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Narendra Modi 2.0

Gujarat's chief minister is attempting an ambitious metamorphosis. He's got some things right, but too much is going wrong, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:36 IST
Samar Halarnkar

When I walked into Milind Toravane's office, he was assuring three French dairy company representatives that he would address their startup worries. "I will make sure we take care of your problems," said the district collector of the eastern Gujarat town of Godhra. "Let's fix a deadline."

Much was unusual about this conversation. First, it was occurring at Toravane's office at 4 pm on a Sunday. Second, the officer was forcing a deadline on himself. Third, there were no bribes, no favours (I checked).

I was in Godhra, a sulphurous town of 180,000, in the run-up to the verdict of the burning of the Sabarmati Express nine years ago. I dropped by to see Toravane because I heard he had overhauled the public distribution system (PDS), the network of shops that distributes cheap, subsidised grain to the poor. Since PDS reform interests me, Toravane told me how he used technology to destroy a transporter-storekeeper nexus and save the district about R3 crore every month.

This was impressive, but since the people transporting and selling PDS grain were closely involved with politicians, how did Toravane handle political pressure? "No MLA or minister ever calls me, ever," said Toravane.

It's Gujarat's chief minister, the much-lauded and much-hated Narendra Modi, who has set in place an atmosphere in which Toravane flourishes. Much has been written about Modi's emerging avatar: how he creates this responsive bureaucracy, how he courts India's business leaders (and vice versa), how he elicits promises of investments in excess of $400 billion, how he leads his state to a GDP growth of 11%, how it's time to put the past behind and look to the future.

Modi, his numerous supporters insist, is India's future. The argument: India has seen many bloody riots, Gujarat is no different. If India has to move on and prosper, we must not harp on the past. We hear everyone wants to move on, Hindus and Muslims.

Indeed, in Ahmedabad last week, the Dawoodi Bohras, a Gujarati-speaking Muslim sect of businessmen, invited Modi as chief guest to their annual meeting. Some Muslims I spoke to, including families of those accused of the Godhra train burning, acknowledged that even if respect and justice eluded them, the administration worked and peace reigned.

Godhra knows how debilitating frequent violence can be. Nearly half the townsfolk are poor Muslims, descendants mainly of the Mughals for whom the town was - as it's now for the Indian Railways - a north-south stopover. Riots were common to Godhra as far back as 1932-34, when Morarji Desai, India's former prime minister, was the additional district collector. During 1981-82, Godhra was under a year-long curfew, after riots sparked by the murder of four female school teachers.

With so many riots, the town has seen no lasting peace or progress. Today, Godhra is chiefly known for its supply of train drivers to the Indian Railways and its supply of dandiyas, the colourful wooden sticks, to the Hindu festival of the same name (the sticks are almost entirely made by Muslims).

The larger district beyond Godhra town, the Panchmahals, further reflects the Gujarat left out of 'Vibrant Gujarat' slogans. Large tribal populations have human-development indices on par with the worst in India; they coexist with General Motors's largest plant in India. A series of recent reports points to Gujarat's low standing on hunger and status of minorities. The Indian Express recently reported how many Muslim-owned businesses were adopting Hindu names. I have never seen Hindus and Muslims as segregated and separate as they are in Gujarat.

The state's hunger levels are on par with impoverished Orissa and Bihar. "Gujarat is an illuminating example in terms of faster economic growth, but in terms of human development, it presents a sorry spectacle," writes Indira Dutta, an Ahmedabad economics lecturer in a paper 'Education and Human Development in Gujarat'. While the Tata's Nano foray in Sanand was a well-executed project, some of Modi's big-business drive is steamrolling local concerns and jobs, as in coastal Mundra, where the Adani Group and the Gujarat government were this month issued notices by the Gujarat High Court for illegally taking over 231 acres of village land. Group owner Gautam Adani, the seventh richest Indian on the Forbes list of billionaires and the only Gujarati, is close to Modi.

It's too soon for the effects of Modi's administration to be as widespread as he would like us to imagine. Even before Modi, Gujarat was second only to Maharashtra in industrial output. That position has not changed. But Modi has packaged Gujarat and himself in a way the corrupt, bumbling Congress administration in Maharashtra never could.

A Gujarati magazine editor told me how Modi personally reviews all images shot for his publicity posters, sometimes asking for reshoots, and how he is very particular about what he wears. The editor endorsed Modi's go-getting approach, with a rider - whether officer, MLA or minister, it's hard to disagree with him, which is why Toravane receives no inconvenient phone calls.

Modi's biggest handicap remains his inability to apologise or deliver justice for the riots. No right-thinking Indian can forget a pogrom against any community, but especially not against a minority. India can't and must not forget the 1,200, mostly Muslim, victims of 2002, as it can't and must not forget the 59 Hindus whose horrific deaths sparked the subsequent carnage, as it can't and must not forget the 2,700, mostly Sikh, victims of 1984. The memories of these outrages fade but can't be forgotten.

In his recent book, Convenient Action: Gujarat's Response to Challenges of Climate Change, the Gujarat chief minister quotes Mahatma Gandhi: "One must care about a world one will not see." Modi must ponder those words.