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Gujarat Votes to Decide the Destiny of India

The reelection of the Gujarat’s polarizing but high performing Chief Minister Narendra Modi might make him a contender to be Prime Minister of India.

Narendra Modi is a leader who elicits extreme responses. For his supporters, whose numbers are increasing exponentially, the Gujarat Chief Minister is a Teflon coated warrior who can do no wrong. His supporters see him as a knight in the shining armour who could be the savior of the country from the egregious governance of the venally corrupt Congress party.  His opponents revile him, some for his alleged role in the horrendous Hindu- Muslim riots of 2002, and others for his vehement opposition to nepotism and dynastic politics. In 2007, Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition in power in New Delhi, referred to Modi as a ‘merchant of death’ alluding to his alleged role in the riots. Sonia clearly forgot her own party’s role in the Sikh massacres of 1984 when leaders of her party led mobs that slaughtered innocent Sikhs by the thousands. Modi replied in style by decimating the Congress party in state assembly elections.

The 2002 riots occurred after the barbaric burning of a train compartment carrying Hindu activists. A total of 59 persons including women and children were charred to death when Muslim fundamentalists targeted the train in Godhra, a small town in Gujarat. This incensed Hindu activists who retaliated with ferocity. The resulting communal frenzy led to 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus losing their lives. Modi who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat and belongs to the right wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is alleged to have instigated the retaliation against the Muslims and then ordered his administration to turn a blind eye towards marauding Hindu mobs.

However, in spite of a relentless pursuit by the UPA government through the national government’s investigative agencies and various Supreme Court directives, Modi has come out unscathed. As the assembly elections in the state draw closer, Modi is becoming the cynosure of the nation. His ability to polarize public opinion through political gestures such as his effort to reach out to the Muslim populace through ‘sadbhavana’ (peace) meetings or through statements such as the remark about the unwarranted funding of Sonia’s foreign jaunts by India’s public exchequer is unparalleled.

 In an electoral campaign marred with vituperative public discourse, the Congress is leaving no stone unturned to stage a comeback in a state which was its bastion before Modi’s arrival on the political landscape.  The 2002 riots have been put firmly in focus. Modi’s opponents, who are alleged to be victims of his vendetta politics, have been nominated as Congress candidates. The gloves are off, as the Grand Old Party of Indian politics fights desperately to stop Modi’s reelection.

The Congress fears that if Modi wins again he might emerge as the most serious challenger to the Nehru- Gandhi dynasty’s continued stranglehold over power in Delhi. This election is not so much a battle for Gujarat but for India with the national elections due in 2014.

Opinion polls suggest that the insipid performance of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who is known to be a proxy for Sonia Gandhi has raised Modi’s stock dramatically. Opinion polls indicate that Modi has now surpassed Sonia’s son Rahul, who is being groomed to take over the reins from Manmohan Singh, as the people’s prime ministerial choice. The ignominy becomes worse for the Congress with Modi challenging Rahul to campaign in Gujarat .Rahul is still licking his wounds after his massive electoral defeat in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. He can ill afford another political disaster and is therefore steering clear of Gujarat. Modi, an extremely clever politician, is all too aware of this fact.

Modi has risen in political prominence not because of political cleverness alone. He has proven himself to be an efficient and effective administrator. About 70% of Gujarat’s land is arid and semi arid but it has proved to be a fertile ground for Modi’s political ambitions. Under his initiative, thousands of check dams have been constructed, rivers have been interlinked and drip irrigation has been promoted.  This has resulted in a remarkable rise in the hitherto depleting ground water level. Rising ground water level has been combined with the ‘jyotigram’ (light for villages) scheme, which ensures supply of uninterrupted high quality electricity to villages. This has brought unprecedented prosperity to the poor villages in Gujarat. In a country where endemic power outages are the norm even in the cities, Modi has ensured that all the 18,000 villages in Gujarat are assured of high quality electricity without fluctuations. The availability of electricity has facilitated the farmers in the state to shift to high value crops such as cotton, mango, wheat and bananas. The construction of high quality roads to the villages has provided the farmers with the opportunity to transport high value crops to cities, thus providing them direct access to the markets that has resulted in higher income for their products.

