All three posit themselves as agents of change who stand outside of the system they are challenging. Modi and Kejriwal have the advantage. Just by virtue of being sociological outsiders to the system, their persona itself reflects a change of sorts. But this is exactly the position Rahul Gandhi tries to occupy: an outsider against his own party.
All three want to occupy the terrain of virtue. To an extent, this is inevitable. But they have become a measure of their own virtue. It allows them to stand above any charge levelled against the system they represent. Modi has had to battle charges all his political life, but will brook no aspersion on his own virtue. Gandhi still manages to talk as if he is in no way politically implicated in the vast system of corruption over which he has presided. It is premature to judge Kejriwal. But the line our intentions are good should always be a warning. Hopefully, the unconscionable disregard for legality and morality shown in the arrest of Africans in Delhi, and the Delhi governments response to it, is an aberration. But it also shows exactly what happens when a conviction of ones own virtue floats above reality.
All three are much more comfortable in the oppositional space. Both Modi and Kejriwal are, in their own ways, masters in rousing opposition. But even Gandhis sparks of passion fly more when he is on the attack than when he is saying something constructive.
All three of them are more comfortable with schemes and projects than with policy. It has been a common complaint that the economic visions of the three parties are not up to the demands of the time. They are comfortable thinking of new spending projects, but not very sophisticated about the overall framework that will meet the economys challenge. Doubtless, the manifestoes will, at some point, make things clearer. But in some ways, the challenge of our time is not so much thinking up schemes and projects. It is projecting the idea that you are capable of thinking about the complexity of our challenges and educating the people to meet those challenges. By and large, all three leaders are running away from this task. Again, you dont want leaders to be policy wonks, especially after our recent experience with wonks. But we have no way of judging whether they have the capacity to think about a complex, open economy on the cusp of a profound transition, or who they will empower.
All three of them are struggling to think about institutions. This might be a surprising claim to make about Kejriwal, whose central raison dtre is a new institutional architecture. Again, it is premature to come to any conclusion, but the promotion of vigilantism in the name of the people does not augur well. Both the Congress and the BJP have, under pressure from the AAP, now put their weight behind various pieces of anti-corruption legislation, including the lokpal bill. Despite this, we have not seen a convincing commitment to institutional regeneration. Institutional regeneration cannot be reduced to single point slogans, like people power or more laws. The capillaries that sustain institutions require constant nourishment.
All three cannot be challenged within their parties. But, paradoxically, they cannot also control unruly parties. There is a coarseness that is now distributed across the political spectrum, and you just have to wonder who will put their foot into the partys mouth next. But none of them have shown a decisive capacity to act against potential embarrassment or set the political cultures of their party right.
Kejriwals tenure has been too short to make a judgement. But again both Gandhi and Modi have a peculiar way of missing opportunities to take the moral high ground. Somehow it has become a matter of making the right speech rather than action; indeed, the speech seems the cover up for inaction. Both miss opportunities to bend the moral and ideological arc of their party in the right direction. Modis silence on so many pressing issues has been telling. He has failed to project a reformist aura, a more intelligent stance on Section 377 would have at one stroke ended doubts about the BJPs prejudices, convincing his party to take a more enlightened stand on the Bangladesh enclaves issue would have shown foreign policy farsightedness. One eloquent action would have done away with the need for so many speeches.
Gandhis fiery AICC speech also vested too much in speeches and less in action. An anti-corruption stance is not very convincing when your own government is hounding Ashok Khemka and blaming the CAG and CVC. But more importantly, by not putting himself straightforwardly as a PM candidate, he missed the point. It kept the question of whether he takes responsibility for anything, ambiguous. He seems not to have grasped the fact that the real institutional crisis was caused by the fact that the prime ministers office did not carry political authority. Here was a chance to clear the air on the principle that no authority will hover over a new PM to diminish him. Instead, he went on to again diminish his own government by announcing an increase in the number of subsidised gas cylinders. This I am the boss, but I am not government charade continued.
All three sense that India is at the cusp of a new politics. Gandhi talked about the middle class, Modi has been wooing them, the AAP has been talking of new class coalitions. But how much does this mean abandoning old vocabularies The BJPs Uttar Pradesh strategy reeks of old Hindutva politics; the Congress is flirting with quotas for Jats, separate schools for minorities. The AAPs position is unclear but it is hard to shake off the odour of racism over the way in which it framed the issue of Delhi arrests. It is also equivocal over reservations. Is the politics of the new simply a tactic, or a profound transformation
For all their differences, at the moment we have three opposition leaders fighting it out. Gandhi is struggling because he is on a terrain on which the other two are stronger. But can they overcome the sensibilities of an embattled opposition leader to learn the art of governance
Pratap Bhanu Mehta
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for The Indian Express