It was the first live face-off, perhaps inadvertently, between Congress’ main campaigner Rahul Gandhi and BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.
Their rallies, although separated by more than a thousand kilometres, came together on news television around the time Sunday lunch was being served in Indian homes, coinciding almost to the minute.
And Modi came out the winner, at least in the first round, reconfirming the fear among many even in the Congress that a US presidential-style campaign woven around the two personalities will work in the BJP’s favour.
Almost all channels had started beaming Rahul’s speech from Delhi’s Mangolpuri. Within minutes, Modi started speaking at the much-publicised Hunkar Rally in Patna and the screen split between images Rahul and Modi.
But an interesting thing happened. Almost all — except one English and a Hindi channel — put Rahul’s speech on mute and played Modi’s. After about five minutes, that English channel too started beaming Modi’s speech. And some time later, almost all channels entirely focused on Modi’s speech.
The channels beamed Rahul’s speech only after Modi’s hour-and-a-half-long onslaught was over.
The Gujarat chief minister, more aggressive of the two, almost entirely snatched away news time from his younger rival, monopolised conversation on social media, and seemed to be some distance ahead of Rahul in the communication battle before the 2014 general election.
“RaGa and NaMo both speaking simultaneously, Modi making more newspoints, Hence we are showing his speech,” tweeted Bhupendra Chaubey, national affairs editor of CNN-IBN.
Sunday’s showdown points to a clear danger for the Congress of allowing the election campaign to become a personality clash.
Modi comes out as a more decisive, surer leader against Rahul, who has the additional burden of defending a party and government faced with strong anti-incumbency and allegations of corruption and policy paralysis.
Modi’s rally and high-profile entry into Bihar were planned for months as a mega event. It made the Rahul rally seem much smaller — perhaps a tactical mistake to schedule it on the same day.
Modi made a fiery, expansive speech exploring new ground. He wooed Yadavs and Muslims, a powerful combination in the north, pitched himself as someone born in a poor and backward family, invoked Sita to Chanakya and Chandragupta to Jayaprakash Narayan to kindle Bihar’s pride in its past, and attacked Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and the Congress.
In contrast, Rahul’s speech was low-key and risk-averse, dwelling on merits of schemes and measures such as the Right to Information, which the UPA government had introduced.
It was the kind of contrast the Congress may want to avoid.