After Manmohan Who?

April 11, 2013     
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Who will be India’s next Prime Minister?

Most observers of Indian politics expect that the choice is between Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party and Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

What are they like as politicians?

Rahul was born into India’s most famous political family, the Nehru-Gandhis who have given India three Prime Ministers (Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi). His mother, Sonia, runs the Congress Party and sister, Priyanka, campaigns for the party. His cousin, Varun, on the other hand, is an MP of the opposition BJP.

From everything we know, Rahul came into politics reluctantly, like his father. He went to college in the US and university in the UK and worked briefly in London for a management consultancy. As an MP since 2004, his preoccupation has been organizational work in the north Indian states where the Congress has been obliterated over the past two decades. In 2013, he became Vice President of the Congress. Rahul has no black marks against him, but no great achievements to his name either. He is widely regarded as a “clean” politician, secular in his views, cosmopolitan, passionate about working for India, but has not presented his vision for the country in any very telling way.

Modi was one of six children in a middle class family in Gujarat, and as a teenager ran a tea stall with his brother. He rose in politics through the student wing of the BJP and via the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu social, cultural, and political organization that stands behind the BJP.

Modi cut his political teeth in the “Nav Nirman” movement against Indira Gandhi back in 1974, a protest movement which eventually prompted Mrs. Gandhi to impose a national emergency in 1975. He worked in Gujarat politics, before being sent to Delhi where he became a General Secretary of the party looking after the northern states of India. Since 2001, he has been Chief Minister of Gujarat, and he is credited with making the state one of the most business-friendly and prosperous. The biggest question mark against him is over his role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat in which at least 700 Muslims and 200 Hindus were killed. Modi has denied being involved but has never expressed regret over the riots, and he is widely regarded as being a diehard Hindu nationalist.

These thumbnail sketches tell us something about Rahul and Modi.

Rahul, all said and done, is an upper-middle class patrician who entered politics largely out of a sense of duty to his party. Modi is a very middle class person, even by Indian standards, who entered politics with relish at an early age and has risen on his own merit. Both have done organizational work at the state level. Modi has actually run a government; Rahul has no experience of running a government or even a ministry. Modi is widely regarded as having been a great success as Chief Minister. Rahul has worked intensely to build the party in the northern states – a thankless task given the moribund nature of the Congress organization in those states. However, he cannot claim any great successes and is relatively untested as an administrator and decision maker.

Uneasy in politics, Rahul is not a great public speaker – though when he answers questions and moves away from the script, he is passionate and analytical. For the most part, he is reserved, intense, a man of relatively few words, and not exactly a people’s man, though he can be charming in smaller settings and when he hits his stride. His command of Hindi is adequate but no better; he is better in English – frank, donnish, didactic. Much of Rahul’s appeal is his clean image, boyish earnestness, and a reputation for dogged hard work.

By contrast, Modi may be the best public speaker amongst senior politicians in India. He speaks in Gujarati and Hindi and can hold audiences spellbound. He has a deep voice, talks informally without notes, has a capacious memory, jokes folksily with his audience, laces his speeches with stories of his encounters with ordinary Indians, and is relentlessly positive about India and its prospects. He is expressive, disarming in large settings, has charmed Delhi’s English-speaking elite – and is very popular with a segment of overseas Indians.

Rahul has no roots in any Indian state – he is a Delhi boy through and through; Modi is a veritable son of the soil, which he celebrates with brio. Ironically, Modi presents himself as a champion of entrepreneurship and business while Rahul identifies himself with issues such as social inclusion and social justice.

While Modi has never quite said in public that he wants the job of Prime Minister, ever since his election victory in Gujarat in 2012 it’s clear enough that he wants to lead the country. He is the only Chief Minister in the highest decision-making body of the national BJP. And he has made two important televised speeches in Delhi in the past few weeks – at the famous Shri Ram College of Commerce and at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, an influential business association.

Rahul, by contrast, has spent the last four years suggesting that he is not interested in the top job. Many Indian commentators think that he does not have the drive and capacity to be Prime Minister and that he should instead step into his mother’s organizational shoes when the time comes. He has gone more public recently, and a week ago spoke at the Confederation of Indian Industry, another influential business association – in part to counter the view that he does not connect with industrialists and bankers and that he is not interested in elite Indians.

In sum, Rahul has to convince Indians that he wants the top job, that he can connect, that he has a vision, that he can govern, and that he is more than a dedicated family politician. Modi, on the other hand, has to show that he is not just an ambitious politician, that he does not frighten the religious minorities, that he can work with others parties and leaders in a coalition, and that he has national governing abilities.

Polling data show that Modi is way ahead of Rahul.  Rahul’s party has done him no favours in the last four years – it has been rocked by corruption scandals, a faltering economy, and stuttering leadership. Few today would bet on the Congress under Rahul coming back to power for a third term. Having said this, India’s electoral system often works in mysterious ways.

Finally, let’s not forget one key fact: Rahul, at 42, is exactly twenty years younger than Modi.

If he hangs around long enough, time is on Rahul’s side.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily represent the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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