The forthcoming electoral contest of 2014 is fast passing into pop culture. The Battle of the 'Bachelors' - Rahul Gandhi vs Narendra Modi is a colourful confrontation. Pappu vs Chappan, RaGa vs NaMo, Yuvraj vs Hindu Hriday Samrat: you know a political contest has caught the public imagination when it is described in multifarious ways in choicest slang. On social media, Twitter trend wars between RaGa supporters and NaMo bhakts have been joined.
Yet the question arises: is there really a significant difference in what Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi actually say? Both talk of changing systems, both have made pitches to business and industry, both shun press conferences, although Modi has attended two media gatherings. Both have talked of systems change, empowering the citizen and making government accountable. Both have generally refused to take "uncomfortable" questions from journalists, although Mr Modi did face some tough ones at the India Today conclave but sadly did not acquit himself as well on questions on the 2002 riots as he did on questions on his plans for India. Precisely because of his future plans, the refusal of Mr Modi to engage at all with the Gujarat riots is unsuitable in someone taking a stab at being a national statesman.
The same incongruity applies to Rahul Gandhi who has so far not done a single serious interview either in print or on television, nor addressed a truly combative press conference. In fact Rahul Gandhi perhaps went the farthest he has ever gone when he spoke of the "accident of DNA" that had put him where he was. But he has still not engaged openly with something that obsesses the entire chattering class, namely the hereditary principle in a democracy.
In the age of the media, both Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi refuse to open themselves up fully for media questioning. Both concern themselves with the best way to deliver services - Rahul Gandhi emphasising the rights based programmes of the UPA and the need to devolve power to the grassroots, Modi on efficient governance systems and as he so aptly puts it, converting "file" to "life". The one point of difference is how to effect change: Rahul Gandhi says change cannot come from a single man riding in on a horse, Modi positions himself as the man, the single individual who can deliver on everything he promises.
The difference in ideas is thus marginal. Both the Congress and the BJP are now agreed on reforms, both agree on the aam aadmi's centrality and both agree on growth. In fact, the spectrum of ideas in which all our political parties operate is rather narrow. Because we are still, as a country in the delivering-basics mode, we really have not graduated to the ideas debate in politics. As a student in Oxford in Margaret Thatcher's heyday, I remember what a radical shock her ideas were, how the unleashing of the free market, the smashing of the labour unions sent tremors across Britain. In India, no politician will still dare talk of abolishing the Planning Commission or privatising the public sector or labour reforms. At his interaction with Network 18 Modi refused to comment on any of these, even cautiously saying that downsizing government should not mean loss of jobs.
Apart from the secular communal divide, which is a divide on identity rather than ideas, the contest between Mr Gandhi and Mr Modi, is hardly a contest of major new ideas.
Where they are different is not on ideas, but in personality. Narendra Modi is the Mr Fixit, the rather bombastic and swaggering Gujarat CM has a proven track record and each of his speeches is a list of his undoubted achievements in Gujarat. Rahul Gandhi is Mr Dreamer, the Peter Pan of Indian politics, still boyish at the age of 42, still on a discovery of India journey and wrestling with dilemmas. Rahul Gandhi's CII speech was not so much about what he said, but the distinct contrast in persona he strategically offered against Modi. While NaMo's style is expansive, macho and self-congratulatory, RaGa offered a tentative, dreamy persona.
They couldn't have had more divergent lives. One, the silver spoon in mouth scion, and a child of social privilege, now almost on his way to renouncing power to tramp through villages of Real India. The other, an up-by-his-bootstraps pracharak, rising through the sangh hierarchy to claim leadership of his party on the basis of undoubted Herculean efforts and sheer grit. One marked by fire and brimstone oratory, the other hardly an orator, though because he is unlike a conventional politician, may just be someone who offbeat young voters may identify with. Others argue that a Mr Dreamer is only well suited to conditions of 8% growth. In conditions of economic crisis, it is a Mr Fixit who really wins hearts because the country is yearning for a no-nonsense problem solver at the helm.
China may be an economic miracle, but what both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi taken together illustrate is that India is a political miracle. Two opposing personalities, as well as the range of other political options on display, show that the voter in India, like the consumer in other countries, has a huge choice. Like a good cricket match, it isn't certain which team will win. Yet the fact that both are increasingly pushed to declare their respective visions for India, both are increasingly under pressure to provide an agenda for change, shows how our democracy is maturing and how far the Indian voter has come from simply being wooed by vote-banks, sops and platitudes. Today's voter demands that politicians perform and provide a blueprint for future performance and that's exactly what the two combatants are doing. So whether you are a Rahul fan or a Modi one, the Modi-Rahul face off is a festival of democracy for all to enjoy.
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal