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Monday, January 28, 2013

For victory, both Rahul and Modi need an image makeover, if not an attitudinal change

With the general elections almost two years away speculation is rife. The favourite question doing the rounds is whether the Congress led by Rahul Gandhi will be able to defeat a NDA alliance led by Narendra Modi?

There are many ifs and buts. A major blow for Modi was the recent conviction of his minister Maya Kodnani in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Modi’s claim that no evidence had been found of the Sangh Parivar’s involvement in the anti-Muslim riots has been severely dented. Rahul has a different set of problems, particularly economic.

Inflation has risen steadily and the recent hike in petrol, diesel, and LPG products together with the widely controversial Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail trade may create a difficult situation for the Congress in time for the general elections.

Rahul’s problems are not just the Opposition (NDA) but also his own allies. Mulayam Singh Yadav is obviously trying all sorts of political combinations. As he put it, he is not a saint and has a legitimate right to be the prime minister. Rahul’s electioneering has been sporadic. There has been no sustained campaign by him for a long period excluding those for the UP elections in which the Congress was trounced.

The problem with the Congress is that it is largely a collection of coteries, caste groups and dynasties. Its organisational structure is loose. On the other hand, the Sangh parivar has the solid bedrock of the RSS at its core together with the VHP, BMS, ABVP and other fronts. However, the famous wave factor may come into account. But one can speculate on that only much closer to the elections.

Modi has serious organisational problems. Many of his senior party colleagues disapprove of his attitude and consider him brash and temperamental. For example: he talks of his contribution to Gujarat’s growth. But he does not refer adequately to his predecessors like Chimanbhai Patel. Not to speak of the major contribution by Madhavsinh Solanki to the development of the state.

Amongst older Sangh activists this must rankle. The massacre in Gujarat 2002 has still polarised the state. By and large, the secular vote, including the Muslims, will be stridently against Modi in the next elections in Gujarat. But the moot point is how the events in Gujarat will affect other constituencies in the country where the NDA will try and project a more neutral and much less communal image.

The real problem for Modi would therefore depend on the decision of the RSS on whether he will be anointed the prime ministerial candidate or not. In some senses, Modi has been his own worst enemy. A false poster showing him together with Nitish Kumar enraged the latter and he demanded the withdrawal of the poster, which was duly done.

These are the kind of antics that get Modi into trouble. But there is another deeper problem that Modi will have to face. In a country where minorities are more than 20 per cent, Modi will have to refashion his image into that of a more secular, tolerant and open-minded politician. In a general election, the yet unexplained burning of the Sabarmati Express and the new questions raised by the recent court verdict which went against the Sangh Parivar, including the conviction of ministers like Maya Kodnani, is a potentially dangerous blow. If some more of these verdicts are arrived at it will be very difficult for Modi to do a makeover of his political image.

Rahul in contrast has a much cleaner image and has much less to answer for. His main problem is the lack of a sustained campaign well before the elections when economic decisions have tarnished the Congress image. There is no indication of any galvanising by the Congress of its dormant organisations to take on the formidable Sangh Parivar.

Of course Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave a brief explanation of the price hikes and the bringing of FDI into the sensitive retail sector which employs some 44 million families. Whatever the PM may say, many will still have doubts until the coming months show otherwise. In any case the farmers and transporters will find the diesel hike increasing their costs.

Talking of reforms as a panacea will only convert the converted. For the majority Indians prices will go up even more sharply. And the allusions the Prime Minister made about bringing the economy out of a morass in 1991 will have few takers.

Therefore, the Rahul vs Modi struggle will operate on two different planes. For Rahul, it is largely the economy and to a lesser extent dynasty. For Modi, it is his national and international image as the overseer of the communal holocaust of 2002. Both will find the going tough. 

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