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The Prime Minister of Gujarat

On a 100-kilometre road trip down a highway to Ahmedabad, Neelesh Misra finds how Narendra Modi has transformed governance in Gujarat — a lesson for India, given his billing of PM-in-the-making.

india Updated: Jan 23, 2009 01:14 IST
Neelesh Misra
Neelesh Misra
Hindustan Times

The 13-year-old boy jumped off clumsily from the adults’ bicycle on the village road, interrupting the reporter’s conversation with the farmer lugging the insecticide sprayer.

“Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister,” declared Vipul Kumar Valjibhai Shyanwa, returning from school in Moti Thori village.

Prime minister? “Of Gujarat,” he added knowingly.

Top business leaders Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani and Sunil Bharti Mittal threw a surprise recently by openly endorsing that idea, of Modi becoming the Prime Minister — of India.

So an HT reporter travelled 100 kilometres down a meandering highway to Ahmedabad to ask whether that should be so — travelling past sprawling cotton farms, refurbished villages, small industry hubs coping with the slowdown, past the new home of the Nano, the world’s cheapest car, to Ahmedabad, the city of wide roads, swank offices and gleaming malls.

Modi has bowed to Lal Krishna Advani and will wait his turn to be prime ministerial candidate. When that happens, his critics will raise the uncomfortable question of 2002, when his administration was believed to have looked the other way during riots that killed hundreds of Muslims and Hindus.

But the other face of Gujarat’s truth, rarely acknowledged outside the state, is that the charismatic Bharatiya Janata Party leader has over the years transformed governance in the state in ways unimaginable in most parts of India.

Government goes to the villages

Modi holds out lessons in governance for the rest of the country — IAS officials and farm scientists interact with villagers; agriculture is soaring due to check dams; depleted water tables are rising; a quick ambulance service is saving lives in villages and treatment costs in private hospitals are reimbursed by the government; every village is connected by broadband and soon by internet-enabled television; and homes get electricity 24 hours a day — something residents of India’s capital can be jealous of.

Several times a year, the 13-year-old boy gets to see a spectacle in his village. Officials come visiting. For three days in June, the government virtually moves to Gujarat’s 18,000 villages to monitor schemes, which the villagers are told about round the year by gram mitras (friends of the village), chosen from locals. Bureaucrats stay in villages and get eligible children — especially girls — enrolled in schools.

Ten-year-old Afsana Bano Umar Khan signed up. She now goes to school every day, and has a fascinating three hours’ experience on a new toy — a computer. Schools across Gujarat’s villages provide free computer education to children.

“One month ago, I saw a computer for the first time in my life,” said Afsana, a tea seller’s daughter, panting after she came running from her home at Chharodi village. “I am learning to type ABCD on it,” she said. “I want to go to school daily.”

Chharodi is a largely Muslim village but that has not dented its enthusiasm for Modi.

“There have been a lot of good things in Modi’s time. We get 24 hours’ electricity and a separate line gives eight hours of power in the fields,” said 35-year-old farm worker Fatahji Mungaji.

“Fancy Punjabi dress!” a shrill salesman shouted as he walked by, holding a stack of colourful salwar suits.

Murmurs in the land of the Nano

On the highway, as the morning became warmer, vehicles poured on to the streets, expensive cars driving alongside the colourful three-wheel motorcycle taxi, a Gujarat speciality.

The motorcycles taxis will soon have competition. They drive past a yellow sign announcing: ‘Nano Car, Project Site’.

The story behind the coming up of that sign near Sanand town entrenched Modi’s position as a favourite of corporate India. When the Nano project in Bengal collapsed, Modi showed decision-making rare among India’s political class. In four days he provided land to Tata and enabled their passage to Gujarat, beating other states vying for the project.

That doesn’t cut much ice, though, with Nitin Arwalla, 22, who sells car seat covers in Sanand.

“How do I care if Modi becomes Prime Minister or not? He has brought the Nano, sure, but only outsiders are going to get jobs,” said Arwalla. “Let him give us jobs, then he can be my Prime Minister.”

Angry youth? A few kilometres down, young 20-year-olds play with fire every day.

