Dileep Padgaonkar

While Narendra Modi continues to be BJP’s star performer, he now has to share the limelight with Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi. The former, fortified by Aam Aadmi Party’s spectacular show of strength in Delhi assembly elections, is raring to expand his appeal beyond the National Capital Region. And the latter, seeking to rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Congress’s debacle in recent polls, seems determined to inject new vigour in his beleaguered party with a number of deft moves.

All three have a long way to go before they decisively prove their mettle. As the nation moves closer to general elections, leaders of powerful regional parties will begin to flex their muscles. Some - like DMK’s K Karunanidhi and JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar - have indeed begun to do that al-ready. Others are bound to follow suit in good time. For the moment, however, attention is focussed on Modi, Kejriwal and the young Gandhi. Each one faces a huge challenge of credibility.

Since his anointment as his party’s prime ministerial candidate, Modi has addressed more rallies in more parts of the country, attracted more crowds and wowed them as no one else has. He has got more coverage in both mainstream and social media than either of his two rivals. But his campaign has begun to lose some of its sheen.

One reason is that his personal and highly derogatory attacks on Congress leaders and his advertisements for himself have been far too repetitive and hence far too predictable - something that runs counter to a sound communications strategy. He needs to spell out his programmes and policies, not crib and rant about Congress misdemeanours times without number.

The other reason is that he hasn’t quite managed to leverage for himself BJP’s victory in three of five states that recently went to polls. In public perception, its architects have been state-level leaders: Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh and Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan. They would not want to play second fiddle to the party’s prime ministerial candidate for long.

Yet another reason relates to his flip-flops. In Patna, he told Muslims and Hindus that their enemy is poverty, not each other. He used that conciliatory tone in his remarks on Pakistan as well. He also called for a debate on Article 370 - that confers a special status on Jammu & Kashmir - rather than reiterate the BJP’s traditional stand that the Article should be abrogated.

In Varanasi, however, he reverted to rhetoric redolent with Hindutva allusions. Meanwhile, BJP leaders rushed to clarify that Modi hadn’t deviated an inch from the party’s position on J&K. All of this left both hardcore Hindutva votaries and non-Hindutva voters who otherwise seemed to be well-disposed towards him a confused lot.

Finally, Modi’s detractors will make sure that the ghosts of Godhra and post-Godhra violence don’t go away. Nor will questions about intrusive surveillance of a young woman architect by Gujarat’s state agencies. Sooner rather than later, Modi’s defiant insouciance in these matters could prove to be a handicap.

Challenges before Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi are less messy though no less formidable. The AAP leader has agreed to form a government with outside support from the very Congress he has been deriding as the fountainhead of corruption. However, there can be no stopping him if he makes good on the promises contained in the party’s manifesto even to a limited extent. He will have proved to a nation that has grown cynical and even bitter about politicians that ethics-driven politics is not an oxymoron.

Out of the blue, Rahul Gandhi and the Manmohan Singh government have been demonstrating a new zest on a number of issues - withdrawal of the ordinance on tainted elected representatives, a firm stand against the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex relations, a tough position on the Devyani Khobragade controversy and on Pakistan, with a sweeping agenda for economic growth. But this has raised eyebrows on two counts. The first is that the show of vigour has come a bit too late in the day with the result that its potential to fetch electoral gains in 2014 remains hugely problematic.

The second is that Rahul’s endeavour to provide a robust anti-corruption framework hasn’t prevented his party from trying to ally with Lalu Prasad, who is on bail after his conviction in the fodder scam, or to stop the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra from jettisoning the Adarsh panel report. This report has come down heavily on senior politicians and bureaucrats for their role in the scandal.

So Rahul Gandhi, much like Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi, will need uncommon political skills to reconcile their bewildering contradictions. That exercise would reveal who among them is the least polarising and most effective leader in resurgent India. The jury is still out on that issue.–Times of India