Few politicians in Indian history have been as polarising as Narendra Modi. Of all contemporary chief ministers, none is better known outside his or her home state. Everybody has an opinion on him, whether good or bad. As he sets out for his third election campaign -- and perhaps third victory, early political assessments indicating as conclusive a majority as 2002 or 2007 -- many non-Gujaratis are genuinely puzzled at his sustained success.
The reference here is not to those who see Modi as directly responsible for every one of the killings of 2002 and continue to paint him in terms of early 20th century German politics or late 20th century Serbian politics. Those are extreme, maximalist voices -- as deliberately blind and bigoted as those they claim to target. However, there is a broader body of Modi sceptics (or agnostics) who wonder about his economic achievements. Is he really as big as he's made out to be? Are Gujarat's massive growth figures for real? How much is this Modi's doing and how much the product of legacy? After all, wasn't Gujarat always an economic power-house?
Those questions can be answered in two ways. The first is to resort to statistics. A punishingly high growth rate on a large base is much more difficult to achieve than a high growth rate on a low base. As such, without in any manner trivialising the achievements of say Nitish Kumar -- a chief minister who has done an exceptional job in Patna -- it needs to be acknowledged that a 10 per cent growth rate for a state GDP of Rs. 513,000 crore (Gujarat in 2010-11) and a 10 per cent growth rate for a state GDP of Rs. 218,000 crore (Bihar in 2010-11) mean very different things.
Yet, numbers do not tell the full story. If attractive statistics were all it took to win elections, N. Chandrababu Naidu would not have lost Andhra Pradesh in 2004. Critical to Modi's attainments has been restructuring and nudging the Gujarat economy in a direction that makes it not just valuable to business elites but also sells hope to a broader constituency.
Gujarat has historically been a trading hub. Its early manufacturing forays were in textiles and diamonds/gems and jewellery. In recent years, it has become a force to reckon with in petrochemicals and petroleum refining, and power generation. Modi's decade in office has seen it take the next leap to hi-tech manufacture, establishing it as a base for automobiles (Tata Motors, General Motors, Mahindra and Mahindra, Maruti) as much as for Bombardier, the Canadian company that makes coaches for the Delhi Metro.
Further, 40 per cent of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor passes through Gujarat. Here, Japanese investment will incubate new cities as well as transplant precision-manufacture facilities.
The beneficiaries of this process will not always be current superstars. There is a reservoir of entrepreneurial talent in Gujarat that believes it can shape this future. Dhirubhai Ambani and more recently Gautam Adani are examples of first-generation Gujarati businessmen who have, in one lifetime, evolved from traders to small and medium enterprise (SME) manufacturers to running internationally-benchmarked facilities to investing overseas and going global.
As Gujarat prospers, there will no doubt be more Ambanis and Adanis, a greater conversion rate of SMEs to megacorps and the birth of a new generation of world-class Indian tycoons. This is the dream that Modi has sold - that a society of traders can evolve into an economy of manufacturers. The results are showing. Gujarat has five per cent of India's population, but is responsible for 16 per cent of its industrial production. Consequently, there is job creation and a new channel for entrepreneurial energies. The man on the street ends up believing his chief minister has a big-picture plan for him, his community and his Gujarat.
That is the social contract Modi has established with the average Gujarati. It goes far, far beyond the turbulent summer of 2002. Of course, some people will never be convinced, but that's another story for another day.
(The writer is a political analyst based in Delhi. Views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)