NEW DELHI: One is a former teaboy, the other a Harvard and Cambridge-educated scion of India’s biggest political dynasty. In a country of contrasts, the national elections starting April 7 will be a battle of backgrounds.
Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist hardliner from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is the frontrunner to emerge as the next prime minister from the nine-stage elections which were announced on Wednesday.
From one of India’s “backward castes,” the 63-year-old Modi grew up in a dusty village in western Gujarat state where electricity was scarce and his father’s tea stall earnings bought few luxuries.
His main opponent from the left-leaning Congress party, in power for a decade, is 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi who was raised in leafy New Delhi surrounded by the trappings of power.
Gandhi’s father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers, while his Italian-born mother now runs the Congress party, which faces widespread voter discontent over corruption and weak economic growth.
Modi, who worked his way up through grassroots Hindu groups and makes no effort to disguise his contempt for the Gandhis, derides his younger opponent as “shehzada” (prince) and has mocked his lack of experience in office.
While popular with upper-caste business people, the BJP candidate has sought to underline his humble roots in a bid to appeal to rural voters in the northern Hindi-speaking heartland who will decide the outcome of the world’s biggest election.
“Rahul Gandhi feels shameful in fighting elections against a tea seller!” Modi declared to a crowd in January, referring to the times he helped out his father at his stall beside a railway track.
Modi’s biggest handicap, after a decade of running Gujarat as chief minister, is his link to religious riots in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people were killed in violence directed at Muslims.
Controversially labelled a “merchant of death” by Rahul’s mother Sonia in 2007, Modi has never been found guilty of wrong-doing but his failure to contain the carnage and his Hindu nationalist background left a legacy of mistrust.
In 2012, one of his former ministers was sentenced to jail for helping orchestrate the riots, which saw families burned alive, men lynched and women and children subjected to appalling sexual violence.
Gandhi by contrast, labelled an “empty suit” when he entered politics in 2007 in a leaked US diplomatic cable, is a member of parliament who has mostly shunned the limelight and refused regular offers of cabinet positions.
Often portrayed as a reluctant leader, he gave up a business career to enter politics and has slowly taken up responsibilities within Congress before becoming the face of the 2014 election campaign.
If the party were to secure an unlikely third term after victories in 2004 and 2009, he would almost certainly be its prime ministerial candidate.
While there are few similarities in the two men’s backgrounds, they do share the same marital status as bachelors — in defiance of Indian custom that sees most people wed as young adults.
Modi is believed to have never consummated a marriage to a Gujarati woman arranged while he was a child, while Gandhi is a bachelor whose private life is kept under wraps.
“If I get married and have children, I will be status-quoist and will like my children to take my place,” he told party members in March last year, displaying his discomfort with his famous family name.
Tragedy, as well as power, has coloured his family’s role in Indian history.
His grandmother Indira was assassinated in 1984 by her bodyguards, while his father Rajiv was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991 when campaigning for re-election.
Alongside Gandhi and Modi in the campaign will be a cast of colourful and often populist regional leaders whose MPs will be coveted by either man once the difficult process of forming a coalition begins in May.
They include a former film star, a wrestler-turned politician, a Communist-fighting spinster who has painted Kolkata blue, and a low-caste icon famed for an elephant statue-building spree during her time in office.
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