India’s next general election, scheduled for 2014 at the latest, is already shaping up to be one of the most anticipated in decades. Over recent weeks, the two main parties – the ruling Congress and opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – have hinted at who might lead them once campaigning officially starts. Although the two likely contenders are not household names outside India, both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi are heavyweights on the domestic political stage.
The two men are as different as can be. Rahul Gandhi is the youthful upstart without much experience, but who holds the backing of a powerful political family. Narendra Modi is possibly India’s most divisive political figure – adored by many for overseeing unprecedented economic growth in his home state of Gujarat, but equally reviled for his alleged involvement in the worst communal riots in India’s recent history.
The Case for Rahul
Congress is currently going through a difficult period, following a series of high-profile corruption scandals, poor economic growth and criticism of its handling of the recent brutal gang rape of a young woman in Delhi. With the current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making it clear that he will not stand for re-election, Congress is looking for a new leader who will be able to re-energize the party.
At Congress’ recent annual conference in the western state of Rajasthan, the strongest indication yet came that Rahul Gandhi might be the man to revitalize the party’s fortunes. His confirmation as the party’s new Vice President was expected by many Indians. At 42 years old, Rahul Gandhi is the latest member of the powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to enter Indian politics and has long been considered a future leader of both his party and country.
But despite his very public upbringing and name recognition, not much is known about Rahul Gandhi – either the person or the politician. He is famously reticent and media shy, rarely offers strong opinions, and public appearances are usually limited to coordinated party events and prepared remarks. Which is why his acceptance speech at the Rajasthan conference came as a surprise to many. Rahul gave a rousing and personal speech, touching on his own tragic family history as well as the need to combat poverty, inequality and corruption in India. The Indian punditry called the speech Rahul’s “Obama moment”.
Yet Rahul is going to need more than a speech to win over his detractors – many of whom point to his lack of experience as his biggest flaw. He first entered politics in 2004, when he contested and won a parliamentary seat in the politically and economically important state of Uttar Pradesh. He has kept the seat since, but his record as an MP is dismal. Since 2009, Gandhi has only participated in one parliamentary debate and attended just 41 per cent of sessions. He has never raised a question in a parliamentary debate.
Rahul has also stayed clear of taking a stand on issues like the economy or violence against women and has instead focused on building up his support base, most notably among the poor and lower-caste citizens of Uttar Pradesh. He has also been instrumental in revitalizing Congress’ youth wing, whose membership has grown dramatically over the past six years. However, Rahul has guided the party’s electoral strategies and fortunes with mixed results. He is widely credited with orchestrating Congress’ strong showing in Uttar Pradesh during 2009 general election, but was also seen as responsible for the party’s humiliating defeat in the state’s 2012 assembly elections.
Some have also raised questions about what it means for the state of Indian democracy if the country remains heavily dependent on a single family. For instance, the Business Times recently argued: “For all his talk of change, the glaring contradiction in Rahul Gandhi is that he has assumed the No. 2 slot in the Congress party by dint of birth.” Accordingly, the next few months will be crucial for Rahul Gandhi, as he will for the first time be forced to take a stand on key issues and define himself as a national politician. He has some way to go before he can get rid of accusations that he lacks substance and is trading on his family name.
The Case for Modi
Congress’ troubles means that the BJP is growing increasingly confident of returning to power. The party has been riven by factionalism over the past few years which has affected its political fortunes. However, the BJP is now starting to look stronger and more coherent as new leadership figures like Modi have emerged. And while nothing has been confirmed yet, he is widely seen as the frontrunner to become the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.
Modi is one of India’s most well-known and divisive political figures. Since 2002, he has served as Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat. He has overseen a period of unprecedented economic growth, often dubbed “the Gujarat miracle” and in 2012, became the first Chief Minister of any state to be re-elected for a fourth consecutive period. The state elections in Gujarat received an unusual amount of national and international media coverage, and were widely seen as a test of Modi’s viability as a politician on the national stage.
Modi’s popularity rests, therefore, on his image as a competent manager and technocrat. Between 2004 and 2012, Gujarat’s GDP growth has averaged 10.1 per cent, compared to 8.3 per cent nationally. In 2011 the state totaled 16 per cent of India’s manufacturing and 22 per cent of its exports, despite only being home to 60 million people. By courting the business sector, focusing on infrastructure improvements and cutting down India’s famously cumbersome bureaucracy, Modi’s has received a number of plaudits.
For the people who support him, Modi inspires almost religious devotion. He regularly attracts thousands of supporters to rallies and his rule in Gujarat has become incredibly personalized. The BJP even runs its own TV channel in the state, modestly named “NaMo” after the Chief Minister’s initials. Neither is there any question that his popularity extends beyond his home state. In a national poll by India Today, 24 per cent of respondents wanted Modi as the next prime minister – Rahul Gandhi came second on 17 per cent.
Modi has never made any secret of his national ambitions, something his rhetoric often reflects. He called his most recent electoral success “a victory for all the people of this country who want development”. Modi is also well-known for his frugal lifestyle. And, in a country where nepotism is often the norm, Modi’s family does not hold any high-earning positions in Gujarat. This image is well suited to contest a national election where corruption is likely to be a key issue.
But Modi also carries significant baggage that many Indians are not willing overlook. In 2002, the worst communal riots in India in modern times happened in Gujarat. After a train carriage carrying Hindu pilgrims was set alight killing more than 50 people, a vicious wave of mob violence was unleashed across the state. More than 2,000 people – the vast majority Muslims – were killed over the following days. Modi had assumed his post as Chief Minister just months before and his government was accused of at best failing to provide adequate protection to Muslim communities and at worst allowing the violence to happen. Since then, Modi has remained an international pariah, shunned by the European Union and denied a visa by the United States on the grounds of being responsible for “serious violations of religious freedom”.
Despite Modi’s growing popularity, the BJP would still have to rely on a coalition to get into power. Several potential coalition partners – in particular parties strong in regions where the BJP is not popular, such as in Tamil Nadu – would be hesitant to support Modi, since they rely on Muslim voters who would never cast their votes for a Modi-led coalition. Others doubt Modi’s ability to lead such a broad coalition. A Modi premiership would undoubtedly require diplomatic skills and political compromise, something that has rarely been put to the test during Modi’s top-down, personality-driven rule in Gujarat. As a Times of India columnist recently wrote: “Those who hate Modi should welcome the prospect of his becoming Prime Minister, not dread it. Nothing is more certain to wreck his charisma.”
Olof Blomqvist is a freelance writer focusing on South Asia. He is based in London, and has just come back from longer stints in Afghanistan and India.
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