Rahul vs Modi: Who has the edge in Mahabharat 2014?

Pollsters and psephologists must be smacking their lips in anticipation. With the coronation of Rahul Gandhi at the recent Congress Chintan Shivir, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the title bout in 2014 will be between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, though both sides will be eager to play down this angle for their own reasons.

Nobody can, of course, predict how the next general election will pan out – there is simply too much time between now and 2014 or even late 2013. But it is not unreasonable to presume that Modi and Rahul will be their parties’ respective standard bearers, even if they are not officially declared their prime ministerial candidates.

It is thus worth speculating on how such a battle will be fought, and what strategies the two sides will adopt.

A preliminary Swot analysis is in order: Rahul Gandhi starts with an initial advantage, for in his party there is no challenger. The Congress’s refusal to allow any alternative power centre to emerge – whether in the youth wing or in the central leadership or in the states – will ensure that he has a free run.  Rahul will get whatever he asks for.

AP

Modi has strong grassroots party support, and is certainly first among equals in the party, but unlike the Congress, the BJP is not a single-power-centre party. Every BJP Chief Minister is a power centre, and the party is India’s most federated organisation. Plus, there is parental interference – from the RSS. Modi will have more challenges before the anointment than Rahul.

So score 1-0 for Rahul on his initial challenges.

But Rahul is no match for Modi as a communicator. Modi will probably make mincemeat of Rahul when he is in form.

Score 1-1.  

Modi and Rahul also have similarities of a sort. Neither Congress nor BJP is likely to announce their candidatures in advance – for the former because it does not want to saddle Rahul with any defeat, and the latter to avoid deterring potential allies. It is more than probable, therefore, that both Rahul and Modi will be their parties’ chief campaign managers with a major say in who gets to run and who does not in the next elections. They will also crucially determine campaign strategies.

Scores still level. But next come the crucial differentiators.

There is no doubt at all that the Congress will make communalism its major plank to overcome anti-incumbency. After making a mess of the economy and facing serious corruption charges, the Congress is hardly in great shape to defend its record in governance. Its best chance is to shift the focus of the debate to communalism, where it believes it has a natural advantage. The entry of Modi will allow this to happen naturally.

Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s remarks on BJP-RSS terror camps were not an innocent slip of the tongue. The decision to include the BJP (and not just the Sangh) in his linkage with terror is deliberate. What he is trying to do is to force the BJP on the defensive on terror, even if it means giving Pakistan a free ride on this propaganda self-goal. It will also allow him to defer a decision on the hanging of Afzal Guru – something Shinde does not appear keen to do.

The Congress strategy on communalism will thus be two-fold: while Rahul will take the high ground and talk about meeting the aspirations of youth, development, etc, party’s political attack dogs – the likes of Digvijaya Singh, Shinde, etc – will go hammer and tongs at the BJP-RSS connection and try to force Modi and his supporters to hit back in ways where there can only be further complications.

The Congress will harp on this theme outside Gujarat, and especially in UP and Bihar, in order to polarise the Muslim vote. The central idea will be to put the BJP permanently on the defensive on communalism, and force it to make dangerous statements to polarise votes further. For the BJP, communalism is a no-win game, for the harder it tries to defend itself, the more it will get caught in the same perception that it is communal.

Modi may himself be tempted to play a subtle communal card in the hope that there is a reverse Hindu polarisation in states like UP, Bihar, Telangana and Assam to the BJP’s advantage, but the task is more complicated since there are serious regional players in the game.

The score now tilts 2-1 in favour of Congress, unless Modi is able to force a focus on different issues. Modi’s best hope must be to keep absolutely quiet on communalism and focus only on development and governance in the hope that the Congress will lose credibility by attacking the BJP too much.

Next, it’s worth looking at the youth factor. In theory, a 42-year-old Rahul should be streets ahead of a 62-year-old Modi in garnering the youth vote, which will be very significant in 2014.

But in practice, Modi demonstrated in Gujarat that youth is about an attitude of mind, not age. Rahul is far behind in understanding the aspirations of the middle class and the youth – as the BJP’s sweeping victories in Gujarat’s urban centres showed.

