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Polar opposites set to battle for India
Publication Date : 29-01-2013
Many expect the battle for India in next year's general election to be fought between Rahul Gandhi, the "reluctant prince" of the ruling secular Congress party, and Narendra Modi, the "brightest star" of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Gandhi, 42, a soft-spoken man treading gingerly through India's complex politics, is the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has given India three prime ministers. Modi, 20 years older at 62, is a brilliant orator who powered his way through BJP ranks to be Gujarat chief minister.
A one-time tea-stall owner turned politician, Modi is credited with turning the western industrial state of Gujarat, in the last decade, into an investment hub with double-digit growth, which is often flaunted as one of India's biggest success stories.
His three decades in rough-and-tumble state politics are a stark contrast to Gandhi's eight years spent cloistered in the youth wing of the Congress, where he was groomed by the party's most experienced leaders to take over the mantle from his mother Sonia, the Congress' leader.
"They are two different personalities from two different backgrounds. Nowhere is there any similarity at all," said Dr N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the Centre for Media Studies in Delhi.
Both the BJP and Congress are gearing up for the elections, expected to be bitterly fought between the United Progressive Alliance, a coalition led by the left-of-centre Congress, and the National Democratic Alliance, led by the right-leaning BJP.
The Congress set the ball rolling earlier this month, effecting a generational change by naming Gandhi its vice-president, or second-in-command, weeks after putting him in charge of the 2014 election campaign.
The BJP last week chose its new president Rajnath Singh, whose top priority is to set up an election committee, where Modi is likely to have a role. Modi on Sunday told reporters he had elaborate discussions on next year's elections with the new BJP president, but declined to go into details.
Some polls give Modi an edge over Gandhi, who has yet to reveal his views on vital issues.
In a survey by ABP News-Nielsen, 39 per cent of respondents backed the BJP and 22 per cent, the Congress. Modi was the favourite prime ministerial candidate, with 48 per cent of respondents backing him, while 18 per cent backed Gandhi.
But political analysts say there are many challenges facing Modi, a divisive figure admired and abhorred in equal measure. He was at the helm of Gujarat in 2002, during one of the worst anti-Muslim riots in modern Indian history, and seen to have done little to stem them, a taint that stays.
The episode does not sit comfortably with the BJP's key ally, the Janata Dal (United), whose leader Nitish Kumar - who has a strong Muslim support base - has threatened to quit the alliance if Modi is made the prime ministerial candidate.
Questions also linger over whether Modi will be able to unite a party where infighting and dissension are an issue, and push the party beyond its recent ideological confusion over whether to continue with its rightist brand of politics.
"Modi is a very controversial figure; that is not the case with Rahul Gandhi, who is fully supported by the party," said Badri Narayan Tiwari of the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad. "Modi hasn't moved beyond Gujarat. He may be popular for his economic reforms among sections of the urban middle class, but is an unknown figure in rural parts, and he may need to work on that," he added.
While the Congress banks on its voters in rural India, the BJP has strong support among the urban middle class, including shopkeepers and traders. In an era of coalition politics, both parties need the support of regional allies to take the majority.
While Gandhi has greater acceptability among the Congress' allies than Modi among the BJP's, the ruling party's allies are worried about anti-incumbency, slowing growth and the party's poor governance record in its current term. Many potential allies may decide to wait for poll results rather than go into pre-poll alliances, say analysts.
Indeed, Gandhi's challenge is to revive the fortunes of his party, plagued as it is by poor economic and political performance.
Modi, due to the 2002 taint, is set to have a tough time uniting his party behind him and keeping existing allies, let alone gaining new ones.
Gandhi's greatest strength, on the other hand, is that he can unite his party behind him.
"The Nehru-Gandhi family has always been the adhesive on which the party has held together," said Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar. "It is always useful to have an icon leading the party."