Gandhi Vs. Modi: an Indian Perspective

Narendra Modi of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rahul Gandhi of the ruling Congress Party

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Washington, DC – Parliamentary elections in India are still more than a year away but electoral battle-lines are already being drawn in the country’s political landscape. Northing exemplifies this better than the vigorous debate within the political establishment and outside in the popular media on the two main prime ministerial candidates: Narendra Modi of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rahul Gandhi of the ruling Congress Party.

Even though neither of the two has articulated his desire to be a contender for the nation’s top political office, it is generally assumed that the two are most likely to assume the position should their respective parties end up with the largest number seats in the Parliament.

Narendra Modi: The Past Haunts the Present

The electoral outcome in the Indian state of Gujarat in December 2012, which made 62-year old Narendra Modi, chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat for a third consecutive time in December 2012, is having reverberations far beyond state boundaries.

Modi’s emphatic victory has sealed his reputation as one of the most formidable politicians of his generation and has propelled him into the national limelight as a contender not only for the post of the leader of his party, the BJP, but also a candidate for the post of India’s prime minister in 2014 when national elections are due.

Modi, a political leader who made his way up the political hierarchy by working at the grassroots, remains a highly polarising figure. His critics view him as an antithesis of the very idea of a plural and secular India, an authoritarian leader who has systematically hollowed out the institutional fabric of the BJP in his state and a megalomaniac who has built a personality cult.

On the other hand, his supporters see him as an embodiment of a new aspirational India where good governance and development are keys to winning elections. He is seen as an able administrator and a straight talking politician who means business.

Modi is the first BJP chief minister to have a third successive win at a time when the party is desperately looking for decisive leadership. He has not only been able to deliver impressive economic growth in Gujarat, averaging about 10 percent annually but he has also managed to preserve his image as an incorruptible politician.

After being Gujarat’s chief minister since 2001 and once again delivering the state to the BJP with 115 states in the 182-member state assembly in December 2012, Modi’s sights are now clearly on the national stage. He was facing a number of challenges: senior state party leaders defecting and forming another outfit, agrarian disaffection following poor rains in parts of the state, and criticism over providing fertile land to industrialists, but he overcame all of them only to emerge victorious.

His response was to deliver a 45 minute long victory speech in Hindi, rather than his native Gujarati language which he had used throughout the election campaign to reach out to a wider national audience.

To his wildly jubilant supporters, he said, “My work will not stop; I will not tire in my effort to fulfill your dreams of development.” His supporters now want him to go to New Delhi to stake a claim in national politics.

And that’s where the real dilemma for Modi and the BJP lies. The BJP leadership recognizes that Modi, especially after this decisive victory, can no longer be ignored at the national level. Yet the party would need allies, new and old, to form a coalition government after the next parliamentary election.

A Modi-led BJP will find it very difficult to attract allies. His role in the 2002 Gujarat riots that claimed lives of over 1,000 Muslims makes BJP’s coalition partners who rely on Muslim votes nervous. Many regional parties, who are allied to the BJP, have openly expressed their reservation regarding Modi and his brand of majoritarian politics.

Moreover, the BJP is a house divided and Modi has no dearth of detractors within his own party. As if recognizing his limitations, Modi has tried to evolve over the last few years. He has reached out to minorities by holding fasts all over the state. His focus has been on inclusive development as Gujarat’s economy has emerged as one of the strongest in the country.

A number of Muslim organizations had supported Modi during recent elections in Gujarat. Modi’s election campaign this time was largely focused on a development agenda and was free of divisive issues. In his victory speech, Modi suggested that if he had committed any “mistake,” he would seek forgiveness from the people.

There has been a perceptible change in India and even outside over the last few years in so far as perceptions about Modi are concerned. The United Kingdom has recently re-established its ties with the Modi government after ostracizing him since 2002.

The ambassadors of the EU countries have also reassessed their policy of no contact at the senior level with the Modi government after a decade-long boycott. However, the United States has decided not to lift the visa restrictions imposed on the Gujarat chief minister.

