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.
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.
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.