Monday, August 15th, 2022 00:25:20

The Modi Phenomenon

Updated: January 19, 2013 12:46 pm

The Modi phenomenon was very much at work in the Gujarat election 2012. By phenomenon I mean something of a current, a movement or large mobilisation of people that sets in motion. Narendra Damodar Modi is in this sense a phenomenon. To a large majority of the Gujaratis he is a symbol of Gujarat resurgence.

This election centred on Modi. He was the central figure of public accolades or criticisms. He himself said at the start of the election, at Verraval on December 1, that this is a fight between me and Congress, or more precisely Sonia Gandhi. His unthinking opponents conceded the terms of the contest to him. In 2007 it was Sonia Gandhi who, by calling him mot ka sodagar, raised an issue he did not want to: the Godhra issue. She lost.

In this election there were no issues that greatly excited the electorate. The usual issues of pani, bijli, sadak, were raised but they did not sway the voters. It was Modi who set the election agenda: his own development record of the years he has been in power. 47.9 per cent of the people (115 seats) found his record good. On the Hindutva platform he won 49.9 per cent votes in the 2002 election (127 seats). In ten years his vote base has remained almost same: Impressive by any standard.

In the streets, paan shops, roadside tea stalls, buses or railway stations, you see what Modi means to the people of Gujarat. They adore him, even those who won’t vote for him in the coming election. No leader since Sardar Patel has commanded such popularity as Modi does. To them he personifies Gujarat gaurav.

Whereas Sardar was respected by the people of Gujarat, Modi is adored by them. Sardar was too tall a leader for the people to feel intimate with him. Modi appears to people to be great, but his greatness is something they can partake of.

He is seen to be the architect of what a well-known development economist at Columbia University, Arvind Pangaria (The Times of India, 22-09-2012), calls the Gujarat miracle. For quite some time the left and the secularists dismissed the Gujarat growth story as a myth and a fabrication of the Modi propaganda machine. Even after the election which Modi won on the development plank, The Hindu of (December 20) said that Modi was a masque, a hologram, who has now come to believe the myth his propaganda apparatus planed, of the Gujarat development. The fact as established by Pangariya and Bibek Debroy (a wellknown economist at the Centre for Policy research), is that the state between 2002 and 2010 grew at 10.5 per cent. True, the growth has not benefited every community equally but has that happened anywhere? Malnutrition, rural poverty and tribal exploitation are there. But also remember that poverty fell by 9 per cent in Gujarat, more than anywhere else. The left which attacks the state’s development record seldom mentions this significant fact.

A political opponent of Modi, Sheila Dikshit, has praised him for good governance, and so has the chairman of the Suzuki Corporation, the IMF, economists from major think tanks in the United States and Europe. He is seen here and abroad, as one who put Gujarat on the path of high economic growth and one who could do that for India.

No regional leader has come to be regarded as a future prime minister of the country as Narendra Modi has. We have had in the past regional leaders who acquired national stature: YB Chavan, Dev Raj Urs, NT Rama Rao and MGR. But they were not thought of by the people or the political class as persons of prime ministerial timber. The one exception was Morarji Desai, who finally made to the summit of power in 1977. But even he was not strictly a regional leader. He was in the Nehru cabinet in the late fifties and later became a main opponent of Indira Gandhi.

Today Narendra Modi has come into people’s mind as a future Prime Minister. Some six months ago Chetan Bhagat conducted a facebook survey of 1500 persons on a future prime minister and the result of his survey was: some 82 per cent for Modi and five per cent for Rahul Gandhi. In NDTV’s extensive poll (August 27-28, 2012) Modi and Rahul emerged as the top contenders for the post of prime ministership.

Modi appeals to people, particularly the middle class, which today accounts for about a third of the population. Some two years ago he made an important observation that caste divisions in the state are breaking down. He planned his election strategy on this premise.

