Why is the New Delhi media hostile to Narendra Modi? Part of the reason of course is the violence of 2002. Many journalists hold him personally responsible. A mentality that unfortunately prevails in the profession makes it impossible for them to distinguish his overarching political responsibility from individual criminality.
I would like to pose a counterfactual. What if the violence of 2002 had not occurred? Would the national media then have embraced Modi? I'm not sure. The capital's editorial classes have a theoretical commitment to--even a worship of--some form of leftism. They are comfortable with many prevailing postulates of India's political economy that Modi challenges. As such, even minus 2002, they would have found it difficult to accept him.
Why? Dislike of the man and distaste for the BJP are no doubt factors. Much of the reason, I would argue, is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of Gujarat, its society and its politics. Many of the political journalists and writers in New Delhi have cut their teeth in the Gangetic belt. In their political understanding, they tend to use some variation of the Uttar Pradesh template. They think of politics in north India - that is politics anywhere other than the eight states of the Northeast and the four states of the South - as broadly adhering to the trends of Uttar Pradesh.
Take a non-political example. In 1999, a super-cyclone crippled and devastated Orissa. Almost every other year, a massive flood causes havoc in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. The media has a formulaic treatment of such natural disasters. They cover stories of human suffering and absence of state support for the victims, poor infrastructure, lack of housing and shelter, food and medicine and essential supplies, and the inability of the administration to help.
The media treatment may be formulaic but it is not entirely invalid. Many of the regions named above are desperately poor. Civil society has limited capacities to cope with calamity, and dependence on the state is abnormally high. As such, if the state authorities fail, the suffering is acute.
In 2001, an enormous earthquake shook Gujarat. Its most intense impact was in the Kutch region, where the old city of Bhuj, among others, was severely damaged. Many journalists turned up in Gujarat expecting a repeat of the tragedy they had experienced in Orissa only about 18 months previously, or during similar episodes in northern India. They went out looking for pre-scripted stories - caste discrimination in relief distribution, absence of district administrators, help not reaching in time, shoddy government hospitals not being able to manage.
What they saw was very different. Gujarat has a vibrant civil society network. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, citizens' groups got together and rushed help to fellow Gujaratis, often much ahead of the state. Economic and social factors in Gujarat have built enormous civil society autonomy and capacity. This is not there in many other provinces. It is not as if Gujaratis are superior people and residents of other states somehow inferior - not at all. It is just that one has to locate a state and its responses in its socio-economic context, not in a context imported from a few thousand miles away.
Civil society groups in Gujarat are vigorous and organised around one of many principles. Some are community or caste institutions, though not necessarily exclusivist. Others are professional guilds, in a sense, such as those of diamond traders with businesses in Antwerp but pouring collective resources into the village or district back home. Still others are faith-based, created by Hindu or in some cases Muslim sects.
In the longer-term rehabilitation and rebuilding following the earthquake, Modi--who took charge as chief minister nine months after that frightening morning on January 26, 2001--empowered and galvanised civil society groups and individual citizens and households, rather than bypassed them. Whole villages and towns were rebuilt, with the design of buildings and houses left to the user community rather than a bureaucrat. Third-party monitoring for seismic-resistance was insisted upon. In terms of funding, the government supplemented the contributions of individual users and/or civil society and donor institutions in a genuine public-private partnership--but one driven by society, not the state.
Modi used the opportunity for a larger reimagining of Kutch. Blessed with a spectacular landscape, Kutch has historically been a source of economic migration. People have had to leave to get jobs and set up businesses in other cities, from Mumbai to Mombasa. Modi thought out of the box. He made entrepreneurship integral to post-earthquake rehabilitation. His government offered tax concessions to companies that invested in Kutch. Today, a zone that gave its people restricted economic opportunities till the end of the 20th century is bustling with industry and is a huge job creator. The Kutch boom is a post-earthquake legacy.
Gujarat couldn't have done this without Modi. Equally, Modi couldn't have done this without the socio-economic framework, the go-getting, pick-yourself-up-and-run resilience of Gujarat. No wonder the man's identification with his state is absolute. No wonder the disaster tourists of 2001, who went looking for pictures to justify their preconceived notions, don't get it--or get him.
(The writer is a political analyst based in Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The story was first published on 19th October, 2012.