This week, two states, separated at birth, completed their 50th birthday celebrations. While comparing siblings is often best avoided, the journey of Maharashtra and Gujarat offer many lessons for the future. Fifty years ago, Maharashtra was the country's economic powerhouse, benefiting from the colonial legacy of being the heart of the old Bombay state while Gujarat was 'an idea in the making'. Today, on several growth indicators — including an impressive double-digit agricultural growth rate — Gujarat is showing signs of marching ahead, even while Maharashtra is reaching saturation point. What explains the divergent paths taken by two states, which have been tied by history and geography?
In the first instance, let's compare the quality of political leadership. For the first 20 years of its existence, Maharashtra was blessed to have a visionary leadership backed by a high degree of political stability. Single party rule and chief ministers who lasted their full term, ensured a single-minded focus on industrial and agrarian development. By contrast, Gujarat had eight CMs in its first 20 years, not a single one completing a five-year term. The political uncertainty meant that Gujarat struggled to match Maharashtra's growth trajectory.
In the last 20 years though, the political situation in both states has changed dramatically. Since 1995, Maharashtra has been cursed with coalition governments that have slowed down decision-making. Every CM has had to compromise for political survival, with the result that the authority of the leadership has been undermined from within. Worse, the vacuum has been filled by an unholy power nexus led by real estate barons. On the other hand, Gujarat, in this period and particularly in the last decade, has been fortunate to have assured political stability, which in turn has given the state an opportunity to unleash its entrepreneurial energies.
Gujarat CM Narendra Modi remains a contentious political figure, but it can't be denied that he provided Gujarat with a strong, decisive leadership. He may be an autocrat, but he has also provided a single-window clearance to investors, with no glaring instance of corruption, which is attractive to business leaders when evaluating options. Just contrast the speed with which the Nano project was cleared with the hesitancy shown by Maharashtra when confronted with similar proposals. Or the innovative agro-technology schemes in Gujarat with the manner in which agrarian distress in rural Maharashtra, especially Vidarbha, has remained a festering sore.
Part of the problem lies in the over-politicisation of decision-making in Maharashtra when compared with Gujarat. Take the recent controversy over Jaitapur. Instead of a rational evaluation of the merits of the nuclear power project, a political war has broken out between the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance and the opposition Shiv Sena. There have even been unsubstantiated allegations of the Sena bankrolling some of the anti-Jaitapur protesters. The agitation is worryingly similar to the anti-Enron movement of the 1990s where again politics hijacked economic imperatives. The result is that a once power surplus state today suffers from 16 hours of load-shedding in several districts.
In Gujarat, by contrast, politics has always been subservient to economics. The mercantilist traditions have meant that the Gujarati won't allow political battles to trump 'dhandha'. For the Gujarati, the sensex, not 'asmita', is the ultimate barometer of his well-being; Mukesh Ambani, not Shivaji, is his icon; and money, not Matoshree, is the prized deity. A pragmatic approach to development has meant that there has been relatively muted opposition to any project — be it a special economic zone or a dam — that is seen to benefit the larger economic interests of the state.
And yet, while being economically aspirational, Gujarati society remains socially conservative: its sex ratio remains below the national average while Dalits and tribal communities are still marginalised. Moreover, the rise of overt religiosity has turned Gandhi's Gujarat into a state that is today a laboratory for Hindutva politics. The influence of religious sects and their self-styled leaders is perhaps greater in Gujarat than any other state. The 2002 riots were a reflection of the coarseness of a mindset that saw religious minorities as the 'enemy'. Since 2002, there hasn't been a major eruption of violence in the state. But as the recent report of economist Abu Saleh Sharief has revealed, the 'Vibrant Gujarat' concept has clearly bypassed its minorities. For example, poverty among Gujarat Muslims is eight times more than high-caste Hindus and 50% more than OBCs. Twelve per cent Muslims have bank accounts but only 2.6% of them get bank loans.
It isn't as if Maharashtra hasn't seen religious rioting or linguistic bigotry in this period. The fact that parties like the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena can still use their goons to target other communities without any effective censure is a blot on a state that swears by a legacy of social progressiveness. However, the Senas remain fringe groups, largely confined to Mumbai and a few other urban pockets, proof of the limits of the politics of hate across Maharashtra.
The challenges before the two states then are clear. Maharashtra needs to rediscover a far-sighted political leadership that is able to look beyond personal self-aggrandisement. For Gujarat, the challenge is to show that its growth story is not measured in investments alone, but in the ability of a non-partisan state to reach out to its less privileged groups.
Post-script: As someone born in Ahmedabad, but grew up in Mumbai, I can only wish that both states learn the lessons of the first 50 years so that the next half century establishes the rise of western India!
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network. The views expressed by the author are personal.