There is an old Gujarati saying that says, when translated in English: “the country whose king is a merchant, his people are beggars”. The English translation just fails to bring out the punch and the satire of the Gujarati saying. You simply cannot render a folk saying into any language other than the one from which it comes. How do you translate in English as commonly used and as richly meaningful Hindi saying, as “chalta hai”? Modi is immensely popular in Gujarat precisely because his government has left the running of the economy to business. His well-publicised annual gathering of prominent businessmen from here and abroad, Vibrant Gujarat, clearly tells the business world that his government lets business run the economy. In a country where a businessman is still looked upon suspiciously by the government, this practice of Modi to annually gather top businessmen in Gandhinagar and openly transact agreements with them marks a new beginning. Rahul Gandhi seems to have imitated his antagonist’s practice by taking businessmen to Kashmir for the development of the state.

Modi has openly embraced the capitalist path to economic development. This is a seminal development in a country where the leadership disdains capitalism while practising it. Nehru openly professed a socialistic pattern of development and Indira Gandhi entered into a secret and unclean relationship with business. Her son, Sanjay, was a product of her corrupt practices. Rajiv Gandhi granted some autonomy to the market forces though all this was still within the framework of the state control of the economy. His wife, Sonia Gandhi, often feels the Nehruvian socialist urges, but simply does not know how to put them into a coherent policy framework.

It takes courage on the part of Modi to say that he believes in free market. His Vibrant Gujarat annual meeting where businessmen and the state meet publicly has now become an important event in the world financial circles. Major financial capitals of the world, Frankfurt, New York, Beijing, Singapore, Dubai, Rio, take note of it. The event falls on the most joyous day of the year in Gujarat: Makar Sakranti or Pongal, the day every Gujarati climbs to the terrace to fly kites. Modi combines business with culture and tradition. This is what he means by Gujarat Gaurav. Commerce and business, “Vanjjaya”, is something the people have been engaged in for centuries. Modi now makes it the centre piece of his policy. This is what my academic colleague, Arvind Pangariya calls it the Gujarat miracle. In the years of Modi rule, from 2002-2011 Gujarat has grown by 10.3 per cent annually. Its nearest competitor Maharashtra grew in these years at 10.1 per cent. But it is not the rate of growth that makes Gujarat so different from others. Haryana, Uttarakhand, Bihar (under that remarkable leader Nitish) too have done economically very well. What is often not noticed in the case of Gujarat is that the state has an excellent record of good governance and public propriety.

It is good governance that attracted Suzuki Motor Corporation to shift its manufacturing from Manesar, Haryana to Mehsana, Gujarat. Suzuki Chairman visited Gujarat, liked it and so decided to set his plant there. Earlier Ratan Tata had decided to shift the Nano plant from Singur, Bengal to Sanand, Gujarat, even though Tata had tempting offers from the Chief Ministers of Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, to set up his plant in their state. This is not because the labour in Gujarat is cheap or oppressed by the state, as the left secularists say here. On the contrary the labour in Gujarat is more expensive than that in many parts of the country. What attracts the capital to Gujarat is the labour here is skilled and the state provides good governance.

I will give here a small example of what good governance means to a businessman. During one of my talks at an academic institution in Ahmedabad a middle-aged entrepreneur said to me in private that he was greatly satisfied by the business climate in the state. When I asked him why, he said that in the past seven years he didn’t have to come to Gandhinagar to straighten out those little and not-so-little bureaucratic snags that an entrepreneur ran into while running business. “I overcome them by simply talking or sending emails to babus in Gandhinagar.” Do you understand what this means to me? he said to me gleefully, “no more of those tiring drives from Dahud to Gandhinagar.”

Good governance greatly aids economic growth. Before Nitish Kumar came to power in Bihar the per capita income of a person in Bihar was barely two thirds of the national average. Under Nitish it grew annually by 9.9 per cent between 2005 and 2011. It’s good governance that accounts for the prosperity of Malaysia and the poverty of Angola, both oil rich. ”I don’t eat money and I won’t let anyone eat it”, (again a poor translation from Gujarati) read on election poster in the 2007 state election. It brought BJP under Modi handsome electoral gains. The state is largely free of large-scale public corruption. Of course, there is petty corruption at the lower and middle level of state administration but it is not so galling to an ordinary citizen as to make him or her hostile to the ruling party. You pay less bribe in Ahmedabad than in Rothak to get your house tax papers in order, and probably more quickly.

