Rahul Gandhi and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari share similar pasts but their emergence in the political sphere is marked by contrasting styles

Both are struggling to make something of their political careers. Both come from political dynasties in South Asia and have suffered unbearable personal tragedies. Comparisons are inevitable.

One has been at it longer; the other is playing catch-up. One, party vice-president, is still to prove that his hunger for power is real and long term while the other, patron-in-chief of his party, has joined battle against religious extremism in his country.

Two-time Member of Parliament Rahul Gandhi (43) is a full 18 years older than Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), who is still to enter Parliament. Mr. Gandhi’s great-grandfather, grandmother and father were Prime Ministers and his mother is currently the Congress president. Mr. Zardari’s grandfather and mother were Prime Ministers and his father was, till recently, the President of Pakistan. Mr. Gandhi’s grandmother and father were assassinated while Mr. Zardari’s grandfather was executed by a military dictator and mother assassinated by jihadi terrorists.

Different approaches

Both may belong to political families in India and Pakistan but have to deal with the small problem that their opponents, dynasties and dynasts too have to face — the electorate. As India swerves into a bruising election, Mr. Gandhi will be tested as never before. His critics are many, attacking him not just for lineage but his alleged reluctance to get fully involved in the rough and tumble of everyday politics.

His one interview to the Times Now television channel has divided opinion further — with opponents pointing out fatal flaws and supporters asserting that he was willing to go the full 90 minutes with Arnab Goswami.

In Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and a BJP buoyed by Assembly election victories, the Congress and Rahul Gandhi face formidable opponents. Mr. Gandhi’s path to power is also clouded by the emergence of Mr. Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). As a consequence of the impressive performance of the BJP in the just-concluded Assembly polls, we have seen Mr. Gandhi in public more often. A combative speech at the All India Congress Committee session in Delhi recently and appearances on a daily basis appear to be efforts taken by him to erase the image of a here-today, absent-tomorrow practice of politics.

On the other hand, Mr. Zardari has hit the ground running with his ongoing Sindh festival and blistering attacks on jihadi extremists, who now have an exalted status at the dialogue table with the Pakistani government. In December, The Guardian newspaper reported from the launch of the Sindh festival: “It’s hard to imagine any other politician ripping open their shirt as Bhutto did ... to reveal the Sindh festival’s logo — a Superman-style ‘S’. Father and son have reportedly had disagreements in the past over party strategy... One senior PPP member close to [Mr.] Zardari said there was nearly a state of “civil war” within the family...” The paper quoted a senior PPP leader as saying that some old-timers in the party were not pleased with Mr. Zardari’s approach. “No. Fear doesn’t run in my genes,” Mr. Zardari told National Public Radio earlier this month. “It’s not a component. Yes, we have suffered assassinations. But it is those assassinations [his mother Benazir Bhutto was murdered in December 2007] that drive me.”

If Mr. Gandhi is showing belated signs of shedding his reticence, Mr. Zardari has done it right at the beginning of his political career. Notwithstanding the controversy over the manner in which the Sindh festival was held at Mohenjodaro, the late Benazir Bhutto’s son has adopted a public stance, attacking the growing fundamentalist tribe in Pakistan.

Social media presence

Mr. Zardari is extremely active on social media; he’s got quite a following on Twitter. As this piece is written, he’s got as many as 1,75,000 followers and the tribe appears to be growing. He’s both responsive and argumentative on Twitter. Whether or not a position taking on the fundamentalists works for Mr. Zardari and his party in Pakistan, the fact is that he has adopted a public posture that few are willing to risk in a country that appears to be growing more conservative by the day.

In this demanding age of instant communication, a leader like Mr. Gandhi can’t really afford not to use social media. Just as the print and television domains have their own habitat and location, social media websites like Facebook and Twitter have carved out their own. In the case of Mr. Gandhi, he only needs to take a leaf out of Union Minister of State Shashi Tharoor’s book on how to use social media. With 2.09 million followers on Twitter, Mr. Tharoor is not just a social media champion in India, but an example for the rest of the world.

The rise of Mr. Kejriwal and the AAP, to give just one instance, is a classic example of how traditional media and social media have been used to the hilt to create a new political brand. This anti-corruption movement, which initially used Anna Hazare as a symbol, has created room for itself in the contested Indian political system.

The phenomenal brand placement of Mr. Narendra Modi through traditional and new media, too, is something that Mr. Gandhi must come to terms with. Reticence and reluctance at a media moment when the viewer and the voter want an opinion a day from their leaders is a minus point in building a political personality. Although it was a bit late in the happening, the Congress vice-president is now making public appearances and engaging with a broadband of opinion in the run-up to the election. But unlike Mr. Zardari, you won’t find him on Twitter. An in-your-face Mr. Zardari has still to prove that he can make the people of Pakistan think the way he does, but a reticent Mr. Gandhi has already demonstrated that too many off days in politics can jeopardise a career.

amit.b@thehindu.co.in

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