Modi’s performance is in stark contrast to the rest of the country. For the last decade, the central government set a modest agricultural growth rate target of 4.0% for the country. Gujarat’s agricultural growth rate was 10.97% in the period 2000-01 to 2009-10, outperforming even the traditionally agrarian states in India. Modi’s reforms in the power sector have not only transformed Gujarat’s economy but also won accolades from international newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). In a critique of the precarious power situation in India, the WSJ praised Modi’s courage in curbing transmission losses and in taking the politically incorrect step of clamping down on power thefts with a heavy hand. WSJ rightly observed that Gujarat was “a state which produces more power than it consumes.” Around a decade ago, Gujarat was power deficient but it now sells surplus power to 12 states in the country. In a sign of the times to come, when most parts of India suffered from a massive grid failure, Gujarat remained unaffected.

Modi is one of the few Indian politicians who focus on the long term. He is willing to make unpopular decisions and make big bets on the future. Gujarat generates power not only from traditional thermal sources but also renewable sources. It is the first Indian state that has launched a comprehensive solar policy in 2009 and accounts for two thirds of the 900MW of solar power generation in the country. The Gujarat State Electricity Board is perhaps the only electricity board which generates a profit in a country where populism ensures that massive subsidies and turning a blind eye to power thefts lead to massive losses for state electricity boards.

Modi’s decision to cut down on bureaucratic red tape has ensured a business friendly environment that has led to high economic growth in Gujarat. He has wooed industry to Gujarat with vigor and marketed the state to investors worldwide. When Ratan Tata of the Tata group of companies was exasperated with the political shenanigans in West Bengal that made it impossible to manufacture Tata’s small car, ‘Nano’ in that state, Modi apparently texted ‘welcome’ to him. Within days, the Tata group moved to Gujarat and a project worth $1.8 billion was generating employment in that state. It is, therefore, little surprise that the auto industry in Gujarat is expected to produce 700,000 cars by 2014. The state has emerged to be the natural destination for automobile projects and major players like Ford and Peugeot have announced billion dollar investments there. Ratan Tata went on to say “you are stupid if you are not in Gujarat.” The comparison with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is stark because Ratan Tata, one of the most respected of Indian business leaders, has recently criticized Manmohan for forcing Indian industrialists to look abroad by failing to address complains about India’s bloated, corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy.

Under Modi, Gujarat has consistently achieved double digit growth rates while the rest of the country is stuck in an economic rut because of pathetic governance and corruption in New Delhi. The Economist has compared Gujarat’s success story with the Chinese economic powerhouse province of Guangdong. Such is Gujarat’s growth that the prestigious Chandigarh Labour Bureau estimates the unemployment rate in the state to be a mere 1.0%, the lowest in India that has a national average of 3.8%.

As the Manmohan Singh led UPA keeps sinking in quagmire of corruption charges, the clamour for Modi’s eventual shift to New Delhi is growing louder. TIME Magazine declared Manmohan to be an ‘underachiever.’ The Indian economy is in doldrums and the dyarchy of power between the nominal leader Manmohan and the defacto ruler Sonia has led to confusion and collapse of governance. The time might just be right for Modi to make the charge towards New Delhi.

The path ahead is however not going to be easy. The Congress will try to ensure that the riots of 2002 are converted into Modi’s Achilles heel. Before Modi, the Congress ruled Gujarat and Hindu-Muslim riots occurred regularly. Since 2002, Gujarat has been at peace but the Congress has successfully demonized Modi as a Muslim baiter. It is not only the Congress which is apprehensive of Modi’s growing stature and his support among the middle class. Even in the BJP, Modi’s own party, many leaders are uncomfortable with Modi’s rise. The BJP has its own elite that engages in ‘drawing room politics’ and fears becoming redundant were Modi to assume control of the party. Modi’s opposition to nepotism and dynastic politics, which are firmly entrenched in Indian politics and to which the BJP is no exception, has made him a feared figure. Modi may well have to watch his back as he prepares for his tryst with destiny.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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