen a disturbing two percent, but that did not deter him. Even as votes were being counted and tallied, he sailed into a victory speech that sounded more like an address to the nation. I am your man, he seemed to say as he thundered, ". . . through this decision, voters in Gujarat have paved the way for me to work for the country..."

Significantly, he spoke in Hindi, not Gujarati, fully aware that he was live on national television and all eyes were on him. It was the clearest signal that mentally, he had already moved out of Gandhinagar.

On the other side, the Congress watched Modi's rising tally and muscular pronouncements with trepidation. Was this the man who was going to challenge Rahul Gandhi for the prime minister's post in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls? In a US-style presidential election, it would be an unequal contest. Modi is clearly a more experienced and skilled orator with charismatic appeal for the aspirational urban middle class Hindu voter. But in the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy that we have adopted, elections are fought by parties, not individuals. And the BJP is limited by its failure to make substantial inroads into areas that lie outside the Hindi heartland. Also, India is larger and more diverse with a complex social fabric that Modi's cheerleaders have yet to fully comprehend.

Still, the Congress seemed to be rattled by the prospect of a Rahul versus Modi face-off. As the Gujarat chief minister headed for a hat-trick, Congress leaders swung into damage control mode with a coordinated attempt to belittle his feat and prick the larger-than-life Modi balloon that loomed ominously on their horizon. Finance minister Chidambaram, who has emerged as his party's leading tactician, came out with the surprising formulation that the Congress had actually won because it succeeded in containing Modi's seat tally to below the 2007 mark. Information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari made a valiant effort to create an illusion of a Rahul phenomenon with the claim that the party had won all the seven constituencies in which the Gandhi scion had campaigned. And after a studied effort to skirt all mention of the 2002 communal carnage in poll speeches, the riots were back in the Congress lexicon with several leaders flagging it as the albatross Modi will always carry. Ironically, both sides seem to have completely missed the message of the verdict from both Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. (The election results from the tiny hill state were declared along with those from Gujarat. ) The two national parties must surely realise that while a Rahul versus Modi battle makes for exciting television, the hype cannot blow away hard ground realities. First the Congress. Its much-trumpeted Himachal victory once again underlines the importance of regional leaders who can craft unique electoral strategies for their states because they have their ears to the ground. Himachal Pradesh was won for the Congress by old war horse Virbhadra Singh, among the last of its regional satraps. The leadership was wise enough to put him in charge and give him full control. The party's continuing inability to reclaim Gujarat is largely because of the absence of strong regional faces to counter Modi. And this is a story that repeats itself across India, particularly in the larger states which control bulk seats in the Lok Sabha. Whether it is Uttar Pradesh or Bihar or Tamil Nadu or West Bengal, the Congress has been out of the reckoning for decades. And it has thrown away its chances in the last of its big bastions, Andhra Pradesh, by failing to accommodate the ambitions of Jaganmohan Reddy after his father died. It seems to have forgetten that it was Reddy senior who gifted the Congress a huge chunk of seats from this state in both 2004 and 2009. A Gandhi can be a crowdpuller with a pan-Indian appeal but the nuts and bolts of an election are best left to regional leaders who understand the nitty-gritty of caste, community and other demographics that are unique to their states.

For the BJP and for Modi in particular, while a third successive win (the fifth for the BJP, actually) in Gujarat is a huge morale booster, the figures must surely be a cause of concern. Modi's mega 3D campaign raised huge expectations which were belied by the final tally. It rests at two below his 2007 score. And the disappointment was evident in the reactions of some party leaders who candidly admitted on television that they had hoped to sweep the state Dabangg style. The fact is that his vote share has dipped along with his seat tally despite all his antics during the campaign. It does take away some of the sheen, which his detractors in the BJP will try to exploit to create hurdles in his march from Gandhinagar to New Delhi.

The fine print also reveals that while Modi is a huge hit with urban voters of the upwardly-mobile aspirational variety, his pull is more muted in rural Gujarat, where other factors like caste and basic issues of water, electricity and land come into play. Transpose this on to the larger canvass of India. It must be evident even to Modi's drumbeaters that it won't be easy to win the hearts and minds of an entire and diverse nation that is still 70 percent rural.
Modi's magic formula in his home state is a mix of Hindutva and sub-national appeal. He constantly harps on the "6 crore Gujaratis" theme. He will have to transform himself from a Gujarati to a statesmanlike figure who can transcend regional barriers to be an effective campaigner for his party. The Modi brand has still to be tested outside Gujarat.

Finally, there is no escaping the communal question. Ten years have passed since the riots but there has been no closure yet, not just for the Muslims but also for the liberal India that believes in the secular foundations on which our democracy has grown, in sharp contrast to Pakistan. Modi's victory speech appeal for forgiveness for his mistakes was too flip to cut much ice. He will have to do much more than toss out a stray sentence or two to claim a place in the pantheon of Indian prime ministers.

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