The contours of the next general election are becoming ever more clearer with the expected “elevation” of Rahul Gandhi as the vice-president of the Congress. Given the repeated rumours on the state of Sonia Gandhi‘s health and her reported desire to retire from politics at the age of 70, it is obvious the leadership of the 130-year-old Congress party has passed on to a fifth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
But Rahul Gandhi is no Rajiv Gandhi. His father was 40 when he became PM, Rahul is 42. His father was thrown into the deep end all of a sudden, Rahul has been around for several years. And more tellingly, despite his travels across the country and his exertions in several election campaigns, Rahul Gandhi has not quite been the vote-magnet that Congressmen suspected he would be, having lost Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.
But all that is in the past tense now. As the new, official No.2, the silence that Rahul Gandhi adopted as part of his mystique (he has only barely attended Parliament and spoken even more rarely on the issues of the day)—and the reluctance that he conveyed through his swift disappearances after parachuting into the rough and tumble, allowing lesser mortals to face the flak for his failed experiments—is no longer a luxury he owns.
For politics is a game played with a scoreboard, and push has come to shove for the scam, scandal tainted party that is facing diminishing returns across the country despite a slew of well-meaning social welfare schemes designed to fetch votes by the bucket.
Although the BJP is in no better shape, the word on the street is that Rahul Gandhi’s elevation will serve as an impetus for Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to assume a bigger, larger role in the BJP before the next general elections. With his hat-trick of wins in the State and with his advertised record as an administrator, Modi has a headstart over Rahul Gandhi, nearly 20 years his junior.
Indeed paradoxically, Modi, 62, is seen as more of a youth icon than Rahul Gandhi, who was missing in action when, say, the Delhi gangrape was scorching the party or when Google, Facebook and Twitter were being clogged up by the Oxford and Harvard educated geniuses in Manmohan Singh‘s government.
However, elections in India is not a zero-sum game.
So, given all the imponderables that swing into play—caste, allies, secularism, communalism, etc—who do you think will come up trumps if it is Modi vs Gandhi in 2014? Does Rahul, who has the Gandhi surname, have the pan-national appeal that goes beyond the urban middle-classes? Which of the two could garner more allies, so crucial in a coalition era? Which alliance will triumph—UPA or NDA?