Rahul looks youthful, but has an old feudal mindset. His party is even more feudal, and believes in old-style freebies and sops to win votes. Modi entices youth with his energy and understanding of what they want. But in his recent Chintan Shivir speech, Rahul did acknowledge the importance of looking at the causes of urban anger and disenchantment. One assumes he will address their concerns.

On balance, both Modi and Rahul will perhaps draw level on this count. A lot would depend on how the two parties try to woo the urban, youth and middle class vote – and both parties will probably have strong manifesto promises for youth and urban India. Modi probably has a small edge on the youth vote.

Scores:  3:3 at this stage.

Now, let’s look at the strategy that could come from the Modi camp. If there are real strategists here, their best bet would be to focus on the Congress governance record and economic failures of UPA-2 – where Modi stands out as a performer in his home state.

Modi’s could focus on economic governance where he scores over the Congress record at the centre. However, success in Gujarat is not easily going to rub off in other states. In fact, too much talk of the Gujarat model will only irritate voters outside Gujarat as they would want to know what is in it for them and their state.

Given the strong undercurrent of regionalism, Modi should articulate his Gujarat model and development policies in regional terms rather than a repeated invocation of his own state’s approach.

As against this, the Congress will continue to hold the high card of rural empowerment, freebies and cash transfers – which may continue to give Congress an edge in rural areas while Modi gets an edge in urban areas.

Gujarat state Chief Minister Narendra Modi holds a kite during the inauguration of International Kite Festival in Ahmedabad. AP

Scores 4-4.

The most important element in the Rahul-Modi clash will not about ideas or policies, but their ability to tailor state-level strategies that will work for them. A Lok Sabha general election is often a bunch of state elections aggregated as a national vote.

Here, Rahul has the advantage of not raising hackles among any sort of ally – from Nitish Kumar to Navin Patnaik, the Congress would be an acceptable option at the centre.

For Modi, the search for allies has to be more strategic. The general assumption that he will find it tougher to get allies is not founded on any realistic assessment of post-poll political realities, even if pre-poll rhetoric needs allies to keep their distance from him.

If he is hoping for a reverse Hindu consolidation, Modi has to seek it through proxy – for example, in Assam, he could talk of the Bangladeshi influx. In UP, he can talk of Hindu-Muslim unity to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

But one point is important: at 150-plus seats, the Congress can still form a government like UPA-1, with outside Left support. At 150-plus seats, the BJP will have to provide a leader other than Modi to run a government. At less than 140 seats each, we are more likely to see a Federal or United Front of regional parties in power with outside Congress support.

This arithmetic implies that Modi has a higher hurdle to cross than Rahul. Without 180 seats, Modi is a not a realistic contender for PM.

This tilts the final score at 5-4 in favour of Rahul.

However, a purely neutral analysis is unlikely to be anywhere close to a realistic assessment of what will happen in 2014. Too many things can change, and too many new imponderables may emerge out of the blue.

As things stand now, the following conclusions seem likely.

One, secular versus communal will be a major campaign element in this battle. One cannot rule out a bitter and dirty fight over this issue.

Two, rich versus poor will be a major issue while discussing development. The Congress will try to paint Modi as pro-rich, while the BJP will try to tie Rahul to the Congress’ actual economic track record.

Three, Modi’s personality will be both a plus and a minus, but Rahul’s will be neutral.

Four, governance will be a bigger issue than corruption, now that both Congress and BJP seem tainted by it.

Five, the key to 7 Race Course Road will run through state capitals – Modi will have to have a viable state-level strategy, both to get the BJP more seats in hitherto weak states (UP, etc), and to create future allies. Rahul has the luxury of making his plans after the elections and choosing allies with the right numbers. He also has the option of anointing a PM – like his mother did with Manmohan Singh.

Even if Rahul has a theoretical edge, all bets are off when it comes to the final battle where guts, grit and gumption count for as much as elevating rhetoric.

In the ultimate analysis, both Modi and Rahul will try and convince the electorate that they are more than their past – or their parties’ past.

Rahul will try to distance himself from his government’s recent record. Modi will try to get the electorate’s mind off 2002. The winner will be whoever succeeds  more in making voters forget their past.

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