News channels always face a ‘dharam sankat’ when Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi speak at the same time. In the last few years the tendency has been to relentlessly focus the cameras on Mr Modi while the Congress leader’s speech is routinely muted or becomes a deferred telecast in what might be seen as an accurate reflection of the two leaders’ contrasting political fortunes.
Last Saturday, the Prime Minister and the Congress vice-president both spoke, only this time their event managers were careful enough to ensure that their speeches didn’t clash. Whereas Mr Gandhi addressed students from a management institute in Mumbai, the Prime Minister’s canvas was much bigger: He was launching his ‘Start up India’ initiative from Vigyan Bhavan. The target constituencies though were broadly similar: ‘Young’ urban India, or an India under-25, the post-1991 generation, born after the dismantling of the licence-permit raj, one whose political choices are influenced by a desire for economic emancipation above all else.
In the 2014 elections, this demographic group voted overwhelmingly for Mr Modi. The National Election Studies, 2014, conducted by CSDS shows that in the 18-22 age group, 36% voted for the BJP against just a 17% vote for the Congress. In the 23-25 age group, 33% voted for the BJP versus 20% for the Congress. The gap narrowed amongst senior citizens: 27% in the 56+ age group voted for the BJP versus 20% for the Congress. Effectively, young India chose the older prime ministerial candidate over his much younger rival.
The difference is no surprise. The qualities that Mr Modi is seen to embody — high energy, sharp, tech-savvy communication, positive outlook — resonate well with a generation that is looking for role models that mirror their upwardly mobile aspirations. By contrast, Rahul Gandhi’s dynastical origins, his limited public speaking skills and socialistic worldview don’t capture the imagination of a youthful India that is pushing for a meritocratic, less entitled society.
Which is why when Mr Modi speaks of a ‘Start Up India’, his audience is able to relate easily to his dream of an India where social origins are no barrier to economic success. The Prime Minister can actually self-parody his journey from a ‘start up’ as a chaiwallah to 7, Race Course Road and earn instant applause. As a child of privilege, Rahul Gandhi finds it more difficult to convince an audience in a Dharavi slum, for example, that he can genuinely identify with their ambitions.
And yet, Mr Modi as a modern-day feel-good guru runs the risk now of creating vaulting expectations and then not being able to match them. In the 2014 election campaign, for example, Mr Modi promised ‘achhe din’, including creating 50 million jobs for young Indians.
Truth is, we are nowhere close to providing jobs for the one million young Indians who are entering the job market every month. The mismatch between promise and reality is where the Modi magic threatens to run aground. ‘Start up India’ means little to the young Indian who is looking for a foothold in the crazily competitive job market door: Entrepreneurial energies cannot be unleashed for those who don’t even have equal access to basic opportunities. And pretty slogans and one-liners cannot compensate for long-term, institutional deficiencies. How do you, for example, ‘Start up India’ when you haven’t even provided a vast majority with a decent education?
Mr Gandhi offers no alternative either to this large mass of people: Pouring scorn on ‘Start up India’ by linking it to an RSS vision of an “intolerant India” is a political weapon, it isn’t an agenda for action. The creeping negativism in Congress politics is not the ideal recipe for an opposition party still struggling to come to terms with the scale of its 2014 defeat. Travelling to districts in the throes of agrarian distress is a good idea, but it offers no resolution to the crisis unless it is followed up by an action plan for agriculture reform.
In a sense, both Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi need to break out of their image traps to genuinely address the needs of young India. The Prime Minister still faces the charge of being a very effective event manager, blessed with astute branding and marketing skills, but unwilling to take the big risks that would actually break the status quo: Why, for example, isn’t government being downsized as a necessary step to cutting red tape that would actually ‘start up’ India? And where is the focus on building a scaled-up, quality education infrastructure that would create a skilled work force? A skill development ministry per se isn’t the answer: Governments, after all, can only play a limited role in creating a start-up eco-system.
Mr Gandhi needs to also grow beyond the image of being seen as the perpetually angry, young man, attacking the government at every turn but not offering an alternative manifesto of change. Political maturity demands that you engage with the government, within and outside Parliament, not become a disruptionist force that is a roadblock to any policy initiative or legislative measure.
Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi may be reaching out to young India in their distinctive ways, but if one needs to change his style, the other needs to change his substance. We need to see a prime minister go beyond the razzmatazz of high-profile events and the lure of catchy slogans; we need to see a Congress vice-president who actually wrestles with issues and doesn’t just flit in and out of politics. Young India is waiting anxiously for change but its patience may be running out.
Post-script: While the Prime Minister’s spin doctors suggest that ‘Start up India’ took off only in May 2014 after the NDA victory and Rahul Gandhi’s supporters seek to deny any credit to Mr Modi, the truth may well lie somewhere in between. While Mr Modi’s “can do” messaging resonates powerfully, the young India story’s origins began with the unleashing of the “animal spirits” of the economy by a certain Dr Manmohan Singh. In this age of buzzwords, should these success stories then be branded as “Manmohan’s babies”?!