This is the private College of Fire Technology, where youth from all over India — and one from Dubai — train to be firefighters. With industrial giants swooping on Gujarat, there are lots of jobs coming their way.

“I had heard scary stories but Gujarat is nice. Things are so much better here. Our northern states should take lessons,” said Virendra Kumar, 20, from Patna.

Asked how many wanted Modi to become India’s Prime Minister, all hands went up in the class of 50.

“After the 2002 riots, he has improved upon the bad image he had. There was an impression that he discriminates against Muslim areas on the issue of development,” said 20-year-old Shahnawaz Thakur, who lives in Ahmedabad’s Jamalpur neighbourhood.

“But our roads are being improved and our footpaths are being developed. I think he is a brilliant person for running our country.”

Cars whiz by. The occasional camel-driven cart rolls along as well. After a smoking break at the roadside tea shop, young executives working for multinational giants set out on motorcycles to seek customers.

In Viramgam town, a row of swank corporate offices stick out on the dusty and bumpy roads. Private life insurance companies have battled it out over the past year. Private banks have ATMs.

Hardi Pankajbhai Shah, 21, is among the lucky girls of Viramgam. She got a job near her home, with a mobile phone company.

“There are few job opportunities here, especially for women. Most people go to big cities. But there is a higher education hub coming up nearby in seven years. Then things will be different,” she said, as she collected payment from a customer.

“I think Narendrabhai has a great approach to developing business. This will reduce unemployment,” she said. “He takes strong decisions and he does a lot of what he says.”

The store’s customers are mostly from villages, many of them in their 20s and 30s who love MP3s and caller tunes and buy phones of up to Rs 16,000 although this is not one of the very prosperous areas of Gujarat. For others, it is the every day things that make a difference.

“I get electricity, I get water. That is all I care for. Earlier there was no water — I had to pay Rs 300 per hour as rent to the landlord for water because he had the boring machine,” said farmer Rati Lal, his teeth blackened by tobacco. “Now I pay Rs 600 every year to the panchayat. See how much I save?”

That has been made possible by a check dam, one of the one lakh-plus check dams built across the state during Modi’s tenure, with 9:1 contributions by the government and villagers. It now returns to the farmers most of the rainwater that washed out to sea.

Migration back to the villages

There is someone else returning too: the migrant. “Many people are coming back from cities because life is better here and I saw on TV that there is a mandi [recession] in the cities,” said 40-year-old Tarsingh Bhai.

The interventions are showing results. Gujarat’s agriculture sector grew at 10 per cent over the past two years, compared to the national average of three per cent. The total worth of farm products shot up from Rs 9,000 crore two years ago to Rs 35,000 crore.

Twenty kilometres down, near Surendranagar, cotton fields open up on both sides of the road, near a small industries enclave run by the government. Noisy sweatshops lined along bumpy roads make nails and wires out of steel industry scrap, and build machines that help strip cotton balls.

A large number of small industries have shut down in the state as elsewhere in the country, and many of Gujarat’s 2.3 lakh units face a crisis. Expatriate Gujaratis are devising a plan to help small industries.

In a dimly lit office beyond a compound where hulky cotton stripping machines are parked, there is an unlikely discovery — Mansukhbhai B. Patel, 58, who invented them and holds Indian and US patents.

Patel is a Modi fan, the critical kind. “He is a good administrator, though it is not as if everything is hunky-dory. We are concerned that his support to big industry might squeeze us out — but maybe he will find a way,” he said, sipping tea. The cacophony of clanging steel and the grating of metal filters into the room.

“He should not become Prime Minister. He should remain the Chief Minister of Gujarat, otherwise he will have to worry about all of India, and not focus on Gujarat,” Patel said.

Back in Ahmedabad, in the Muslim hub of Jamalpur, RH Master, 61, smiles as he talks about the days when Modi used a bicycle and loved taking pictures on his Yashica 635 camera, just like him.

Master, who once sold milk, took to photography after flipping through glossy magazines at his shop and gave up everything to become a photographer who has won national and international awards. He is a devout Muslim.

“I think he is a good administrator. He will make a great Prime Minister,” said Master. “But I do not think he will agree to it, he will stay here as his heart is in Gujarat. And Gujarat needs Modi.”

First Published: Jan 23, 2009 01:10 IST