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Counterpoint: A Gujarati Perspective

The mistake many of us make in reading the Gujarat victory is that we see Modi through the prism of a single issue, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:07 IST

The logical time to have written about Narendra Modi would have been after his victory in the Assembly elections. I chose not to for various reasons. There was the Pakistan crisis to cover. There was already a surfeit of Gujarat poll analyses in the media. And I thought we needed the advantage of perspective before assessing exactly why he won.

<b1>Before we go any further, I need to make my own prejudices clear. As some of you may already know, I am not a fan of Narendra Modi. I have frequently called him a mass murderer in print and I see no reason to resile from that stand. Nor was I surprised by the result. I wrote during the campaign that no matter what approach the Congress chose — soft Hindutva or hard secularism — Modi would win anyway.

And here’s the most important prejudice of them all: I am a Gujarati and extremely proud to be one.

But I think that to understand why Modi is so popular in Gujarat, it helps to be a Gujarati. Certainly, we need to move beyond the simplistic secular-communal name-calling. And we need also to recognise that no matter how much good work Modi has done in developmental terms (most people will concede that his record in this area is actually quite impressive), this alone was not enough to ensure victory.

Many people forget — or do not realise — that until 1960 the state of Gujarat did not exist. Till then, Gujarat was part of the old Bombay state. And few Gujaratis regarded this as offensive or unfair. In many ways, Bombay was the capital of Gujarat in that era and the city was built on the efforts of Gujaratis and Parsis. It was the Maharashtrians who objected to being lumped with Gujaratis and when the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat (including the old state of Saurashtra) were created on May 1, 1960, it was in response to Maharashtrian demands for their own state. (When the Shiv Sena was launched in 1967, its first targets included Gujaratis — the anti-Muslim platform took a decade to emerge.)

One reason why Gujaratis did not mind giving up Bombay (and don’t forget that the chief minister of the Bombay state was also a Gujarati — Morarji Desai) was because, for the first 30 years or so after Independence, Gujaratis were an extremely secure people, the leading community in business and politics.

If you think about it, it’s curious how both India and Pakistan won their freedom because of Gujaratis. Mahatma Gandhi, without whom there would have been no independence in 1947, was, of course, a Gujarati. But so was Mohammad Ali Jinnah. (Many non-Gujaratis forget that some of the subcontinent’s richest and brightest 20th century figures were Gujarati Muslims. For instance, how many of us realise that Azim Premji is a Gujarati?)

In the immediate aftermath of independence, the only reason why a united India came about was because a Gujarati, Vallabhbhai Patel, persuaded hundreds of maharajahs and princelings to sign the Treaty of Accession.

And in the 1960s and 1970s, the only national figure who presented a consistent alternative to the Left-leaning politics of the Nehru family-dominated Congress was Morarji Desai. In 1977, with Mrs Gandhi defeated in the aftermath of the Emergency, Morarji finally became Prime Minister.

Consider now the world of business. The foundation of Indian industry was the textile mill and most of these were owned by Gujaratis. If you look at the great families of Indian commerce during the first three decades of independence, you will find many Gujarati names: the Sarabhais, the Mafatlals, the Kilachands, the Lalbhais, the Walchands (though they moved to Maharashtra), etc.

Think now of Gujarat as it was in the 1980s. The textile industry fell sick. Mills either closed down or were taken over by the National Textile Corporation. Unemployment led to the growth of vast pools of sullen young men in the streets of Ahmedabad. (These were the foot soldiers in every communal riot.) The great Gujarati fortunes crumbled and, in some cases, vanished entirely. The vast bungalows of Shahibag, where the Ahmedabad aristocracy had traditionally held sway, began to look decrepit and empty.

By the end of the 1980s, Gujarat was a state on the skids. Gujarati pride was dented, both by the economic failures and by the complete inability of any Gujarati to find success in national politics. Consider how few Gujaratis of any consequence have occupied major ministerial portfolios in Delhi over the last two decades. The only name that comes to mind is Madhavsinh Solanki, who resigned in a welter of controversy in 1992. Apart from him: about nothing. The BJP may make much of its base in Gujarat, but when you think of the party’s national leaders, is there a single Gujarati among them? Is it not odd that the BJP can find room for Venkaiah Naidu, who comes from a state where it has no real base, but cannot locate a single Gujarati — from a state it has won at election after election — to be party president?

Contrast the failure of Gujaratis in national politics with the success of Maharashtrians ever since the two states split in 1960. This government includes Shivraj Patil, Sharad Pawar and Sushil Kumar Shinde, and the Congress went out of its way to make Pratibha Patil the President of India. No Gujarati has even come close in terms of national political impact. It’s a far cry from the days of Gandhiji, Sardar Patel or even Morarji Desai.

I do not think it is possible to understand the electoral popularity of Narendra Modi without recognising the milieu in which he operates. For all practical purposes, Gujarat, at the turn of the century, was a defeated civilisation. Gujaratis had gone from regarding themselves as the leaders of an Indian renaissance to treating themselves as a forgotten community that had been left behind. The politics of Gujarat reflects that shift. Till the 1980s, you could treat Gujarat and Maharashtra on par. But by the 1990s, Gujarat had begun behaving like a cow-belt state, with disorganised and primitive politics.

To put Narendra Modi in perspective, you need to see him as we saw NT Rama Rao in 1983: as a charismatic, regional leader who came out of nowhere and who promised to restore pride and self-respect to a defeated and disillusioned electorate.

When we focus on Modi’s anti-Muslim statements, we miss the more important part of his platform: the constant harping on Gujarati Asmita (or pride). The macho posturing, the strutting about and the references to his chest size are meant to counter the north Indian slur that Gujaratis are effete cowards. The innumerable speeches about the hurt caused to the sentiments of 55 million Gujaratis by national critics of his governance, all tap into that same well of Gujarati resentment at being left behind and isolated.

The Congress played into his hands during the campaign, not because it raised the issue of the riots but because it came across as a party controlled by Delhi (the Delhi Sultanate, as Modi called it). It had no Gujarati leaders of consequence, and it needlessly promoted BJP defectors who had no independent standing of their own. Most insensitive of all, it used a Punjabi phrase, Chak de, as its slogan. “Which language is this slogan from?” Modi asked in Gujarati. “Is it Italian?”

Moreover, Modi was able to associate himself with a genuine Gujarati renaissance. Against the odds and largely due to the entrepreneurial spirit of its people, Gujarat has been able to overcome the collapse of the textile industry. The economy is booming again, and incomes are up. The traditional vania families may have faded, but there are new success stories to replace them, including, most notably, the Ambanis.

The mistake many of us make in reading the Gujarat victory is that we see Modi through the prism of a single issue, whether it is development or communalism. In fact, neither was the decisive factor in his triumph. He won because the people of Gujarat felt that they finally had a leader of national stature who was prepared to stand up for Gujarati pride.

This has one important consequence in national terms: this was Modi’s victory, not the BJP’s. And there is no guarantee that Modi can repeat this performance outside of the context of Gujarati pride.

So as a Gujarati, I am proud that we finally have our pride and confidence back. But it is a sad commentary on our state that it took a mass murderer to achieve this.