It would have been interesting even if the two spoke from the same stage, spelling out their respective views of what they want to do.
If you look closely at the four phases of electioneering that have ended, with voting in the fifth phase under way on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s theme song is the Nehru-Gandhi family more than even the Congress, where Congress president Rahul Gandhi is the prime target. That of Mr Gandhi is Mr Modi, and Mr Modi’s alleged crony capitalism. If this is the issue — the allegedly corrupt Gandhis pitted against an allegedly close-to-Anil Ambani Prime Minister — around which Election 2019 is being fought, then it is not much of an election, and it is a poor reflection on the two major national parties. Both the leaders refer to their respective parties’ crowd-sourced manifestoes, but they are more focused on targeting each other.
Mr Gandhi has made it clear time and again that he does not want Mr Modi to be back as Prime Minister, clearly implying that he does not mind a BJP without Mr Modi. On his part, Mr Modi is hell-bent on pushing Mr Gandhi out of the political ring as it were, by defeating him in Amethi, and the BJP’s candidate there, Union minister Smriti Irani, has been given a do-or-die mission. Mr Gandhi and Mr Modi are not willing to confront each other in Parliament whatever may be the position of their parties, which is how the principal rivals function in a democracy. There is a grudge match on between the two.
To be fair, Mr Gandhi is only too willing to engage Mr Modi, but the Prime Minister is not game for it, either because he thinks Mr Gandhi’s naivety could unhorse his seasoned political cunning, or he considers Mr Gandhi to be a good enough rival. If Mr Modi and the BJP are harping on the fact that this is a presidential-type contest in the American style, then it follows that Mr Modi should be ready to debate with Mr Gandhi. Mr Modi’s reluctance for debate is understandable because we have seen in Parliament that the Prime Minister has no taste or stomach for debate. His forte is declamation, and he declaimed in the two Houses of Parliament, but more effectively in election rallies from September 2013 when he became the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate to the summer of 2019 when he is defending his prime ministerial title. Mr Modi is not an orator of the Atal Behari Vajpayee school because he does not have the poetic love for words which Vajpayee had. But he makes up for his lack of love for words with relentless volley of words, which may be repetitive, tiring and even ineffective, but he runs the marathon. Mr Gandhi shows signs of being a better debater than a public speaker, who can overwhelm the audience with his energy and if not with his arguments like Mr Modi does. It is understandable that Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi avoid tasks where they are vulnerable.
It would have been interesting even if the two spoke from the same stage, spelling out their respective views of what they want to do. This would not have got them votes perhaps, but it would have made Indian democracy more respectable. Right now, the two major rivals are hurling accusations against each other, which is neither impressive, nor decent, nor logical. When Mr Gandhi says that the fight with the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is ideological, he is right. But Mr Gandhi has not updated his ideological offensive against an old adversary. He slips into the old arguments that the Congress had used against the RSS-BJP for more than half-a-century. And many people fall into a slumber when Mr Gandhi repeats ad nauseam the other side’s hatred-filled, divisive communal agenda. The situation has changed and therefore the arguments too need to change. Mr Modi on his part finds it impossible to cross swords with the Congress on the issues of economic development and the strengthening of the military muscle of the country because the Congress has pursued the objectives with diplomatic cunning. Mr Modi remains a novice. That is why he finds it easy to attack the Congress, and more than the Congress, the Nehru-Gandhis, on charges of corruption.
The contest between Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi lacks the gladiatorial intensity because they are not attacking each other like two brave fighters. To do so, they would have to respect each other like brave men do. Here again, Mr Gandhi has an advantage over Mr Modi. The Congress president can at times respect the Prime Minister, but Mr Modi is unable to do so even for a moment. That is why Mr Modi’s attacks on Mr Gandhi degenerate into a street brawl. The supporters of Mr Modi hate Mr Gandhi with the same intensity, sometimes more than even Mr Modi, and Mr Gandhi’s supporters hate Mr Modi much more than Mr Gandhi does. What makes this election campaign toxic is this sense of hatred promoted by the two major parties.
Mr Modi the performer will get back to the norms of decency once the election is over, but he does not realise that he has set a bad example for electioneering as such. If political rivals are to indulge in vitriol and throw decencies of any kind out of the window on the campaign trail as he has done in the last six years, elections in India will turn into nasty affairs and they cannot be described as the festival of democracy as we have fallen into the habit od doing now.
Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi will have to learn to refer to each other with respect even as they criticise each other. Mr Gandhi’s “chowkidar chor hai” is not a decent slogan by any democratic standard, and Mr Modi referring to Mr Gandhi as a “man out on bail”, as though he was a criminal, is not the way either. The ideological animosity that they have against each other should find better expression. Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi should use irony and satire against each other rather than undignified name-calling.