Narendra Modi sets the agenda, others follow. He acts, others react. Looking at how his supposed political rivals are placed now, it is safe to put them in the 'others' category. It is a category that comes at the bottom of every table, a lumping of elements that carry the least weight in the context of the subject under observation. The confused response from rivals to the demonetisation exercise of his government, which follows an equally confused reaction to the passage of the GST Bill earlier, and the surgical strikes reveal how others are struggling to catch up while Modi has raced far ahead.
Nobody, not even the lot called experts, is clear how exactly the GST would be great for the country; whether the demonetisation is actually a hammer blow on black money, and whether the surgical strikes are any solution to India’s Pakistan problem. All these measures carry their negatives and share of niggling doubts on their efficacy, but to his credit, the prime minister has managed to present the positives with clarity and a sense of conviction. Other leaders such as Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati, Arvind Kejriwal and those of the Left have been weak in making the negatives count in political terms.
Caught off-guard by the demonetisation move, all of them were latching on to the easiest way out: the inconvenience caused to the public. Rahul queued up at an ATM among the common folk to withdraw money and others were busy performing similar crowd-pleasing acts. So far, not a single one of them has challenged the broader theme with any intellectual clarity. It is indeed embarrassing to hear the Congress and its vice-president repeating the 'Rs 15 lakh in bank accounts' and the 'suit-boot-ki-sarkaar' on every occasion. It is as if they have found nothing more intelligent or new to say about the government or Modi in all these days.
New is something the prime minister has been brilliant at. Every time he comes up with something, the opposition is caught by surprise. Well-informed and articulate BJP spokespersons provide it the publicity edge; and intelligent use of the media ensures the message is conveyed wide and deep with all its positiveness. The opposition is invariably caught with feet of clay. It appears Modi won’t tire of producing something new — particularly since he is not averse to taking risks and has the comfort of a majority in Lok Sabha to risk a risk — from the hat at regular intervals and the rivals will always be trying hard to catch up.
Modi is no intellectual giant compared to say someone like Nehru, but he easily dwarfs all competition of his time. He does not exactly think beyond the box, after all, all his moves, including demonetisation, have been discussed, and some acted upon, by previous governments, but others have made the box so small for themselves that whatever Modi does appears extraordinary. While the politics of others, including Rahul Gandhi and Kejriwal, is marked by lack of dimension, that of Modi comes across as contrastingly different.
What does it translate to in politics at the national level? When it’s about leadership there’s a huge vacuum between Modi and others. The vacuum is not likely to be filled anytime soon. Unless the rabid forces riding on his popular appeal do something egregious, which they are prone to, and until he sticks to neutral matters such as the economy, which he has done with deliberateness, he would be difficult to budge from the top. The actual challenge for him and his party would be in the states where local considerations take precedence over the overarching national theme.
Where does all this leave Rahul? He is likely to remain a permanent tourist in all trouble spots of the country. He will keep making verbal guerrilla attacks on Modi, but will never be able to find the words to ensure for himself a total victory.