It’s a striking fact that there is no large-scale public corruption in a state that has grown at some ten per cent a year! Look at the countries that have registered high growth rates and the scale of public corruption there: South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Thailand at various times between the mid-seventies and mid-nineties or China today. Look at the scale of public corruption in our country that is experiencing marketisation and globalisation: 2G, 3G and now Vadherajee.

 Modi personifies the shining Gujarat?

It was on a bus from Veraval to Junagadh in January 2010, just as I was wondering why the road wasn’t as well paved compared to the other parts of Gujarat that I had travelled in, when my neighbour seemingly having read my thoughts, interrupted “this will become a four-lane road by June”. A local, he said it somewhat apologetically but also with a quiet confidence that Indians seldom display while talking about ‘development’. But the content of his almost telepathic intervention was not an incongruity as far as Gujarat was concerned.

Having backpacked through most of India with my wife Devapriya Roy on local buses, I could attest to this. Gujarat was that one state, where people seemed very engaged with the overall growth prospects of the place and in a rather enthusiastic way. The state definitely seemed much more urbanized than most other places and this is borne out by even national statistics. Travelling through Gujarat, frankly speaking, you got accustomed to well-maintained state transport buses and budget hotels that represented what one could call ‘value for money’ and unlike other states power back-up was rarely used in most of these hotels. Given that Gujarat isn’t exactly a prime time backpacker destination yet, these standards were rather indicative of the fact that the state had a sizeable travelling professional class that knew how to demand good services.

Indeed I did meet a higher proportion of tradesmen, salesmen and even brokers on buses in Gujarat than, say, Maharashtra. Of course, Gujarat has always had a tradition of entrepreneurship but the point is that the state, even in 2010, also seemed to have many more people who were middle-class and these people weren’t all businessmen but a salaried group. I made it a point to ask many of them what their family backgrounds were and a majority said they were farmer’s sons, but no longer farmers themselves. They were also very clear that Gujarat didn’t always have the kind of infrastructure it has now or the ‘economic energy’ that is all too palpable. The question of course then followed so what has changed?

‘Leadership’, one would say. ‘Narendra Modi’, another would add. It was quite simple, at least in their minds. Narendra Modi had changed the terrain as it were. In a state which was notorious for manual night soil carrying, as Gandhi had so grievingly described, one now found even small towns where the municipal authorities were doing their job judging by sanitary levels. More importantly, that theme of everyday people being concerned about the image of their state and its movement in a mostly promising direction was something that kept resonating.

Circa 2012, in the course of his victory speech in Hindi, Modi said ‘Agar mera Gujarat aage jayega, to main bhi aage jaoonga’ or ‘If my Gujarat goes forward so will I’. This was something that Modi has perhaps managed to percolate into the Gujarati body politic and is something quite novel in a country usually plagued by the ‘me, myself’ syndrome that, quite frankly, is at the heart of all vote-bank politics. A lot of Modi’s detractors have at some point or another tried to paint his electorate as being emotionally driven by his references to Gujarati asmita or pride and even hinted that subliminal regional parochialism was behind his mandate.

I would differ as no one can appeal to a sense of regional pride simply by invoking traditional honour anymore without there being something more to be proud about, something concrete. Narendra Modi’s invocation of Gujarati pride would fall flat without there being an actual sense of progress on the ground, which no one can deny. In fact, Narendra Modi’s appeal is not one of rhetoric but one of substantive differentiation from the political milieu of India in terms of perceptible effectiveness in governance.

The Gujarati electorate to begin with wasn’t fundamentally different from electorate in other Indian states. There was a time when identity-based politics revolving around the Congress’s so-called KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) coalition and the Patel opposition to it used to rule the roost, but no longer. Modi’s politics has done the desirable but rather difficult task of fashioning an Indian electoral sensibility that defines itself less in terms of a narrow normative category and more in terms of being part of a larger story that is going somewhere. In that sense, one sees the beginning of a consciousness where the voter rises to become a citizen in Gujarat.

