Anirudha Dutta is former head of research at CLSA India Limited, a leading foreign brokerage house. While every number tells a story, there are many stories beyond numbers and both are equally important. This blog will attempt to tell some of these stories.
Gujarat and Narendra Modi invoke extreme reactions from most people I know. For some, Gujarat and Gujaratis can only be looked at through the prism of 2002 and for others, Modi has transformed Gujarat and 2002 doesn’t merit the media attention it gets. Dinesh Narayanan, Senior Editor, recently did a cover story in Forbes India on Modi. Like many other liberal-minded friends of mine, a few paragraphs into his story, he says, “In my mind, like that of many Indians, Narendra Modi is inextricably linked to February 2002…”
This blog is not to criticise Dinesh’s cover story, but to look at some of the shortcomings of Narendra Modi, as mentioned in the article, which I admit is more balanced than most others that one normally reads. It is also to write about some of my own experiences since we need “a more well-informed debate on the nature of leadership, government and society,” as Indrajit Gupta wrote in his editorial in the same issue of the magazine.
“Wherever you look, the leader is on extravagant display,” writes Dinesh. Noted historian Ramachandra Guha has also written in similar vein in one of his columns. In 2011, I travelled to Gujarat thrice for about a week to understand the story of Gujarat and in the cities of Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Anand I did not see any extravagant display of Narendra Modi. In fact, what had then struck me was how remarkably absent political posters were in the skyline of those cities. Contrast that to the disgusting skyline in Mumbai, where politicians of cutting across party lines illegally put up posters throughout the year. A campaign by Mumbai Mirror had no impact whatsoever.
Yes, the few posters that I saw had the pictures of Narendra Modi. But why should that be surprising or frowned upon? Every Congress poster has the picture of the Gandhi family and every DMK poster has the pictures of Karunanidhi and his extended clan and no poster of Trinamool Congress can be put up without the picture of Mamata Banerjee. What is so extravagant about Modi’s pictures that this is objected to? And as far as extravagant displays are concerned, who can beat the Nehru-Gandhi family where government funds are used on every occasion to celebrate the birth and death anniversaries of a select few past prime ministers of India and every major road, airport is named after some member of the family?
Dinesh has written about the conference where farmers have been sponsored by private companies. So what? This is the hallmark of Modi’s style of working and getting sponsorship from corporate sector in a transparent fashion should be encouraged. I remember a company based in Gujarat telling me that they never had to pay any bribes but once they were called and asked to beautify the garden at one of the universities or some such public building. Any conference or big event will have to be choreographed and done professionally. Gujarat is leading the way in that.
The Modi government apparently stopped all advertisements to VTV, a TV channel, as per the Forbes cover story. Every media house in every state in this country has faced similar issues. Outlook had done a similar story on Nitish Kumar and Bihar some time ago (How to build a reputation), wherein the magazine said that Kumar was throwing cash at the press. I do not agree with the Outlook story. having travelled through Bihar to witness what Nitish Kumar and the JD(U)-BJP government has achieved. But I mention it to make the point that every government to an extent exercise some control on the media through the advertisements it doles out. The same is being done by the Centre. I am sure many would have noticed how some TV channels turned subtly (and not-so-subtly) against Anna Hazare’s Jan Lok Pal movement masterminded by Arvind Kejriwal and others. and coincidentally started getting generous advertisements from the central government.
“One by one, every senior leader in the Sangh Parivar has been made irrelevant,” writes Dinesh. In 2011, during my visit I had heard the same thing. And I thought that this was great. I do not agree with the thoughts and outlook of people like Pravin Togadia or the poison they spread in our society, as I do not like sundry self-styled guardians of public morality that barge into pubs in Mangalore and beat up helpless women. I was also told that Modi has not appointed any political person to the chairmanships of various state bodies and state owned enterprises. This has rubbed many in the wrong way.
Media, particularly liberal media, should be celebrating these stories. Imagine if the likes of Togadia had a larger say in the way Gujarat is run or in its administration. All secularists should be thrilled that the Sangh Parivar has been marginalised. In fact, as Dinesh has written, Modi has gone and created a back-up for the party organisation at the ground level. The biggest critics of BJP highlight its links to the VHP-RSS, but Modi coming from an RSS background, has de-linked them from the administration and also from electoral politics in Gujarat for all practical purposes. In the 2007 elections, the RSS cadres did not work for the party. Is this good or bad?
