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Bill Clinton vs Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi

Last updated on: April 13, 2013 13:15 IST

Bill Clinton vs Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi

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Bill Clinton's address had lessons for both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, says T N Ninan

The media, if not the country, has been saturated with coverage of the speeches by Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi over the past couple of weeks.

NaMo vs RaGa, to use the print media's shorthand (less damning than 'Pappu vs Feku' of cyberland), has supposedly set the stage for the coming "big fight". Privileged but callow youth vs tried and tested administrat#8744 or well-intentioned idealist vs hard-core communalist; the possible play-offs are many and varied.

All heart but no head, was how one listener at CII characterised Gandhi, whereas many would say the opposite about Mr Modi.

This binary reading of a complex, multi-party, multi-state contest that looms over the horizon is the media at its simplifying worst. But if you wanted to understand the many inadequacies of both Gandhi and Modi, and to get an elevated sense of what politics and public action can be about, you had to listen to Bill Clinton speaking to an invited audience in Mumbai on Wednesday.

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Image: Former US President Bill Clinton
Photographs: Win McNamee/Reuters

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Bill Clinton vs Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi

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Like Rahul Gandhi, Clinton laid out his operative first principles. Enormous wealth accumulation by the successful is threatened by growing inequality and an unsustainable level of joblessness. Also, winner-take-all capitalism simply does not work. Finally, sustainability is a very real challenge.

But unlike Rahul, who for 75 minutes could not get beyond the first gear of broad approaches, Clinton in the hour allotted to him was also master of the detail, and offered specific action points -- reflective more of Modi's own command of detail.

But unlike Modi, Clinton was benign and humanistic, with none of the latent anger or menace that is visible underneath Modi's somewhat forced amiability of the moment.

Also missing was the coarseness of thought and language that both Modi and his shrill critics in an alarmed Congress have resorted to.

Clinton's speech was unfortunately not televised, so the national audience has been deprived of the opportunity for a first-hand comparison with the speeches of our putative leaders.

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Image: Rahul Gandhi
Photographs: Ajay Verma/Reuters

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Bill Clinton vs Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi

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The former US president picked more relevant anecdotes than the mostly pointless ones that Gandhi chose for his CII gambit; and his comments on China were many orbits removed from Gandhi's sadly infantile anecdotes on the subject.

He addressed tricky questions (why are Democrat presidents less friendly to India than Republican ones?) with an analytical frankness that contrasted with Modi's economy with the full truth when he spoke of the state governor blocking women's reservation in Gujarat.

There were similarities too, of course; like a concern for the underdog that reflected Gandhi's focus on the bottom of the pyramid, and a search for practical solutions that echoed Modi's approaches in Gujarat.

It is of course unfair to both Modi and Gandhi to expect them to measure up to Clinton, arguably the most skilful politician of the past half-century, and someone who has now gone beyond the power of office to acquire real personal influence -- which he seems to use effortlessly to reach out to moneybags and decision makers for raising funds and launching programmes for everything from tackling AIDS (using cheap drugs from Indian producers) to providing disaster relief, as after the Gujarat earthquake.

My takeaway was that he was closer to Gandhi in his willingness to not allow personal goals to get in the way of defining priorities, whereas Modi was a closer parallel when it came to his command of facts and programme details. A combination of the best of the two would not be a bad idea, but that's wishing.

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Image: Narendra Modi
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
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