This is also reflected, by the results of the latest election. What the BJP lost in North Gujarat and Saurashtra in terms of the seats where Keshubhai’s Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) played a spoiler, it made up in South and Central Gujarat by winning a greater proportion of seats than it had in 2007. Success in South and Central Gujarat was driven by the youth and women turning up in higher numbers than usual as they seemed conscious of the need to ‘make up’ for the losses caused by the GPP splitting away from the BJP. Remember, women and youth in general in any society are those that stand to lose the most from feudalism and the caste-based politics derived from it, as their genuine aspirations and grievances get subsumed by coalition building that ends up benefiting entrenched interests rather than those who need to get ahead. After all there is really no freedom from embedded caste-based or feudal structures rather than through economic independence.

Modi, given his own humble background, now personifies that Gujarat and that India which can rise and also help others do the same. He is now front and centre of the real debate in India of whether to stay primarily an agrarian society with rises in productivity (if any) being literally eaten away by population increase or to opt for urbanised industrialisation with its own attendant issues such as environmental degradation and social instability. The answers thrown up by Modi’s governance model thus far seem to have gone down well with the electorate of Gujarat. He is one of the few democratically elected leaders worldwide who has renewed his mandate emphatically more than once without being afflicted by that umbrella term known as ‘anti-incumbency’ in a state very much in the throes of a post-agrarian transition. No wonder the world is taking notice.

The villages are watching, the cities are watching. While Modi is feted by industrial bigwigs for his ‘factory friendly’ attitude, his is also a regime which has enabled fast agricultural growth in the state via building the necessary infrastructure in the countryside. This actually goes to the core of his ability to get a major chunk of rural votes even as he consolidates further in the urban areas.

His is a model that moves away from leakage prone mass entitlement schemes that simply look to ride on the Indian economy’s dualism by providing succour to its impoverished rural masses. Modi’s record is showing that an alternate route to electoral success is possible, one that focuses on education and infrastructure. This is something that naturally scares his opponents, because come 2014, the Lok Sabha is likely to have 180 out of its 543 seats chosen by an urban electorate who will be acutely aware of Moditva, as it were.

Every election whether state or central is ultimately driven by personalities with programmes. In state after state where a strong anti-Congress leader has emerged the grand old party of India has struggled. The longest running non-Congress government at the centre was also the one helmed by a man of considerable charisma. In that sense the time to find out whether Modi’s ‘idea of India’ can transcend Gujarat has arrived.

By Bharat Wariavwalla


But for Modi, this could have happened in Gujarat. His opponents are desperately looking for evidence of large public corruption but they have not found any. But all is not well in Modi’s Gujarat. There is malnutrition, though below the national average. Yet for a state well advanced industrially and with a strong agricultural base, there is no reason why there should be malnutrition. In fact, the state must now set the goal of providing sixty million Gujratis a standard of living and welfare of Holland or Sweden.

The question that gnaws many liberals is: who is the real Modi: Modi the development man or Modi the author of the Godhra killings? What liberals think of Modi is important for liberalism, however, vaguely defined is still our national creed. AB Vajpayee gained national acceptance when he spoke of the rule of law, freedom of religion, equal rights for all, in short the liberal credo, before coming to power in 1999. In power he upheld all liberal values, and thus earned the opprobrium of a Hindutva hardliner, Govindachraya, when he called him a Mukhota. If Modi aspires to the Prime Ministership of a country that is so culturally, linguistically, religiously diverse, then Vajpayee should be his model.

Modi has reflected on the Godhra happening. In his conversation with William J Antholis, Managing Director of a influential think tank, Brookings Institution, Modi said he felt the “pain…. for the families who had suffered”. This is close to a public apology he has offered. Later he told Antholis: “I have made mistakes, and my government has made mistakes.” These are very words he used in his acceptance speech on the day he won the election.

The interview took place on March 16, 2012 (Brookings, April 23, 2012). It is important to note here that Modi, without any prompting by the interviewer, raised the subject of Gujarat riots. What’s surprising is that the “national” press hardly reported this interview. Perhaps the national press thought that by not reporting the interview it would better serve the cause of secularism, as defined by the ruling party.

