With Rahul Gandhi officially ascending to the Congress throne, the focus will now inevitably shift to the 2019 general elections.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Gandhi will be the Congress’ prime ministerial candidate for the next Lok Sabha elections, where he will take another shot at defeating Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Above all, it’s a contest defined by a personality clash because their bachelorhood aside, the two men are poles apart. Let’s size them up:
Since the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, the Bharatiya Janata Party has portrayed Narendra Modi as a man who worked his way up from the bottom, milking his background as the son of a chaiwala in Gujarat to chart his rise.
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Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, was born into India’s most prominent political family. He is the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the grandson of Indira Gandhi and the son of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi.
While the BJP has cultivated the ‘common man’ image of Modi to resonate with the masses, the Prime Minister himself has referred to Rahul Gandhi as a ‘Shehzada’, taking swipe at his privileged background and the Congress’ dynastic politics.
Over the past couple of decades, only Narendra Modi has managed to create a personality cult as a national leader on the scale of Indira Gandhi. After rising through the ranks of the BJP and being elected Gujarat Chief Minister three times, his popularity has grown exponentially since he was elevated to national politics.
A fluent and fiery orator, he has often single-handedly carried the BJP over the past few years. Viewed by his followers as a messiah of sorts, he has relied on political machismo to exert confidence and authority, famously saying once famously that a ’56-inch’ chest was needed to turn into Uttar Pradesh into an economically prosperous state like Gujarat.
The 67-year-old’s popularity doesn’t seem to have diminished even as he enters the final year of his term of prime minister. He is still the face of most state elections, including the ongoing campaign in Gujarat, with local leaders often consigned to the backdrop.
Rahul Gandhi’s journey has been quite different. A reluctant politician who took the plunge rather belatedly, he has long been struggling to shake off the ‘yuvraaj’ tag.
His public gaffes have earned some unsavoury nicknames over the year. Gandhi may belong to a different generation than Modi, but at 47, he is no ‘young gun’ and questions often swirl over his maturity. Speaking in Parliament, Modi (not-so) subtly referred to Gandhi when he said that certain people aged, but never grew up.
But Gandhi has shown willingness to turn things around on occasion. Aligning himself with farmers’ agitations like the one in Bhatta Parsaul in 2011 showed his combative side.
Public speaking has never been his forte and he has publicly acknowledged on more than one occasion that Modi is a better orator. However, the substance of his speeches has been improved of late, with more fact-backed attacks against the government. And of late, his witty social media banter has added an extra edge.
Appearances matter too. Despite his humble roots, Modi has not shied away from flamboyance. His infamous Rs 10 lakh suit that was monogrammed with his name drew much criticism and prompted Rahul Gandhi to call his government a ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’.
For his part, Gandhi has tried to culivate an image of humility by sticking with the traditional khadi kurta-pajama look associated with most Indian politicians.
With less than 18 months to go for the next general elections, these personality clashes will be laid bare on a frequent basis and it remains to be seen if Rahul Gandhi can rise to the challenge of reviving not just his party, but also his image vis-a-vis Modi.
Sanjay Jha, a Congress spokesperson, summarises the personality clash in his own words: “The way Mr. Modi generates heat, Mr, Gandhi generates light. That’s the difference between the two. Mr. Modi has a very flamboyant personality. And he believes in rhetoric, in theatricals, performances. Mr. Gandhi on the other hand is someone who is more himself. He is not trying to be someone that he is not. I think that’s making him likeable.”