There never was a race between Modi and Rahul Gandhi, in the first place, even though it has enormous chatter value. But framing it like that sets the stage for ‘disqualifying’ both and shifting the goalpost to the perceived advantage of one party over the other.
The media-inspired framing of the emerging political contest in gladiatorial terms Narendra Modi vs Rahul Gandhi has acquired such widespread resonance that it has become impossible for anyone making any observation about India to avoid it.
In an interview to ‘Economic Times’, the very first question that Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy confronts is: “What are your views on Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi?” Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. PTI
Every syllable of Murthy’s answer is worthy of a UN diplomat who, when asked to vote on a contentious resolution, takes a toilet break to avoid taking sides. “Well, I know both of them very well,” he says. “Both are extremely well-intentioned people. Rahul Gandhi is very idealistic and a very decent human being. He has real concerns for the downtrodden. Modi is a good administrator. He is a very open-minded person. He has demonstrated in Gujarat that individuals can maybe make a difference. I think either of them, with suitable advisors, will really be able to bring about positive changes in the country.”
Asked next about Modi’s “national credentials”, Murthy again does the two-step routine aimed at establishing equivalence. “Let us remember,” he says, “that… the secular credentials of all are at the same level”. If Gujarat under Modi saw its riots in 2002, so too did Delhi in 1984 under Congress rule. “So I don’t think any of these coalitions can claim to be more secular than the other…. The issue, therefore, should not get down to who is more secular. Our question will have to be, who can lead the country to make it a better place. I think both Rahul Gandhi and Modi will do a decent job.”
Not everyone agrees that a Modi-vs-Rahul framing works entirely to the former’s advantage. Some analysts see the propping up of Rahul Gandhi despite his manifest lack of interest in such a direct contest as a red herring, a decoy intended to draw fire away from Sonia Gandhi, who still remains the axis around whom the Congress party pivots.
Saying that they’re both equally worthy of the top job is one way of establishing the Modi-Rahul equivalence, and opinion is divided on whom it benefits. ColumnistSeema Mustafa seems to think that it works to Modi’s advantage because of the two, Modi is the better orator, is better informed, a politician of the masses, and someone who is not diffident or shy. Rahul, on the other hand, is “shy, diffident, childish and well meaning” and “one almost feels sorry for Rahul pitted against a politician who has calibrated his rise so successfully”, she writes.
Even BJP spokesperson and actor Kirron Kher, who is given to flashes of theatricality when she appears on television panel shows, said she sympathised with Rahul Gandhi’s plight. The sight of him being forever propelled to the forefront of politics when he is clearly unwilling reminded her of parents who declare “aaj mera bachcha ye poem sunayega“. And every Congressman worth his name screams that Rahul Gandhi is the best thing that happened to India, she recalls.
The recent high-profile speeches of both Rahul (at the CII event) and Modi (at the FICCI Ladies Organisation event, a ThinkIndia conclave, and at a business chamber event in Kolkata) provided enough material for an assessment of their respective leadership styles and their vision for India. And for economist Surjit Bhalla, it was a no-contest.
“If you compare their speeches on several parameters,” Bhalla told an NDTV panel discussion, “Mr Modi geared his speech to the audience.” It was, he reckons, a “brilliant stroke”. When one listened to Modi at each of those events one came away with the impression that he was speaking from experience, having dealt with the problems and with facts at his fingertips, he added. “In terms of leadership qualities and experience and offering a vision of what a person will do, when I watched Rahul Gandhi’s speech, I had no idea what he would do when he gets into office, whereas I have a very god idea of what Modi will do once he gets into office.”
Yet, not everyone agrees that a Modi-vs-Rahul framing works entirely to the former’s advantage. Some analysts see the propping up of Rahul Gandhi despite his manifest lack of interest in such a direct contest as a red herring, a decoy intended to draw fire away from Sonia Gandhi, who still remains the axis around whom the Congress party pivots. That theory gains credence when you consider the other kind of “equivalence” that is increasingly being established between Modi and Rahul by suggesting that neither of them is worthy of consideration, and that both their names should be taken off the ballot, so to speak.
Appearing on Karan Thapar’s talk show recently, social anthropologist Ramachandra Guha said pointedly that he did not have to choose between Modi and Rahul Gandhi. “I refuse to go along with the media reduction of the choice of Prime Minister to these two people.” And within both the Congress party and the BJP, he said, “There are better qualified candidates.” Likewise, editorial columnists Tridivesh Singh Maini and Arko Dasgupta point (here) to the “half-baked understanding of foreign policy issues” that, in their estimation, both Modi and Rahul Gandhi share and suggest that neither would be a “force for good for Indiaon the world stage”.
But it’s fair to say that framing the Modi-Rahul equivalence in such a fashion and asking for both their names to be taken off the ballot appears calculated to work to the Congress’ political advantage. It seeks to remove from political contention the man who is perceived as the BJP’s trump card and prime vote-catcher (even if Modi’s appeal beyond Gujarat has not yet been validated). From all accounts, for all the brave face and bluster that Congress leaders display in public, they appear “clueless” about how to stop the Modi “juggernaut”. Taking Rahul Gandhi’s name momentarily out of the Prime Ministerial race is small sacrifice for the Congress if it means getting Modi out of the fray as well. It would be like giving up the 12th man of your team and a reluctant one at that in exchange for seeing the opponent’s Most Valuable Player benched.
That’s because even though Modi’s name has the potential to polarise voters, his appeal may work to the BJP’s advantage only if he is declared the party’s candidate ahead of the election. It is in that context that the equivalence being established by commentators between Modi and Rahul Gandhi and calling for both of them to be stood down from the race acquire political significance. There never was a race between Modi and Rahul Gandhi, in the first place, even though it has enormous chatter value. But framing it like that sets the stage for ‘disqualifying’ both and shifting the goalpost to the perceived advantage of one party over the other.