Another point that Dinesh makes is that instead of ministers, bureaucrats are running the government. It indeed is so because discretionary powers have been minimised and the rules are same for everyone. The larger problem in India today is one of governance and too much of discretionary power that serves vested interests. In Gujarat, by all accounts, that has been minimised. Sure, the state exercises its discretionary powers to reach out to Ratan Tata and offered concessions to move Tata Motors's Nano plant to Sanand. But that is an exception compared to what we see elsewhere. Whether it is coal allocation, spectrum allocation and dubious land deals, they are all a result of discretionary powers being exercised.
Dinesh also mentions a very interesting statistic: the number of educated job-seekers registered with the employment exchanges rose by 16% in the last five years. When we had looked at the data from employment exchanges in 2011, the last report available was from February 2009 and the data pertained to 2007. The data showed that over 45% of the vacancies notified were from Gujarat and Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu accounted for another 20%. These three states accounted for 65% of all the vacancies notified in the country. where of Dec 2007, there were 965 employment exchanges. In fact the employment exchange in Chitradurga in Karnataka, the iron ore boom town, had not been able to provide a single job in the preceding four years. Believable?
The conclusion I draw is not that Gujarat is not creating enough jobs (it is a fact that India as a whole is not creating enough jobs and Gujarat may just be better than other states), but employment exchanges in most states are defunct. Gujarat is probably one of the few states where the employment exchanges still function and to an extent fulfil a need! Of course the numbers that I am quoting and Dinesh has quoted are two different things.
Let me move to some of my experiences. We often organise investor trips to various states and getting meetings with the government is a big pain in the backside. The only exception was Gujarat, where one letter and one phone call was enough to get the government machinery moving. I had to go only once to meet the MD of IndextB (Industrial Extension Bureau) and he asked me two questions, “What do you want us to do?” and “How will Gujarat benefit from this?” After my reply I was told that the visit of our delegation was confirmed and the Chief Secretary would address the delegates and they could not assure the CM's availability. All with clinical efficiency. I was out of his office in ten minutes.
A month later our visit was undertaken. By the time I reached the airport after the meetings, all the presentations that were made by different department secretaries had been emailed to me in zip files, without even my asking for it. Which other state government does this?
And I have to tell another story.
A couple of months back, I met a person engaged in low-cost housing. I asked him about his experience in different states. His reply was that except Gujarat, everywhere else there was no end to the amount of bribes being demanded. In one state, he said, a document was signed by 326 people because everyone wanted a share of the expected bribe! Contrast this to Gujarat, where according to him, once land is bought, you can develop it the way you want without any restrictions. No discretionary powers on how FSI can be increased. The rules are the same for everyone, it is not industry-specific, sector-specific or industrialist-specific. 50% or more of the land is given back to the original owners after development so that they get a share of the value appreciation. Another wonderful initiative is that if a property is registered in the name of a woman only, then no stamp duty is charged. Where most governments and political parties pay lip service to women’s empowerment, Gujarat is showing the way.
I could go on.
A senior BJP politician (no longer in the party) once told me that the only problem with Modi is that he is autocratic. He also seems intolerant of any criticism. Exactly what Dinesh has also written. And after a decade of insipid, indecisive and venal leadership, much of India may well want a decisive and clean leader. It is for these characteristics alone that all polls still show Indira Gandhi as India’s best or most popular Prime Minister. But Modi will have to change if he has to take a coalition along with him or he will have to wait for the BJP to get 240+ seats in the general elections. However, this is true: we do need his developmental model where both industry and agriculture can flourish. And his true test of leadership and legacy will come if and when he indeed moves to the Centre, whether Gujarat is able to continue to demonstrate the same efficiency in governance or not.
PS: Why did I write all this? I wrote this because quite often in recent times there have been erroneous stories on Gujarat. Two of them have come to my notice. One was a Business Standard op-ed by A K Bhattacharya (read The Gujarat gaffe: social media calls the bluff). The second one was a more recent one on IndiaSpend, where the headline read “Gujarat has highest women dropout rate in higher education”. On being pointed, the headline was changed later to “Gujarat has highest reduction in women enrolment in higher education.” I wonder why these mistakes are happening when reporting on Gujarat.