Indian politics is no more an Armageddon of ideologies. Electoral verdicts no longer define political ensigns of those who follow the bugle of the ballot. As ideological divides get blurred, elections are fought around personalities and not performance. The current clash of the Titans—Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi—defines the evaporation of a structured model or mantra for governance. The national discourse revolves around faults and faculties of RaGa and NaMo. Even the age difference between the two doesn’t deter critics and admirers from shifting the debate beyond the known and unknown skills of both leaders. Modi is 64 and Rahul 43.
If their demagoguery during the past two weeks is any indication, the election is being turned into I vs I. Their campaign tells a tale of new politics. Both talk more about themselves and less about what they represent. Rahul has convinced himself that invoking the Gandhi name, family culture and their sacrifices will sway the national Weltanschauung. When he talks about the assassinations of his grandmother and father, he is drilling the point that it is his family alone which can keep the country united and that he is not afraid to meet his Hamletian fate to save India. His speech writers are following the golden principle that an oration delivered with a correct mix of emotional charge and personal anecdotes is capable of carrying the target audience than words full of lofty ideas and dreams. Rahul’s clear strategy is to make himself, and not the Congress, his opponent’s target. He seems to have picked a leaf out of his grandmother and mother’s political strategy. Both Indira and Sonia have been primary targets of vicious personal campaigns. Indira was called a goongi gudia (dumb doll). Sonia’s Italian connection and her association with an Italian businessman has been the subject of barbs. But both staged comebacks. Indira recaptured the throne in 1980 with two-thirds majority, barely 30 months after she lost it in the spindrift of Emergency. In 2004, Sonia’s silent campaign led to the ouster of the government led by Atal Bihari
Vajpayee. Within two decades, she nearly doubled her party’s strength in Lok Sabha from 112 to 206. The Gandhi Parivar feels that the last two victories were appropriate rebuffs to those who indulged in personal attacks. Rahul is just experimenting with history. He is undeterred by the ridicule he invited for some of his recent politically incorrect utterances, including the one on Muzzarffarnagar riots.
Not to be left behind, NaMo has made his indigent origins his selling point. He doesn’t miss any chance to tell audiences that he used to sell tea and couldn’t attend a good school. He wants people to elect him the guardian of India’s treasury to prevent corruption. Without naming Rahul, Modi paints him as a leader born with the proverbial silver spoon. He calls Rahul “Yuvraj” and now “Shehzada”, who is thriving because he was born into the right family but failed to acquire any skills for dealing with ordinary Indians. Modi’s electoral aria is based on his own brand of politics and the Modi Mantra, which revolves around his style. Through gestures and choice of idioms, NaMo paints himself a victim of a campaign of hatred launched by a cabal of elitist social activists and NGOs. His promoters make the point that despite maintaining communal harmony and a spectacular performance in Gujarat, NaMo is being branded the Great Divider because he is a threat to votebank politics. Modi considers himself an outsider and a serious challenger to the class-oriented establishment. These sustained and dangerous personal attacks on NaMo have only made him one of the most popular political brands. He has converted Poll-2014 into a battle between pedigree vs performance; rich vs poor.
But there appears some method behind this personality-driven madness. RaGa’s political genealogy reminds one of Indira’s hyperbolic speechcraft on Garibi Hatao and whatever went in the name of a welfare state. Economics was hardly the central theme of her politics. Sonia adopted the Indira Doctrine, ignoring economic transformation brought by her late husband Rajiv. RaGa represents the aggressive and confrontationist politics of his grandmother and the socialist inclinations of his mother. For him, using state funds to provide freebies makes better politics than creating a favourable climate for markets and foreign investments. Rajiv ignored his mother and grandfather by dumping the mixed economy model by following P V Narasimha Rao who disowned Nehruvian Mantra. History has come full circle with RaGa pleading for a dominant role for the state. Unlike his father for whom good economics made better politics, RaGa is reinventing the grammar of good politics, which would lead to better economics.
Modi flies the banderole of good economics. The villain of 2002 is the new hero of 2013 because he is talking about delivery, development and dialogue. NaMo is the real follower of both Rajiv and Rao who created oligopoly. Rao opened up the economy for industrial houses, which were denied access to state patronage by Nehru and Indira. NaMo has promoted and created powerful corporate leaders in Gujarat and won over traditional Congress supporters even if it meant compromising with those who are opposed to his core ideology. NaMo talks technology, uses technology and swears by the markets. Like RaGa, the BJP’s PM candidate rarely dwells on international issues.
In what appears to be an apocalyptic confrontation between a declared PM contender and a scion of India’s perennial ruling family, their plights and delights have become bazaar babble. Political strategies and weaponry are being honed and polished. But for both leaders, it will not be an easy task to convince a self-righteous and argumentative India united by a 5,000-year-old cultural heritage of unity in diversity, of their true worth.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla