May 30, 2020
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Non-Playing Captain?

Rahul did try. But Modi has avoided risk—and a lesson he needs.

Non-Playing Captain?
Illustration by Sorit
Non-Playing Captain?

It has been quite interesting to watch the footwork of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi—supposed next-generation rivals on the national political arena from the Congress and the BJP—in the current assembly elections.

For all his untested mettle, for all the pampering lavished on him by a party beholden to a dynasty, Rahul, it must be conceded, hasn’t flinched from leaping into the campaign ring. He is staking his career on this performance, as it were. In contrast, Modi, for all his bluster, has kept away from the campaigns—maybe his party has kept him tethered, maybe he is sulking. Whatever be Modi’s reasons, this first sizing-up and circling of each other by the projected rivals of the future lends itself to some ringside musing.

Times have been difficult for Rahul’s party. The Congress-led UPA-II government and its image of the prime minister as a scholarly leader of integrity lie sullied with megascams. The government’s mishandling of the Anna Hazare agitation, its inability to formulate a credible anti-corruption bill, the inter-ministerial bickering over the unique ID project convey an impression of policy paralysis. With public speculation about Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s state of health, the party and the alliance appear to be rudderless. Add to this the political wilderness that India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has been for the Congress for more than two decades. Certainly not the most propitious of circumstances for launching a new leader, especially from the quicksand of a four-cornered electoral arena, with formidable veterans like the BSP’s chief minister Mayawati and the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav in the fray. But they offer an opportunity for stamping someone with the credibility of a worthy leader in the making. Rahul has not let the opportunity go abegging, though only time will tell if he has made the most of it or squandered it.

The bleak circumstances in which the Congress finds itself should have been seen by the BJP as an opening for its brave knight to shine and charge ahead. But Modi’s absence exposes chinks in his claims to leadership: here is a leader shying away from an opportunity, daunted by the challenge and complexity posed by a state like Uttar Pradesh. His rhetoric draws energy not from moral honour or political courage but from sadistic simplifications, sectarian certainties, cynical cruelties. Stories from his party insinuate that he’s miffed that his rival Sanjay Joshi, once shamed in Gujarat in a sex CD scandal, has been rehabilitated and brought in for the Uttar Pradesh campaign. To sulk is hardly like a leader.

If he had campaigned, he might perhaps—an important qualifier, given the blindness that megalomania induces—have seen for himself the limitations of his appeal. One wonders, too, if he has understood that what is chain-fencing his ambition is the party’s realisation of his limited appeal beyond Gujarat, whether in Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu or Kerala—never known to be BJP bastions—or in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Goa—where the party has a strong presence.

A narrow brand of politics will only offer limited opportunities in a federal, democratic and pluralistic political milieu. It will never perhaps dawn on Modi and his idolisers that such a milieu calls for some open-armed inclusiveness. Will his corporate adulators take note or remain short-sighted in their pursuit of profit?

We don’t yet know how Rahul’s fortune or strategy plays out in these polls or whether he is ultimately able to prove his worth as a leader, but he certainly has confronted the political challenge head on, unlike Modi. This is not to say that the political future of India is laid out only for these two to joust. Because, in a democracy, the arena is potentially open to all.

As it is, democracy is prone to belie any presumptions power-seekers may harbour. Look at how, despite the scepticism about political processes that Team Anna tried to induce, the electorate has come out in great numbers to exercise its choice in Punjab and Uttarakhand. Corruption indeed became an issue, but not, it seems, in a way that Hazare’s team wanted. In Punjab and Uttarakhand, the corruption factor has worked against the incumbent regimes. So it’s time for Modi too to question his political assumptions; Rahul, too, should keep this in mind as he charts a route to a political future.

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