Rahul Gandhi vs Narendra Modi: Polar opposites or secret twins?

Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi are not exactly peas in a pod. Each is viewed by his respective supporters as the very antithesis of the other.

To NaMo fans, Rahul is everything their hero is not: a privileged and inexperienced political pygmy held aloft on the shoulders of his party's sycophants. Outright RaGa admirers are fewer in number, but the many who despise Modi vastly prefer the young Gandhi's politics, even as they despair at his inaction. The ordinance melodrama may have drawn a lot of political flak, but among liberal Indians there is now sneaking hope that Rahul is ready to finally put his money where his tribal-touting mouth is.

More alike than different?

More alike than different? Agencies

"With the urban, educated, TV-viewing, newspaper-reading, soc­­ial media- con­suming middle classes drifting away from the Congress in droves, ‘The Inheritor’ probably reckoned there would be little to inherit at this rate. Rahul decided to poop the party of opportunism and hypocrisy," declares the latest Outlook cover story, noting, "there is no denying that in wrecking the conspicuous feast of the crooked and the corrupt, it’s a new RaGa India is suddenly listening to." Accompanying the story is a pipe dream list of recommended actions for the future:  an independent inquiry into Robert Vadra's land deals; urge the PM to come clean on the 2G and coalgate; make Lokpal Bill effective and strong etc.

Hope springs eternal, and predictably so.

More surprising are the new parallels being drawn between the newly energized Rahul and Modi, as in this gushing India Today profile [Not available online but is the cover story of the latest issue on the newsstand]:

Though they are pitted as polar opposites, Rahul and Modi are more alike than most people understand -- in terms of their unilaternalism and their fondness for internal rebellion… They're bearded. They dress in neta-staple kurta pajamas. They say what the country wants to hear, even if it does not fit with their party lines. They agree something is not right with India today.

Such inane heresy will be easily derided by BJP and Congress loyalists. More difficult to dismiss is a scathing Open magazine essay that meticulously dissects both men to reveal the similar vices that lurk underneath. Hartosh Singh Bal writes:

It is easy enough to mark out the differences between a self-made man and a dynast, a demagogue and a fumbling public speaker, a man who leads from the front and one who is not willing to assume any direct responsibility, but the similarities go even deeper. Both Modi and Gandhi seek to be above and beyond their political parties. For both, the dynamics of power flows only one way, neither of them is answerable to anyone, open to criticism from anyone. Which is why neither is willing to admit a mistake, major or minor, nor willing to submit to questioning from any observer who is not a participant in their personality cults. Both are men so enamoured of their own image that this is the sole reality that constitutes them. It is impossible to discern any conviction or principle that lies at their core beyond their image of themselves. 

Bal repeatedly draws parallels between the problems the two men seem to share with facts -- be it the education budget of China or mass killings in Bhatta Parsaul; their high-handed willingness to undermine the party organisation and leadership, be it Manmohan Singh or LK Advani; their inability to reach out and work with allies, or build a coalition; and in the obsequious loyalty they inspire and demand in their supporters.

"[W]e are left with two men who are actually deeply uncomfortable with the workings of a democracy," writes Bal, "What we are in effect being offered are two cults, one older and more established, and the other charged with the fervour of neo-converts."

Is the Gujarat superhero more like the Amethi Prince than any of us wants to admit? Is the cult of dynasty any better than the cult of personality? Do their ideological differences disguise deeper failings of character or or a common disdain for party politics as usual? As the 2014 elections draw closer, and Rahul prepares to take centre-stage, these and other questions will gain sharper and more urgent focus.

For now, you can read Hartosh Singh Bal's "The Hero and The Prince" on the Open website.

"A New Raga" is available on Outlook's website .

India Today's cover story, "The Rahul Raj", cannot be accessed online except by subscribers. But you can pick up a copy at the newsstand.