India could offer the world a signal electoral drama next spring, with geopolitical repercussions for the whole Eurasian rimland. Narendra Modi, the charismatic chief minister of Gujarat in northwestern India, will likely run for prime minister against Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of the political forefather of India's modern republic, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Modi, though considerably older than Gandhi, represents an efficient, new style politics that is nationalistic and unapologetically abrasive, and thus comfortable with civilizational tension. The youthful Gandhi, through his name, embodies an old-style politics that, while portrayed as corrupt and complacent, is also universalist. Modi has many enemies yet promises to shake things up in a country with vast potential but stuck in the economic and institutional doldrums. Gandhi, who has far less experience and is half-Italian, is actually the less-disruptive, more conservative choice. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, is the real authority within the Congress party. If Congress wins in 2014, his rise to the premiership is not expected to change the balance of power within his party.
Modi presently represents the Hindu nationalist BJP, or Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party). But even within the BJP he is seen as edgy and controversial. The very word "Modi" in India connotes the shocking events of February 2002 in Gujarat, when Modi, it is alleged, played a critical role as a Hindu chief minister in a pogrom that killed 2,000 Muslims, led to 400 rapes of Muslim women, and left 200,000 homeless. Modi has never officially apologized or offered a detailed explanation for those events. And yet throughout four terms as chief minister he has demonstrated a financial probity and a machine-like bureaucratic dynamism that has made Gujarat a leader within India for economic development, so much so that Muslims along with many others have flocked to Modi's Gujarat in search of jobs.
Modi is a hypnotic orator who, as one corporate executive after another has said, offers the best model of governance in a country rife with corruption and red tape. His actions in February 2002 have led him to be compared with Adolf Hitler, while his obsession with management details have led him to be compared with Lee Kuan Yew. Of course, Modi is neither. He is a new kind of hybrid politician: both media-savvy and manifestly ambitious. He is the first authentically charismatic Indian politician since Indira Gandhi -- the late grandmother of his opponent in next spring's election.
Rahul Gandhi is an empty vessel compared to Modi. Gandhi, despite being educated at elite schools, is close to ultimate power only because of his family name and connections, not because he is particularly brilliant. Compared to Modi, who rose on his own from truly humble beginnings, there is simply little original one can say about Gandhi. The mere election of his Congress Party next spring, it is alleged by some, will cement nepotism and corruption. The status quo will simply have a better chance to survive with the fourth generation of the founding political family, whereas Modi offers more of a break with the past, for better or for worse.
In fact, this upcoming election will reveal how India suffers from a profound leadership vacuum: the only selection appears to be between someone tainted by inter-communal mass violence and someone who has essentially inherited his position by way of his family.