Sadabhavana missions which Modi has undertaken all over Gujarat are aimed at “peace, unity and harmony”. He has tried to reach out to the Muslims of Gujrat, telling them more by gestures and action than by words that he feels their pains. Is this genuine expiation or an insincere act?

It’s impossible to dissect a politician’s acts. Were Sadbhavana missions meant to tell the Muslims that he was sorry for what happened after Godhra or were they aimed at winning their political support, or at least moderating their hostility towards him. A politician’s motive is always a mix of interests and ideals, expediency and principlals. Was President Johnson supporting the Negro leader, Martin Luther King, in his fight against racial apartheid out of conviction or interests (get Black votes)?

One must place the Godhra event in the larger political context. The context of communal riots in the past twenty years is the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. Religious violence broke out all over north and western India. The worst among these incidents was the Bombay riots in January 1993 and it happened when the state of Maharashtra was under Congress rule. Little is mentioned of it by the officially certified secularists, well placed in the media.

The Godhra event is a continuation of the chain of events set off by the destruction of the Babri Masjid. If one is looking for causes, always a silly exercise, then the cause of violence against the Muslims in some towns of Gujarat was the burning of a train coach with 55 karsevaks returning from the battle town of Ayodhya. Scars left by the Babri event will take years to heal, but to hold Modi entirely responsible for it is too simplistic.

There are two ways a community can deal with a past act of injustice: seek the redressal of injustice by revenge or by conciliation. Revenge by one invites counter-retaliation by the other, and this sets in motion an unending chain of voilence. That fine Czech writer, Milan Kundera, who saw his beloved Prague occupied by first Hitler and then Stalin , once said there were two ways a person could relate to an unhappy past; either remember the past or forget it. To remember an unhappy past is to live in pain and hate; to forget it is to live in hope that the future would be better. I think the Moslems of Gujarat have chosen the latter way. There have seen since Godhra no instance of communal violence. They may want to gamble with future. In fact, they have. In this electron 24 constituencies with 15 per cent Moslem votes went to BJP. People don’t live forever in pain and rage, waiting for a day to avenge a past wrong.

 By Bharat Wariavwalla

(The writer is a wellknown political commentator.)



By Jaideep Prabhu

The recently concluded state elections in Gujarat, India, resulted in an unequivocal victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its incumbent chief minister, Narendra Modi. Despite the exuberance of his supporters, Modi and his party did not record a rampant victory and actually slid back by two seats compared to their tally of 117 out of 182 five years ago. While the maths of this is fairly inconsequential, anyone who observes Indian politics knows that nothing is inconsequential about Mr Modi.

The success of the BJP leader in his state has propelled him to the front ranks of contenders for the most powerful job in the country. Yet success breeds many enemies, and Modi has certainly gained a shrill crowd for himself. As the next general elections come around the corner, many have questioned, particularly in the Western press, whether Modi can transform from a regional leader to a national one, or whether he might make a good chief minister but not an effective prime minister. It is certainly a healthy exercise to vet candidates for elected office and no doubt, it is debatable whether there are other candidates more able than Modi to become prime minister, but it is misleading at best to declare that the man from western India is not up to the challenge for the job in New Delhi.

Modi’s detractors have many salvos to fire against him, the first and most serious being his alleged role in the communal riots of 2002. It would be difficult, their argument runs, for the Government of India to be weighed down by suspicions about the role of its prime minister in a campaign of mass murder; India would find it difficult to function in the comity of nations when a dark cloud hangs over its leader. This logic is riddled with flaws—firstly, the judicial process so far does not bear out any grounds for such concern. Following thepremeditated massacre of 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya (including 25 women and 15 children) by Muslims, Gujarat was engulfed in riots which saw 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus killed. Modi’s detractors hold him responsible for the massacre, not only as the Chief Minister, but as an architect of the murder and mayhem. The details of this tragedy are beyond the scope of this article but suffice it to say that a Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court of India gave a clean chit to the Gujarat government, stating that they had done everything possible to prevent the riots and exoneratedModi personally of all charges.

