From the country’s most powerful politician to one of the world’s richest persons, no Indian state has come close to matching the political and economic clout of Gujarat in the past decade. Ever since prime minister Narendra Modi stepped onto the national centre-stage, all roads it seems lead to and from Gandhinagar. Which opens up an intriguing question: is the disproportionate power in policy making wielded by netas and bureaucrats from Gujarat at the Centre leading to favouritism in key decisions affecting states?
An answer might lie in the snowballing controversy over the Foxconn-Vedanta $22 billion semi-conductor project setting up base in Gujarat instead of Maharashtra. In the last week of July, Maharashtra chief minister Eknath Shinde informed the state assembly that the much-coveted project which is expected to provide thousands of jobs was all set to come to Maharashtra, even sending an official letter to the partner companies for an agreement signing date. Just what changed in six weeks apart from a high level meeting in early September between the project principals and the prime minister and the fact that Gujarat goes to the polls within the next few months?
This is not to suggest that the investors didn’t have solid reasons to opt for Gujarat. Vedanta chairperson Anil Aggarwal has claimed that the decision to choose Gujarat was taken after ‘professionally’ assessing the site for the multi-billion dollar investment through a ‘scientific’ and ‘financial’ process that involved short-listing several states. While Gujarat has reportedly rolled out the red carpet for the project and offered several incentives, the sudden nature of the decision, especially in the context of the tangled Gujarat versus Maharashtra relationship, threatens to re-open wounds both past and present.
Recall that the formation of the two western states in 1960 emerged from a bitter and at times bloody conflict over the geographical division of the old Bombay state. While entrepreneurial Gujaratis have contributed enormously to the wealth and prosperity of Mumbai, an element of sibling-like rivalry between the two state leaderships has always existed. Maharashtra’s linguistic and regional ‘Big Brother’ assertion was reflected in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement and later in the rise of the ‘sons of the soil’ Shiv Sena crusade.
In the last decade, the tables though have turned decisively both politically and economically. When earlier this month on a visit to Mumbai, union home minister Amit Shah urged Mumbaikars to defeat the Shiv Sena in their ‘own home’ in the forthcoming civic elections, he was seen to drive a knife into a wounded tiger. The hostile takeover of the Sena-led coalition government by encouraging a rebellion against the Thackeray family has only stoked fears amongst the Sena faithful that a Modi-Shah-led BJP seeks total domination of Maharashtra’s landscape: in the imagination of the Marathi manoos, Gujarati political power is now undermining Maharashtrian asmita (self-respect). The frequent visits of chief minister Shinde to Delhi to seek clearance on cabinet formation has only reaffirmed the perception of Maharashtra’s remote control being held by Gujarat’s intimidating ‘jodi number one’. In that sense, the timing of the project announcement couldn’t be more politically sensitive which might also explain the sharp reactions across the state.
Moreover, while Maharashtra had the headstart as an economic powerhouse, Gujarat has gradually challenged its larger neighbor as the preferred investment destination in recent years. In 2020-21, Gujarat received the highest foreign direct investment (FDI) amongst all Indian states while Maharashtra was pushed to second, indicative of a change in the pecking order. In 2021-22, Gujarat slipped to sixth as Karnataka climbed to the top but that might be a temporary blip for a state whose investments have been largely domestic in the past.
While Gujarat’s political ascendancy has contributed substantially to its economic upsurge, states like Maharashtra must also introspect. The Enron power project in the 1990s – once seen as an exemplar of the early liberalization blueprint — was mired in allegations of bribery and corruption, leading to re-negotiation and a severe credibility crisis for Maharashtra Inc. More recently, several key infrastructure projects have been delayed because of fiercely competitive politics: the bitter fight between the Shiv Sena and the BJP over the Aarey metro car shed development in Mumbai is stuck in both ego clashes and environmental concerns, leading to delays and cost escalation. Where a stable single party rule in Gujarat over the last 25 years has ensured a swiftness and certitude in decision-making, coalition experiments in Maharashtra have led to compromises and predictably weakened the state leadership.
But while Gujarat can justly take pride in its economic resurgence in the Modi era, the much-hyped ‘Gujarat model’ is driven by an excessive centralizing approach, not exactly in sync with the plural character of Indian federalism. In his Independence Day speech this year, the prime minister called for ‘co-operative competitive federalism’ where states seek to outshine each other on the development front. But fair competition demands that the Centre nurture a transparent level playing field and not a partisan political environment skewed in favour of BJP ruled states as highlighted by the ‘double engine’ government propaganda.
It is now amply evident that opposition-run states are on notice from the central agencies and are being routinely destabilized. The overarching political ambition to create an ‘opposition-mukt Bharat’ might be part of the BJP’s quest for long term supremacy but it also creates more friction points of suspicion and resentment instead of genuine ‘co-operative federalism’. It isn’t just the way opposition chief ministers are expected to fall in line with a domineering Centre that throws up concerns over a possible slide towards a single party ‘elected autocracy’. Why, for example, are major global leaders actively encouraged to visit Gandhinagar in preference to other state capitals? Narendra Modi as Gujarat chief minister was CEO of his state; as prime minister, he is Captain of Team India where none of his member states must feel orphaned. Let states compete for investment based on objective economic factors and not political bias.
Post-script: There is a personal angle to the complex Maharashtra-Gujarat equation. My late grandfather was a Maharashtrian, a 1943 batch Imperial Police officer from Bombay state who was literally coerced into shifting to Gujarat by Morarji Desai because the new state in 1960 had a shortage of senior police officers. Then, his move from Maharashtra to Gujarat was a rare one. Today, as Gujarat rules the roost, who can say no to anything India’s dynamo state wants?