The external world notwithstanding, there is no ignoring the wily leader who is probably the most gifted politician in India today. But for a national role, Modi will have to reinvent himself and become more acceptable to the rest of India beyond Gujarat. Whatever his supporters’ aspirations might be, India is not Gujarat and to emerge a pan-Indian leader, Modi will need all his political acumen even as the rest of India continues to come to terms with a political leader whose past continues to haunt his political aspirations for the future.

Rahul Gandhi: The Dynasty Rises

Meanwhile, the ruling Congress Party is trying to reinvent itself by anointing Rahul Gandhi to the number two position of the vice president. Nine years after the grandson of Indira Gandhi and the son of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi entered politics, the highest decision-making body of the party unanimously passed a resolution at the party conference in January 2013 to raise the profile of Rahul, so far one of the 11 general secretaries of the Congress.

Senior party leaders have been falling over themselves over the last few years in demanding that Rahul should be given a greater role in the party. And so after being in charge of the Youth Congress and some other frontal organizations of the party, Rahul has finally attained the centre-stage as Congress prepares for 2014 parliamentary elections.

For a long time Rahul seemed reluctant to join the fray though there has never really been any doubt about the real power centre in the Congress and even in the government. His dithering in officially acknowledging his role was seen as doing great harm to the party. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II which is led by the Congress is widely viewed as one of the worst governments India has had in recent memory.

The party has been under attack for the past two years from an increasingly vocal middle class and youth who have been demanding greater accountability in the political system. Plagued by a number of corruption scandals, the party has been lurching from one crisis to another without any leadership.

With the elevation of Rahul Gandhi, Congress is hoping that they would be able to convince the electorate that the party is fresh and ready to relaunch itself. The party is expecting its sinking fortunes to be salvaged by a leader who has been so far unsuccessful in most of the electoral battles that he has been in charge of. He seems to possess neither a clear articulation nor a leadership vision that his party most needs at this critical juncture. He has rarely spoken in the Parliament and on occasions that he has, his performance has been lackluster.

But he was more successful in his speech in response to his new appointment in which he evoked the bonds of his family with the party and its sacrifices. The sycophancy of the party faithful was on full display in response with the outpouring of tears from some of the most senior members of the party.

Crying became competitive as leaders vied with each other as to who could shed more tears. Where one argued that, “in Rahul Gandhi, the party has found its most effective and most accepted young leader,” the other suggested that this was Congress’s “Obama moment.”

For someone whose family has ruthlessly wielded power in India for more than the last six decades, Rahul Gandhi has termed power as “poison” and suggested that, “we should not chase power.” Referring to the hypocrisy of the “system,” he has suggested that, “people who are corrupt stand up and talk about eradicating corruption” and called for a complete transformation of the “system.” The problem for him is that he has been the most powerful politician in India for the last decade along with his mother. They are the “system,” so the transformation that he is seeking remains far from clear.

There is an expectation now that Rahul Gandhi will initiate major organizational changes within the party. So far Rahul Gandhi was wielding all the power but shared no responsibility. Now that would be different as he will find it difficult to evade questions about his failure. The Congress has become a party that is widely viewed as out of touch with the aspirations of ordinary Indians and seems bereft of new ideas.

Today’s India is not the India of 1980s when the fresh face of Rajiv Gandhi was enough to give a new lease of life to a doddering old party. India of today is an impatient country, demanding good governance and resolute leadership—not the qualities that have been the hallmark of Rahul’s vision so far. It is not readily evident if Rahul Gandhi can satisfy the aspirations of this impatient India.

The two main political parties are gearing up for the next big electoral battle. Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi will two of the most significant actors as India transitions to an era of new political leadership. Both face significant constraints in their ability to galvanize the Indian populace, but this contest will definitely be worth watching and will have serious implications not only for the future of India but for India’s role in the world.

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

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