Are Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi being treated differently?

The media is going yap, yap, yap and blah blah blah over Modi and Rahul. Blah …Modi… blah… Rahul …blah blah blah.

Although open-house debates between presumptive prime ministers facing an election were sought to be introduced, albeit unsuccessfully, by the BJP’s LK Advani in 2009, it looks like the idea would really be put to test in 2014.

Already, it’s being billed as Narendra Modi (Narendra Modi: A controversial leader has ambitions to be India’s next prime minister) versus Rahul Gandhi (Rahul Gandhi Really Doesn’t Want PM Job) during next year’s general election.

Rahul Gandhi’s roadmap for his own role in government is largely hazy; he denies he wants to be India’s prime minister (although he hasn’t said he doesn’t want to be prime minister ever).

Manmohan Singh, who could be over-rated as an economist but under-rated as a politician, talked his way out recently on being asked if was keen on a third term as PM.

So, just as the nation was once left asking “after Nehru, who?” in 1964, the year Nehru died, the “who next” question once again hangs over the Congress like a puzzle.

Modi is effectively working the media and crowds up, moving from state to state in well set-up forums from where he is actually projecting himself as a presumptive prime minister, but there is less agreement – as of now — about him inside his party, the BJP, than in the media. I’m sure about that.

For a fact, the BJP has not once said Modi would be its candidate for PM. I first heard the story – you guessed it – on television discussions.

In the run-up, a positive bias for Modi has crept into the mainstream media, partly because of the UPA’s disarray and Modi’s own efficient campaign.

Modi’s status of being the pointsman of India’s financial elite has only helped. Coverage has been largely agreeable to Modi and critical of Rahul.

Take for instance, the reaction to Rahul’s recent speech to the Confederation of Indian Industry, as opposed to Modi’s address at FICCI, another industry forum.

Rahul’s speech wasn’t appreciated because it was seen short on solutions. I, for one, think Rahul did give a broad solution, if India is to be truly a successful nation.

Progress must be shared and inclusive, he said, which is to say that everybody must benefit from economic progress.

Can there be a bigger answer for India, still home to one of the world’s poorest population?

The real problem I see in Rahul is that he is neither young nor new in politics anymore. So, if he is to effectively lead the Congress, let alone the country, he must be done with his political internship.

Learning about the complexities of this nation’s politics is of course a never-ending pursuit. However, Rahul will have to demonstrate convincingly that he understands politics and is a vote catcher.

He failed in what was a test case for him: the recent UP elections. A good fisherman must catch fish.

However, to be fair to Rahul, today’s elections are no longer about a top-down approach, where a single person can generate enough goodwill to garner 200-plus seats.

There was a time when Congress candidates would just wait for Indira Gandhi to descend from a helicopter, wave her hand and help them win elections.

That era of centralized politics is over. There weren’t as many regional forces then as today.

Election outcomes are shaped by complex issues, such as caste, performance while in power, anti-incumbency, inflation so on and so forth.

And Rahul isn’t articulate enough. Articulation is critical because politics is about talking in and out of situations. It is to speeches that masses react. However, I do not doubt Rahul’s intentions, the way the centre-right cruelly does.

The media were at best naïve to expect the quick fixes and sure-shot answers to our biggest problems: corruption, tax evasion, poverty, increasing gap between rich and poor and, of course, a bottomed-out economy. The media’s attitude during Rahul speech was curious: ‘If he spoke, he must give clinical solutions’.

Modi, however, did offer solutions. Here’s how to curb tax evasion: hire a few clowns, paint them up to make them look like attention-catching jokers, and marching to the sound of drums, dispatch them to the homes of tax cheaters to publicly name and shame them. Modi said this was how he clamped on tax cheaters in Ahmedabad. Is he serious?

We need to be critical of all politicians vying for power, but we aren’t asking some obvious questions to Modi. Exactly what is Modi seeking to trumpet, when Gujarat isn’t the top state in terms of private investment, (it’s Maharashtra)? Nor is Gujarat the topper as far as per capita income goes.

Goa is, followed by Delhi and then Haryana. At the same time, Gujarat has one of poorest social indicators to which I referred in an earlier blog.

Even so, it would have been equally unfair and idiotic to have expected Modi to provide serious solutions to gargantuan issues in a talk show. Both occasions – Rahul’s speech and Modi’s — should have been about assessing their broader approach to politics and economy.

However, the media would do well to ask some questions to Modi which they haven’t been. I list out some probables.

Isn’t it the case that he plays up his big chimera of big industry and investment, while downplaying more dark chapters of poor social progress? How far does his economic showmanship match actual track records

(Gujarat, the gateway to India: fact or farce?)? What does he make of the BJP’s declining share of rural votes? What is the consensus in the BJP over his presumed candidature for the PM’s post?

Why have minorities who were victims of the 2002 riots still not been recompensed? Why did he refuse a skullcap presented to him as an honour by a Muslim? Doesn’t he believe in multi-faith?

And most importantly, how will Modi reconcile himself to the indispensable and inherent idea of an India that doesn’t presage one type of cultural ethos over all others?

I have no qualms in arguing that if we aren’t posing these questions to Modi, then we are going harsh on Rahul, but soft on Modi.

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