The soil of Gujarat once nurtured the inclusive, ethical, non-violent politics of Mahatma Gandhi. Today it is in the grip of another entirely different kind of politics, aptly described by commentator Tridip Suhrud as ‘hyper-masculine’: divisive, pugnacious, authoritarian and surgically efficient.
The fate of this brand of politics will determine not just the destiny of its practitioner, Narendra Modi, but its success also can alter the destinies of the people of India. There are some who believe that Modi is India’s most capable leader; his influential cheerleaders include several captains of India Inc, senior serving civil servants, professionals and traders. There are others who are equally convinced that his continuing ascendancy is profoundly dangerous for democracy, pluralism and social and economic equity.
It is extraordinary that the same administration is evaluated in such irreconcilably divergent ways. These oppositional assessments reflect two diametrically opposite ideas of good government. One view is that primarily governments must effectively facilitate market-led economic growth. The contrary view is that the performance of governments should be evaluated by what they deliver for most disadvantaged citizens. For people who adhere to the former imagination of government, Modi is the most successful administrator in the country; whereas for the latter, he is the most failed of our leaders.
A recent report of a research wing of the US Congress portrays Gujarat as “perhaps India’s best example of effective governance and impressive development …where controversial chief minister Narendra Modi has streamlined economic processes, removing red-tape and curtailing corruption in ways that have made the state a key driver of national economic growth”. Mukesh Ambani describes Modi’s leadership as “visionary, effective and passionate”. His brother Anil sees in him a “role model” for other states to emulate, and hyperbolically claims he is the best leader Gujarat has had after Gandhi. Ratan Tata regards him to be an “exemplary” leader who efficiently delivers what he promises. Sunil Mittal is convinced that Modi is prime ministerial material.
If the yardstick of good governance is of success in creating an investment-friendly environment, Modi’s government seems, at least on the surface, to have performed creditably. Gujarat has achieved double-digit growth at rates higher than most other states. With just 5% of India’s population, it contributed 21% to India’s exports and 13% to its industrial production in 2009. Yet, as Surendra in Frontline observes, even more than 21 years before Modi’s dispensation, in 1980, Gujarat was among the three fastest-growing states. Since then it has more or less occupied that position.
Its investment-friendly reputation was further minted because of the ease with which it delivered land for the Tata small car project in 2008, contrasting with the chaos and paralysis of two years of bitter public protest in Singur in West Bengal. But much of this land was already controlled by the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation while a small chunk owned by farmers was bought at above-market rates with little opposition. The government gifted unprecedented tax concessions to the Tatas and other big industries, an inverse subsidising of big industry by ordinary people. Leading economist Indira Hirway observes that “government is spending more on incentives than on development”, which she regards to be a kind of “crony capitalism”, in which industries set up bases in Gujarat because of the concessions given to them. Besides, under the hype, only a quarter of the promised investments have actually been realised.
By the alternative yardstick of assessing a government’s worth by its success in battling poverty, discrimination and want, the Gujarat administration dramatically slips from leading the country, to a surprising laggard. Between 2005 and 2010, poverty in Gujarat fell by 8.6%; well behind states like Orissa (19.2%), Maharashtra (13.7%) and Tamil Nadu (13.1%). The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found the Hunger Index of Gujarat ‘alarming’, the lowest among all high-income states, and below even Orissa and UP. Nearly 45% children below five are malnourished. Infant mortality among girls at 51 per 1,000 is higher than the national average of 49. The sex ratio fell from 920 to 918 females for 1,000 males between 2001 and 2011, well below the national average of 940. Hirway concludes that ‘the growth story of Gujarat is not inclusive, sustainable, equitable or environment-friendly,” and “there is a disconnect between economic growth and developmental growth”.
From the benchmark of social equity, the gravest culpability of the Modi government is its openly hostile relationship with its minorities. The slaughter of Muslims in 2002 with unrepentant state complicity, the refusal to set up relief camps, the reluctant and meagre compensation, the extensive subversion of legal justice, the proved engagement of senior members of the Modi government in the massacre, extrajudicial killings by senior police officials, are all relatively better known. What is less noticed is the administration’s refusal to extend development services to the minorities. Muslim ghettoes are conspicuously under-serviced with roads, sanitation, drinking water and electricity, compared to their glittering neighbours. Gujarat is the only state in the country which refused to contribute its share to a centrally sponsored scheme of scholarships for minority children, thereby denying minority children scholarships, although 36% Muslim children are out of school.
Gandhi, nearly forgotten in Gujarat, was guided by a talisman in moments of confusion. He would remember the weakest person he knew. In Gujarat today, she would almost certainly be female: maybe a girl without food, a riot victim, a displaced tribal, or a saltpan worker. Would her expectation from government be of a muscular, business friendly, authoritarian administration, violently suppressive of minorities? Or would she seek a government which cares, which affirms her dignity, which partners her efforts to find for herself and her loved ones food, work, healthcare and education?
Her choice, if she can make it, could determine our collective destinies.
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal