New Delhi: Even as India waits for the two national parties - the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - to announce their prime ministerial candidates, the contrast between the two presumed front-runners for the post is worth analyzing.
While the BJP's Narendra Modi is relentlessly goading his party to nominate him, the Congress's heir apparent is maintaining a deafening silence on the subject while his party men are clamouring for his selection.
One reason for this striking difference is probably that Modi never imagined till recently that he will come so tantalizingly close to the topmost post in the country's governance. As a result, he can hardly wait for the formal announcement.
Born in a middle class, backward caste family of ghanchis or edible oil traders, his career has followed an upwardly mobile trajectory which can be an object lesson of the opportunities available in the country.
Gandhi, on the other hand, was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth in a rich, upper caste family famous for its contribution to the country's independence movement and the building of modern India. Since there have already been three prime ministers from his family - a world record in a democracy - the post probably does not have much attraction for him. Moreover, he is aware that it can be his whenever he wants it. He doesn't have to push his party for it.
The contrast however does not go far. Instead, the similarities begin, for neither Gandhi nor Modi have any experience of governance at the national level. True, Modi is a chief minister - and a successful one - but ruling Gujarat is a far cry from presiding over India's destiny.
Besides, Modi runs a one-man show in Gujarat. Not only is there no effective opposition party, he has also been able to either reduce his detractors within the BJP to irrelevance, like Sanjay Joshi, or evict them, like Keshubhai Patel. In a very real sense, therefore, he is the master of all he surveys in the state.
It will however be vastly different for him at the centre. Not only will he have to run a coalition government (if his party ascends to power) for which he has no experience but his influential critics within his own party will also wait for him to trip up.
Gandhi's difficulties in this respect will be far less. While his own party will continue to be as subservient to him as now, the Congress's allies are unlikely to pose too many problems since they will be more or less the same as now, comprising (including outside supporters) the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), among others.
The misgivings about Gandhi, therefore, will relate to his capabilities since, unlike Modi, he has had no experience in administration. Moreover, his rejection of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's offers to join the cabinet suggests that he has little interest in the nitty-gritty of governance, although his reluctance has also been ascribed to the unwillingness of a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to serve under anyone else.
But it isn't only his lack of experience which can affect his performance. He also doesn't seem to have any ideological viewpoint on any subject - the economy, the social system, diplomatic relations.
Unlike Modi, who has constantly emphasized his development-oriented outlook - the bijli-sadak-pani factor plus industrialization -, Gandhi has never expressed his opinion on any governmnent policy other than speaking in philosophical terms. Does he favour pro-market policies or a controlled economy? Is he for a paternalistic government providing education and jobs via a caste-based quota system or for a merit-based, competitive system?
Is he for official and academic bans on controversial books - Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" or A.K. Ramanujan's "100 Ramayanas" - or for regulating the media, as the private member's bill once introduced in parliament by his aide, Meenakshi Natarajan, suggested?
In a very real sense, therefore, the country will be venturing into unknown territory if either Gandhi or Modi becomes prime minister. No one will know what to expect. The only saving grace will be that it will be a coalition in either case. As a result, both will be under some kind of check.
But it is also possible that neither - the overly ambitious and the shrinking violet - will ultimately be able to make it. In Modi's case, the opposition to him from within the party, led reportedly by L.K. Advani, has been compounded by doubts about the right moment for making the announcement.
If it is made before the Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh assembly polls, it may detract attention from the performance of the BJP's fairly successful chief ministers in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and also scare the country's significant minority population away from supporting them which they might otherwise have done.
In Gandhi's case, it must be obvious even to his acolytes within the Congress that he is not quite the inspirational figure as Rajiv Gandhi was in 1984 or Indira Gandhi in 1971 and 1980.
The chances are, therefore, that the Congress and the BJP will either refrain from naming their choices before the general election or turn to someone else - Advani or Shivraj Singh Chauhan in the BJP's case and P. Chidambaram in the Congress's, or a completely dark horse.