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Dial M for moral crisis

For those who believe that the quality of governance must be measured by what a state does for its disadvantaged citizens, Modi topples from the tall perch where the industry leaders have installed him. Harsh Mander writes.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2009 01:20 IST

The spectacle of the glowing endorsement by some of the India’s most successful and wealthy industrial leaders of a Chief Minister raises important, and troubling, concerns. It gets even more serious when the CM has a record of both — stimulating economic growth and fostering bitter social divisions. Then we ask: What do we expect from those who lead our country? What constitutes good and responsible government? And who are the heroes of our times?

The owners of some of the largest business empires did not leave any doubts over their choice of a national icon. Anil Ambani declared that Narendra Modi, the CM of Gujarat, made him proud to be a Gujarati and an Indian. “Imagine what will happen if he leads the country?” he gushed. Ratan Tata lauded Mr Modi’s track record: “Today there is no state like Gujarat. Under Mr Modi’s leadership, Gujarat is head and shoulders above any state.” Telecom leader Sunil Mittal, likewise, endorsed Modi’s elevation to the CEO of the entire nation.

What is it about Modi’s leadership that makes him so attractive to big industry? Tata, in an interview, praised Modi’s capacity to deliver what he promises, like land, unlike his peers. Modi has, so to speak, the capacity to deliver economic growth without dissent. His major selling point is to attract private capital investment, with astounding tax benefits, which amount to subsidising large industry by the ordinary taxpayer.

The 20th century saw a growth of the State in most parts of the world. In diverse political systems, the State derived its legitimacy mainly from what it pledged to its citizens. What States actually delivered to them was often paltry and deceitful, but still they accepted the political and ethical premise that the primary duty of governments was to deliver services, or protect rights, of common people. It dramatically changed in the 1990s, when agencies like the World Bank propagated the view that a good government facilitates functioning of private markets, rather than defending its dispossessed and socially oppressed people. It is by this measure that Modi’s administration can be arguably elevated to a model of good (the best?) governance, even though its glittering claims of double-digit growth and investments worth millions of dollars are possibly exaggerated.

But for those who believe that the quality of governance must be measured by what a state does for its most disadvantaged citizens, Modi topples from the tall perch where the industry leaders have installed him. It is not just that he enabled, if not actively sponsored, the brutal massacre in 2002. Till date, he has refused to express regret for the slaughter, but often boasted about it as a crowning act of ‘gaurav’, and macho political courage, to singularly crush the ‘enemy within’. He refused to establish relief camps, assist the survivors or heal the vast social divide. Muslims, as a result, have either been driven out permanently from many villages or live with fear in segregated ghettoes. This crime still persists and is compounded with the passage of the years.

The International Food Policy Research Institute, in 2008, ranked Gujarat 69th in the ‘alarming’ category of global hunger. The National Family Health Survey III estimated that 42.4 per cent of children in Gujarat are suffering from stunted growth due to malnutrition, and about 47.4 per cent are underweight. Large developments projects have entailed massive displacement of tribal and slum residents.

Do we seek a land in which governments replace impediments and democratic dissent by wealth creation? When Tata chose the ‘good M’ (Modi) over the ‘bad M’ (Mamata), he was really choosing what was for him the ‘good M’ (money) over the inconsequential ‘bad M’ (massacre). And by endorsing, even celebrating his choice, this is truly at the core of yet another ‘M’, the moral crisis, in which we find ourselves today.

(Harsh Mander is the Convenor of Aman Biradari)