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Personae and political styles came into sharp relief when Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi filed their nominations for the Lok Sabha elections in two Uttar Pradesh seats. 

Modi’s candidature from Varanasi had been certain from the very day the elections were announced. His nomination on May 14 triggered a two-day carnival in the constituency, which saw people braving 40oC heat just to have a glimpse of their leader. He was accompanied by leaders of all National Democratic Alliance (NDA) parties and 11 chief ministers, besides his cabinet colleagues and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President J.P. Nadda. 

A Tale Of Two

On the other hand, when Rahul filed his papers in Raebareli 12 days back, it was an impromptu, dull event, devoid of even a roadshow. This was mostly because he had kept his candidature secret till about 3 am on May 3, the logic being that he did not want the Raebareli nomination to affect his prospects in Kerala’s Wayanad, which voted on April 26. The Election Commission’s seven-phase poll schedule partly facilitated this dallying. INDIA bloc partners were mostly absent. Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge and former Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot accompanied Rahul, as did Telangana Chief Minister Revanth Reddy, though that was because his state aircraft was needed to fly a few members of the entourage. Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka chief ministers, both of the Congress stock, were absent.

Read | Opinion: Why Did Rahul Choose Raebareli Over Amethi?

Rahul was flanked by his family as he presented his papers. On the other hand, when Modi filed his nomination, by his side was Yogi Adityanath, who does not have a family much like Modi himself. One of Modi’s four proposers was Ganeshwar Shastri Dravid, a Tamil-origin Brahmin Sanskrit scholar based in Varanasi who had determined the muhurat (auspicious time) for the Ayodhya Ram Mandir Prana Pratishtha ceremony. This had its own symbolism given Modi’s outreach to Southern states, which saw a Sengol being installed in the Lok Sabha last year, as well as a Kashi-Tamil Sangamam that emphasised Tamil Nadu’s ancient links with Varanasi. Apart from Dravid, the other three proposers were Lalchand Kushwaha from the OBC community, Sanjay Sonkar, a Dalit, and Baijnath Patel, a Brahmin – together reflecting the BJP’s strong social engineering. Kushwaha, Sonkar and Patel are Panchayat-level organisers.

After filing his papers, Rahul Gandhi left Rae Bareli in a huff, avoiding the media, perhaps to fend off uncomfortable queries about not contesting from neighbouring Amethi. Modi, in contrast, headed for a meeting with his party workers.

‘Ram Aur Kaam’ vs ‘Karmabhoomi’

The venue of this meeting was significant too. It was held at the state-of-the-art Rudraksh Convention Centre, a new landmark in Varanasi set up under Japanese collaboration; in fact, the late Shinzo Abe had participated in the famous ‘Ganga Arati’ in the city with Modi in 2015. The centre symbolises the transformation of Varanasi under the Prime Minister since 2014, and that transformation is being well highlighted in the pamphlets distributed by BJP workers. ‘Ram aur Kaam‘ (emphasis on religion as well as welfare) has become the favourite catchphrase for BJP vistaraks (propagandists).

Meanwhile, in Raebareli, Rahul’s sister and principal campaigner, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, has been highlighting her family’s century-old association with the region that goes back to Motilal Nehru’s years as a lawyer for the rich and powerful. She has also been playing up the fact that the constituency has been Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi’s ‘karmabhoomi‘ (grandfather Feroze Gandhi, who won in 1952 and 1957 and created an abiding niche for himself in the annals of the Lok Sabha as a corruption-buster whose exposés made a finance minister resign, does not feature in the Congress discourse).

An Interview

Modi has held 284 roadshows so far for this year’s election and has given 31 television interviews in recent days. In one of those interviews, conducted soon after he filed his nomination, PM Modi, upon being questioned about his criticism of ‘parivarvaad‘ (dynastic politics), said that his kinship extends to all 140 crore Indians, and that unlike many who treat supporters as ‘janata‘ (public) or ‘sevak‘ (workers), he prefers to see them as family. To accusations that he is an “autocrat”, Modi said it was an abuse hurled at not him but the voters who have given him two mandates. 

Denying the charge that he would alter the Constitution if he is re-elected, Modi pointed out that the First Amendment to the Constitution was brought about by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951 through the Provisional Parliament that had only limited franchise; the first Lok Sabha under the Constitution of India was elected in 1952, which made changes to the right to free speech and expression (the Supreme Court recently said it may consider a PIL to examine the validity of the First Amendment). He further referred to the imposition of Emergency in 1975 by Indira Gandhi and cited the Rajiv Gandhi regime’s legislation to overturn the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano verdict as yet another Congress-era constitutional oddity that ultimately resulted in the denial of rights to Muslim women.

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Modi also recalled how in 2013, Rahul tore up an ordinance that sought to provide a safety net for convicted legislators. The ordinance had been passed by the Manmohan Singh Cabinet, a duly recognised constitutional body, and was signed by the President of India, the highest constitutional authority. Modi asked whether that was not an insult to the constitution. Notably, Rahul’s act, perhaps intended to announce his arrival as the new Congress boss, had come barely a few hours ahead of Manmohan Singh’s White House meeting with the then US President, Barack Obama. The Congress government was defied when the Prime Minister was on a state visit abroad. The irony is that a decade later, Rahul’s own brashness came back to haunt him when he was convicted for defamation by a Surat court last year, with no legal protection to cushion the blow.

Prince vs Emperor

Modi insists on calling Rahul a “Shahzada” (Prince). Priyanka has countered this by calling Modi a “Shehenshah” (Emperor). Before embarking for Varanasi on May 13, Modi replied to her through an interview in Patna: “Mujhe saalon se gaaliyan padti rahi hain, main sab seh leta hoon. Shayad meri sahansheelta ke karan mujhe sehenshah kaha gaya ho (I have been tolerating abuse for years. Perhaps my tolerance – sahansheelta – has invited this epithet).”

Before filing his papers in Raebareli, Rahul, accompanied by Priyanka and her husband Robert Vadra, was photographed offering prayers at the residence of a priest who has been conducting pre-nomination ceremonies for the family since the days of Indira Gandhi. The three sat on stools. Indira Gandhi, in contrast, used to sit cross-legged on the floor as per conventional Hindu tradition. Modi, meanwhile, did Ganga Arati on May 13, prayed at designated temples in traditional style, and then proceeded to file his nomination.

In each gesture, Modi and Rahul stood worlds apart. 

(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired Editor and a public affairs commentator)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author

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