‘We built this Gujarat,’ roared prime minister Narendra Modi at an election rally in his home state soon after poll dates were announced. The prime minister’s rather grandiose assertion virtually appropriating credit for all of Gujarat’s development fits in with a familiar pattern. Over the last two decades, Narendra Modi has consciously projected himself as the CEO of Gujarat: even the dramatic move from Gandhinagar to 7 Lok Kalyan Marg in the national capital has not shaken the unique bond that Modi has cemented with 6 crore plus Gujaratis. And when elections in Gujarat are in the air, then the prime minister relishes re-enacting the role where he initially earned his political spurs: as the ultimate embodiment of Gujarati asmita (pride).
The 2022 punchline is not uncommon. Since 2002, when he first stepped into the electoral arena as chief minister, Modi has repeatedly invoked Gujarati pride and ‘self-respect’ as his calling card. Recall the Gujarat ‘gaurav’ yatra of 2002 when Modi equated any questioning or criticism of the Gujarat government’s handling of the communal riots as an orchestrated campaign against the ‘people of Gujarat’. It was almost as if the riots were to be seen as a ‘conspiracy’ to defame Gujarat and Modi as the self-styled ‘Gujarat ka sher’ (lion of Gujarat) was defending his state against ‘outsiders’.
In 2007 too, the BJP slogan was ‘Jitega Gujarat’ (Gujarat will win), a reference to what Modi suggested was a discriminatory attitude of the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre against Gujarat. This was the election when Sonia Gandhi had notoriously targeted Mr Modi as a ‘maut ka saudagar’ (merchant of death). It was a barb that was craftily used by Modi to insinuate that he was being deliberately villainised and that by slandering him, it was the people of Gujarat who were being denigrated. Once again, the political strategy was obvious: create an emotional connect between Modi’s muscular leadership and the Gujarati voter to the point where the interests of the two were indistinguishable.
Fast forward to the previous election in 2017 when the Congress attempted to directly challenge the much-hyped Gujarat model with its slogan, ‘vikas Gando Thayo chhe..” (development has gone mad). While Modi was no longer chief minister, he still attempted to personalize the campaign with a counter-slogan: ‘Hu Chhu Gujarat, Hu Chhu Vikas!’ (I am Gujarat, I am development).
As Gujarat’s longest serving chief minister and the first from the state to make the overnight leap from state to Centre, Modi’s political equity as Gujarat’s neta number one is undeniable. Even after eight years as prime minister and now a member of parliament from Varanasi, Modi hasn’t missed an opportunity to reaffirm his special relationship with his home state. Then be it escorting a foreign head of state to Ahmedabad or inaugurating a slew of big ticket projects across Gujarat, the larger than life prime ministerial persona co-exists with his image as a Gujarati son of the soil.
But is Modi the sole builder of modern Gujarat as the propaganda machine insists? After all, it was when Chimanbhai Patel was chief minister in the early 1990s that Gujarat’s growth and industrialization push was accelerated: for example, Gautam Adani, whose wealth has increased multifold in the Modi era, got his early break in the Chimanbhai period. Another predecessor, Madhavsinh Solanki focused on uplifting socially and economically backward castes. A chief minister like Balwant Rai Mehta pioneered the panchayat system while the likes of Hitendra Desai contributed immensely to the co-operative sector. Even the BJP’s first Gujarat chief minister, Keshubhai Patel, fast-tracked port privatisation in his short tenure.
And yet, so overwhelming is the personality cult of Modi that it dwarfs all else, almost as if the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ marketing blitz has created such a glitzy present where past accomplishments fade into distant memory. More realistically, the Modi years in Gujarat built on the solid foundations laid by far-sighted leaders and efficient bureaucrats to create a robust growth engine: Gujarat improved its rank from the fifth richest state in 1993-94 to third richest by 2011-12. Successful power reforms, widening the road network, scaled up irrigation schemes, the Modi era in Gujarat is not without its standout achievements.
But the Gujarat model also has its areas of darkness: sharp inter-regional disparities, a concentration of wealth and opportunity in urban centres, administrative inefficiencies in municipal governance (witness the Morbi tragedy), uneven public health facilities (cruelly exposed during the pandemic) and an education system that is still playing catch-up (for example, the 2018-19 All India Survey on Higher Education shows that Gujarat ranked a dismal 26th among 36 states and union territories in the pupil-teacher ratio). Malnutrition numbers too remain a concern: the National Family Health Survey (2019-20) recorded that nearly 11% of children under 5 years suffered from under-weight as against 7% in 2005-06. When 17 lakh people applied for 3,400 vacancies for the job of a ‘talati’ (or village administrator) earlier this year, the grim reality of rural youth unemployment was exposed.
Even more contentious is how an ‘old’ Gujarat that once espoused Gandhian values of social harmony is now trapped in the divisive agendas of a ‘naya’ (new) Gujarat. Modi supporters will point out how in the last two decades, instances of riots have been negligible, proof that political stability has ensured a firmer grip over law and order. But such is the dominance of the post-2002 Hindutva political model that its impact on inter-community relations is visible: the stark geographical ‘borders’ that exist between Hindu and Muslim areas have hardened with time, a mix of fear and hatred driving a wedge between communities, creating an acute sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ to the point where Hindus feel wholly empowered and Muslims further marginalised.
Grisly evidence of this ominous communal divide was provided last month when a group of Muslim men – accused of violently disrupting a garba event in a village in Kheda in central Gujarat – were tied to a pole and publicly flogged by plain-clothed policemen even as the gathered crowds wildly cheered. While a police probe was ordered after the flogging video went viral, government ministers actually praised the flogging. Is this defense of brazen mob justice also a part of the ‘new’ Gujarat which the prime minister so proudly claims to have built?
Post-script: On the road during the 2017 elections, we stopped at a tribal dominated village near Bharuch. Most of the villagers had scarcely heard of then chief minister, Vijay Rupani and believed that Modi was still running the state. In fact, Mr Rupani was barely visible on most BJP posters. As one senior BJP leader pointedly remarked to us, “ Modi is Gujarat and Gujarat is Modi.” Shades of the infamous ‘Indira is India’ Congress slogan of the 1970s!