There is nothing journalists and the viewer love more than a ‘big fight’. A Roger Federer is a great tennis player, but the legend is enhanced because of his battles with a Rafael Nadal; a Sachin Tendulkar’s true genius was tested in his contests with a Glenn McGrath. What is true of sports is certainly true of politics. Which is perhaps why political pundits have rushed to predict a Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi battle in 2014 even before the bugle has been sounded for the general elections.
For a news editor, it is a catchy headline and the contrast between the Congress’s dimpled ‘Prince’ and the BJP’s macho ‘Pracharak’ is too striking to be ignored. One a child of privilege, blessed with the most enduring brand name in Indian politics; the other a child of hardship whose father was not even a sarpanch. One who claims to be the legatee of the idea of a Nehruvian India; the other who represents an alternative worldview of Hindutva nationalism. The BJP likes to present the contrast as ‘dynasty versus meritocracy’; the Congress would like to project it as a secular versus communal divide.
Modi is the great communicator; Rahul appears uncomfortable in large public gatherings. One can be a rabble-rouser; the other a polite gent. Modi wears the badge of CEO-style governance as his calling card with panache; the other talks of reforming ‘systems’ but has no ministerial experience. One is celebrated as an icon for a ‘neo-middle class’; the other claims to represent the aspirations of a young India beyond the bright lights. Clearly, in a presidential style race, Modi versus Rahul is a delicious prospect, and one which is guaranteed to attract eyeballs.
And yet, the irony is that Modi and Rahul face similar challenges. Both in the first instance are being asked to live down their past. For the past nine years, Rahul has been a bit of a political butterfly, almost flitting in and out of the heat and dust of politics. He is now being asked to prove that he is indeed ready for a long haul, ready to be a 24x7 neta and not a distant, inaccessible figure. Modi too, is being challenged to acknowledge his failure to control the Gujarat violence of 2002. He has tried to recast his image as a growth-oriented chief minister, but the baggage of not having done enough to stop the killings of Muslims in the riots remains a black spot that cannot be erased only through well packaged sadbhavana yatras.
Both Rahul and Modi are also change agents within their own party, challenging the existing status quo. In a party notoriously resistant to change, Rahul is attempting to ‘democratise’ the Congress by opening it up to a new, more youthful leadership. Unfortunately, ‘the poison of power’, as he described it, has so deeply coursed through the veins of the Grand Old party that Rahul has found it difficult to translate his good intentions into any radical overhaul of the party structures yet.
Modi wants reform from within too. In a party wedded to the notion of ‘collective leadership’ and which is still controlled by an extra-constitutional RSS, Modi’s individualistic and near-dictatorial style of functioning is looked on with suspicion and even feared by his detractors within the Sangh parivar. In Gujarat, Modi has succeeded in virtually wiping out the traditional Sangh leadership, but to effect a similar transformation in the balance of power between Nagpur and the parliamentary wing of the BJP may prove a shade more difficult.
There are other parallels too. Both Modi and Rahul are leaders in the age of coalition politics, and are now confronted with the prospect of the increasingly shrinking social and geographical bases of the so-called ‘national’ parties. As Rahul found out last year, Uttar Pradesh has moved well beyond any emotional attachment to the Nehru-Gandhi family; the newly assertive caste groups want a large slice of the power cake and are not dependent on old-style patron-client relations. Modi, too, has to live with the reality that in states like Bihar with a large Muslim population, regional satraps like a Nitish Kumar are unwilling to publicly share a platform with him. Modi has at least proved himself as the supreme leader of his home state; Rahul’s vote catching abilities remain largely untested.
Which is also perhaps why the pundits who are pitching the next elections as Rahul versus Modi have got both their maths and chemistry wrong. In a highly competitive and diverse political space, the arithmetic will tell you that the next election will be won by whoever is able to aggregate the maximum number of potential kingmakers — Mayawati, Mulayam, Mamata, Jayalalithaa, Pawar, Naveen Patnaik, Nitish, even a Jagan — under one large tent. The chemistry will convince you that most of these regional players have no fixed loyalties and a number of them will be ready to mix with any combine that gives them a shot at power-sharing.
What Rahul’s ascent and Modi’s likely emergence can do though is enthuse the rank and file of their respective parties. The Congress party organisation has only one glue that holds it together: The First Family. What to an outsider is evidence of ‘chamchagiri’ is seen by the party worker as the very basis of his existence in the Congress fold. The BJP, too, desperately needs a charismatic face to boost the morale of its cadres. A Rajnath Singh as party president can only be the result of a desperate compromise formula; only a Modi-like figure can give the BJP a sense of self-belief that it sorely lacks at the moment.
Rahul versus Modi will, therefore, be a sell-out battle for the Congress and the BJP loyalists. For the rest of India, be prepared for a surprise political grand slam contender.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network. The views expressed by the author are personal.