Secondly, in the state elections concluded just a few days ago, Modi won eight of the twelve Muslim-dominated constituencies, puncturing the anti-Muslim image of Modi that his opponents had tried to spread. There can be no statute of limitations on mass murder, no matter how forgiving people are. Modi’s success, however, illustrates not only the willingness of Muslims to move on, but also that the chief minister is their choice for the future—not the sort of bet one makes on a threat.

Thirdly, if one is to disqualify Modi for the blood on his hands, the naive must be reminded that there is nary an Indian politician for whom this is not true. India has seen several bloodbaths over its nearly seven decades of independence, and the Gujarat riot is perhaps the most thoroughly prosecuted one, with more arrests and convictions being handed down than most other cases. One might also want to reflect on the as yet classified reports on the Saturn-Devouring-his-Son come to life Emergency of Indira Gandhi. To the outsider, these may seem old stories, but Indians have long memories to go with their even longer history. If one does not like to dwell in the past, might it then be fruitful to wonder about the Congress role in 2002? What a lay observer learns from all this is that while Modi is guilty by association, those same rules do not apply to any other candidate.

Modi is also painted as a Hindu chauvinist. Yet the image of a secular India that has been skillfully projected to the world is bogus—the reality is that the state does indeed interfere (unequally) in religious matters, funding pilgrimages and subsidising clergy. Hindu religious institutions have to contend with Hindu Religious Institutions acts of various states that do not apply to institutions of other faiths. The notorious Shah Bano constitutional amendment needs no mention, and for all the focus on saffronistas, no one has called to account Mulayam Singh Yadav’s scheme for reservations for Muslims and Mayawati’s Dalit promotions plan. In contradistinction, Modi’s rhetoric has repeatedly stressed development over caste and religion.

Moving on to economic objections, the critique of Modi is not to disqualify him as a prime ministerial candidate but to question his much publicised achievements. Leaving the economists to battle out the statistical details, some things are obvious to the layperson: rate of growth is also dependent on the base, and comparing Bihar to Gujarat is nonsensical; Gujarat has earned the confidence of business houses in India as well as internationally; Gujarat is one of the few states in India that has adequate power and is in fact exporting it to its neighbours; infrastructure in the state has improved significantly, and corruption has dropped too. There is still much work to be done, but Modi has brought a vibrancy and optimism to Gujarat that was not seen before. In just ten years, he has cut through the overgrowth of decades of state planning. Such a governance record is an extremely rare commodity among Indian politicians, and even rarer for it to be actually rewarded by the electorate.

Most importantly, Modi’s detractors argue, the prime minister is India’s first representative to the world. A figure whose reputation has been stained by accusations of mass murder can hardly maintain India’s stature in the international community; India will be hard-pressed to defend its secular credentials and have little soft power to speak of. Furthermore, it is not clear how the US visa row might resolve itself. Closer to home, relations with Muslim states stand to suffer as well, they argue.

These objections are laughable—the only people for whom the sun rises and sets with Modi are his supporters and opponents in India. For everyone else, a state’s stature in the world will be governed more by its economy, its military, and the law and order it can maintain than by the image of one man. International relations are based on interests, not false piety, and the US rapprochement with Mao Zedong’s China, its repeated proclamation that Pakistan is its closest non-NATO ally, and its canoodling with several unsavoury dictators over the years should eliminate any doubt as to where the US or most other countries would stand. Finally, the Muslim states bogey: though they will act as all other states—in their national interest—one must ask what the non-recognition of Israel has gained for India all these years…Saudi underwriting of Pakistan’s nuclear programme? What has decades of non-Modi/BJP rule achieved for India from across the border other than terrorism?

Modi may or may not turn out to be a good prime minister eventually, but there is no reason to doubt his credentials so far. If anybody expects him to be a Napoleon, Rockefeller, and Mother Teresa in one, well, let me disappoint you right now. The criteria for prime ministership is simple—the unrelenting pursuit of the national interest. Modi has shown his business acumen, administrative talent, political skill, and personal integrity in Gujarat, and has produced infinitely superior results than any candidate other parties might field. That one does not wish him to become India’s next prime minister does not mean that Modi is unsuitable for the job.

(Centre Right India)

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