Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi: The burden of perception
(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Reuters)
Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi might find that fighting each other over who will be India’s next prime minister is easier than fighting the perceptions of more than a billion of their countrymen about who the candidates really are.
Modi’s big battle, even if he doesn’t bring it up much, is against the perception that many people have of his role in encouraging the 2002 religious riots in Gujarat that left thousands dead. Many people meanwhile see Gandhi as a clueless kid, or “pappu”. Sample Rahul Gandhi’s speech to industrialists today in New Delhi.
Gandhi described a broad vision for India, and showed some real seriousness about addressing problems in the country. But many viewers and attendees thought he came up short on execution, and didn’t share enough thoughts about getting India out of some of its most pressing economic predicaments.
Yet he appeared to make a serious effort to link capitalism and populism, a refreshing approach from someone near the top of the Congress party, which traditionally has relied on populist measures to appeal to voters.
He acknowledged, much like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s speech on Wednesday, that the government alone cannot drive growth. Industries and government policies will have to go hand in hand for India to fully utilize its “energy” on a global scale.
There were loopholes and goof-ups in his hour-long speech, plenty of them, but he did talk about linking the education system in the country to hardcore market-based economics, another fresh approach.
He asked the captains of industry whether they are consulted before a university curriculum is prepared and outlined how India’s best education system fails to teach students the monetary value of education.
These may not be the right steps, but these definitely were thoughts worth giving a patient hearing, not a “pappu” kiss-off. Closed minds indicate that voters on either side have forfeited the right to hear future policy statements from either potential candidate that might swing their vote. Giving up an opportunity like that seems a shame when the power of the vote is so valuable.
Modi saw a glimpse of it when he talked about extending the “Gujarat model” — a business strategy in his home state that industry leaders applaud — to the whole country. Large numbers of people rejected anything Modi had to offer.
Modi and Gandhi favour different approaches to helping India. While one promotes industrial development, the other strives for inclusive growth. There will sure be conflicts in these approaches, but each almost certainly has something worth heeding.
Unfortunately for Modi and Gandhi, the burden is on them to manage their images more actively, and to do it quickly. Asking millions of voters to change how they think is a goal that India certainly will not achieve in a year.
(Follow Anurag on Twitter @anuragkotoky )