Taking a cue from the relaxed way US President Barak Obama fielded questions from students at a town hall meeting at St Xavier’s College, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi thought he would do the same in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. The idea of an Indian politician talking unscripted with voters, without barriers, is refreshing and fundamentally sound. But he hadn’t bargained for sharp questions from some of the students, who confronted Gandhi by pointing out Gujarat’s economic development, and challenged him to name politicians from his party whose development record could match Modi’s.

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Gandhi did name Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and a few of his cabinet colleagues. But his response showed three problems. One, by comparing Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi with the Chinese strongman Mao Zedong, Gandhi revealed his lack of command over world history. Then, he did not challenge the students who seemed to be balancing Modi’s record of development with the post-Godhra riots. And finally, by leaving the room when the discussion turned heated, he showed he was unprepared to be challenged. None of that augurs well for leadership, if that’s what he aspires for.

Without explicitly acknowledging the growth in Gujarat, Gandhi tried to give the devil his due by comparing Modi with Mao. Indeed, Chairman Mao was probably a good general in the war for the control of China in the first half of the last century. But unlike Modi, nobody elected Mao. And as Jung Chang and Jon Halliday write in their biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, Mao is probably responsible for more deaths than Stalin or Hitler. For Mao’s rule is known for laodong gaizao, or labour camps also known as laogai, in which tens of millions of people died. Then there is the Long March, in which his role as a general remains controversial, and the march’s mythology questioned by later historians. There is the horrific Cultural Revolution, which used brute force to remake China, forcing writers to work in farms and making children denounce their parents. And then, his project with an Orwellian title, The Great Leap Forward, during which, as Jaspar Becker shows in his haunting book, Hungry Ghosts, perhaps 30 million people starved to death in a Mao-made famine. And there was the invasion of Tibet.

Economic growth in China had to wait till Mao’s death, and it took a victim of the Cultural Revolution—Deng Xiaoping—to tell the Chinese that to get rich was glorious. Jettisoning ideology, he said it didn’t matter what the colour of the cat was—black or white—so long as she caught mice. It is there that you see some resemblance with Modi—of placing pragmatism above ideology, and making economic growth the cornerstone of his administration. But Deng also ordered his troops to fire on innocent students at Tiananmen Square. And while Modi’s role in the retaliatory riots in Gujarat after the Godhra incident remains under-investigated, he was ineffective and incompetent in controlling those riots immediately.

The development record of Deng is impressive, as are some of the recent achievements in Gujarat. But both records are smeared with the blood of innocent people. And neither expressed remorse.

But there is a problem even if Rahul Gandhi meant Deng, and not Mao. Teenage students of Gujarat can be accused of innocence, but not a party leader who is today older than his late father was, when he became prime minister.

That problem lies in facing the Modi challenge, the trade-off, where he promises economic growth, but wants no criticism for what happened in 2002. To be sure, in the riots there were deaths in both communities—Muslims and Hindus—but Muslim deaths were nearly twice the number of Hindu deaths; Muslim dargahs were demolished; Muslim-owned businesses were attacked; and many Muslims had to be evacuated. How culpable Modi is in that episode is for the courts to decide. His vociferous supporters try to crowd out criticism by pointing out his economic performance. But the two are not mutually exclusive; they are two faces of the same coin.

It is understandable why the Congress is reluctant to make such an argument. For the Congress, too, has a terrible past—what happened in Delhi and other northern cities in 1984 after Indira Gandhi was assassinated, and Rahul Gandhi’s father became prime minister. The Congress has to face that past squarely—and unless it does that, its moral case against Modi stays weak. The loser is India’s polity.

That’s where Gandhi’s third inadequacy matters. Instead of addressing the issue head-on, Gandhi left, citing other commitments. The students may feel they won, but they haven’t. It is their loss—and India’s—that the choice before India pits a man who has inherited a past, which he doesn’t know how to deal with; and another man, with his own past, which he wants everyone to forget. India deserves better.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based inLondon. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com