Starting early this year, the Indian media has been describing the 2014 general elections as an epic battle between two personalities: Modi and Rahul Gandhi.
The two are polar opposites. A scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Rahul’s political lineage is unmatchable. His great-grandfather, grandmother and father were prime ministers. His mother Sonia, the Congress Party President and chairperson of the UPA, is arguably the most powerful person in India.
Rahul is often described as the Congress’ yuvraj or “crown prince.” The prime ministership is seen as his natural inheritance. Yet he has repeatedly claimed that he is not interested in becoming prime minister. He would much rather work to rejuvenate the party, he says, and to build its grassroots support.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Modi has often mocked Rahul as a child of privilege, someone who was “born with a golden spoon.” Unlike Rahul, Modi comes from a family of moderate means and had to work his way up the hierarchy of the Sangh Parivar. Having served as Gujarat’s chief minister for over a decade, he would like to serve “Mother India” now, he says.
Drawing attention to their personalities, eminent journalist Dilip Padgaonkar, who is seen to be sympathetic to the Congress, says: “Both men are aloof. While Modi's aloofness has a touch of arrogance to it, that of Rahul reeks of shyness. The former's demeanour signals overbearing self-confidence; that of the latter reveals shades of vulnerability. One is authoritative, stern, pugnacious, decisive and domineering; the other, modest, sober, hesitant and, above all, eager to play the Good Samaritan.”
Although Rahul has been in active politics for over a decade now, he has little administrative experience, having repeatedly rejected ministerial assignments in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. Many have criticized this reluctance to take on ministerial position as shirking responsibility. Critics say he has no vision, no plan or agenda for India.
In administrative experience, then, Modi scores emphatically over Rahul. He has headed the government in Gujarat for over a decade and likes to remind listeners that he brought prosperity and development to the state. Indeed, Gujarat’s economy has been growing steadily, and Modi has an image of a clean and efficient administrator. However, critics point out that Modi has simply built on development achieved in previous decades, that his development model is pro-rich and excludes minorities and rural Gujaratis, and that while the economy is booming, the status of women, children and religious minorities is appalling.
Modi is a deeply polarizing figure, easily among India’s most controversial. His perceived arrogance and authoritarian manner is despised by many Indians, who are repelled by what they see as a chest-thumping, aggressive Hindu nationalism. Yet he is also admired by many, especially “those who buy into his development mantra, those who prefer a strong authoritarian leader, and those who favour a strong Hindutva line,” according to senior associate editor of The Hindu, Mukund Padmanabhan. These are more likely to be urban Indians.
While he has shown that he can win elections in his home state Gujarat, whether he can impress voters elsewhere in India remains to be seen. In the recent election to the Karnataka state assembly for instance, the “Modi magic” did not work. He was unable to save the ruling BJP in that state from being booted out of power.