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LAUGHING UP HIS SLEEVE

- Supermen spell danger for ordinary men

Basking in the praise of Western diplomats — so much more satisfying than the accolades of Indian tycoons — Narendra Modi must be laughing up his sleeve. First the fiasco of Tuesday’s Bengal Leads non-event, now Sunday’s All-India Congress Committee with his stinging taunt “After Coalgate, AICC is now All-India Coal Congress!” ringing in the ears of the country’s rulers. They must know that shameful though the December 16 gang-rape was, protest would not have exploded into such epic proportions without the pent-up anger, frustration and hopelessness caused by the United Progressive Alliance’s repeated sins of omission and commission right under the nose of India’s most upright and idealistic prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru.

Modi is the UPA’s creation. Despite his vigorous self-projection and the propaganda, both strident and sophisticated, of acolytes, he would never have been considered prime ministerial material but for what Azim Premji called a “complete breakdown in public governance across the board” under the UPA. While crony capitalists and corrupt ministers (often the same people) line their pockets, even a politician like Jairam Ramesh, of whom much was expected at one time, exposes the bankruptcy at the top by playing to the gallery with a salvo against mining. Populism hasn’t altogether smothered the voice of reason, as Manmohan Singh demonstrated over the Indo-American nuclear agreement and foreign investment in shops. But being at bay on so many fronts, the government is unable to give the lie to the Modi camp’s dramatic exaggerations.

Undoubtedly, Gujarat has made significant progress since the 10th plan, but statistics show that Bihar, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have done so too. Huge hoardings all over Ahmedabad advertising cheap fares to foreign destinations, visas, entrance to colleges abroad and residence permits as a package for the young hardly suggest a contented land bursting with opportunity. Modi’s achievement lies, as Bibek Debroy puts it, in “freeing up space for private initiative and enterprise”. His model “is one of decentralization of planning and empowering people”. In short, he has wisely taken advantage of Central liberalization to continue and reinforce the historic tradition of Gujarati entrepreneurship, which was manifest in East Africa and is now blooming in Britain.

That isn’t quite the path-breaking vision “Vibrant Gujarat” evokes. The captains of industry, who outdid each other at Gandhinagar in singing not Rabindrasangeet but praise for the “Vikash Purush”, were on the rebound from the spectacular collapse of expectations from Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress. Focussing on their own profits, they had no time for either Gujarat’s communally selective development or its shabby record in every possible social index. Child nutrition is lower than the national average. Life expectancy is higher in eight other states. More (31.8 per cent) Gujaratis languish below the poverty line than Keralans, Punjabis, Haryanvis or Himachalis. Kerala, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and — unbelievably — West Bengal scored higher in the Human Development Index scale in the same period.

This could go on. Gujarat’s annual growth rate shines less brightly when compared to poor states like Bihar and Odisha. Its 12.65 per cent rate of industrial growth lags behind Odisha’s 17.53 per cent and Chhattisgarh’s 13.3 per cent. Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Chhattisgarh have also signed memorandums of understanding worth lakhs of crores of rupees with similar job potential without any of the fanfare that surrounds Modi’s every action. Gujarat’s communal record would have mattered even if Modi had been a star performer. Given the statistical evidence, his canvassers cannot pursue their implicit argument that an aberration a decade ago must be overlooked in the light of the subsequent economic miracle. There is no miracle. But Modi is lucky. Had he governed West Bengal, he might have been accused of sleight of hand (if not worse) for passing on to Tata Motors free of cost land that had been acquired for a university.

Gujarat’s communal record does not bother Western investors who need an alternative to China as a strategic partner. It’s more complicated with Indian industrialists. Try as they might, it’s impossible to separate Pakistani atrocities and Bangladeshi infiltration from India’s Muslim question. Some “Vibrant Gujarat” cheerleaders may well have felt that the victims of 2002 got what they deserved, especially after the abomination of Godhra. Television anchors pander to the sentiment by frothing at the mouth at the very mention of Akbaruddin Owaisi whose crime is apparently too dreadful even to be described. Even if all this does not produce “Hindu terrorism”, it can persuade some Hindus to forsake the philosophic tolerance that the French journalist, Francois Gautier, eulogized and cry with him, “Enough is enough!”

Atal Behari Vajpayee’s prime ministership had much to commend it. But times change. So do political personnel. Given the natural bent of many Indians, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s return might mean regression. Even the Congress under an Italian-born Roman Catholic and a secular Sikh offers only a frail barrier against the motley crowd of so-called “babas” (Asaram, Nirmal, Ramdev and many others), the glamorous Radhe Ma, the murderous Dara Singh, and thugs masquerading under the labels of Hindu Jagarana Vedike, Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sene poised to overwhelm India’s public space. How much worse for reason and logic if the next prime minister is beholden to someone who imagines there is no rape in whatever he calls “Bharat”? Just as a young woman slapped Mohan Bhagwat, Congress needs to slap down Modi’s pretensions, not to save Rahul Gandhi’s career but to save the secular democratic polity that alone can hold India together in a harmonious union worth living in.

The only way it can do so is by attending to the “widespread governance deficit in almost every sphere of national activity covering government, business and institutions” that Premji, Deepak Parekh and others highlighted in their letter to the prime minister. Their assessment that “the biggest issue corroding the fabric of our nation is corruption” cannot have been news to Manmohan Singh. The decision by 83 senior retired bureaucrats to move the Supreme Court over the decline in administrative services was another warning of the “urgent need to depoliticize management of transfers, postings, inquiries, promotions, reward, punishment and disciplinary matters relating to civil servants”, to quote one of the petitioners, T.S.R. Subramanian, a former cabinet secretary.

All this assumes crucial importance because the economic dynamo of Manmohan Singh’s dreams is running out of steam. There is already talk abroad that the “I” in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) should denote Indonesia. Prices, especially of food, are soaring. Despite a contrived market boom, India is plagued by high current account and fiscal deficits. The new one-rupee coin invites contempt. It is precisely because he has never sought a national mandate that Manmohan Singh is unable to control the likes of Suresh Kalmadi, Subodh Kant Sahay or Sushil Kumar Shinde.

Others more rooted in the political system have more to lose. There are sound reasons beyond greedy family proprietorship and the calculations of self-serving courtiers for preserving a party that once represented the finest in the Indo-British tradition of liberal thinking, secular unity and responsible statecraft. A nation with 200 million Muslims cannot be ruled by someone whose ascent recalls the Kampfzeit (time of struggle) that assailed Germany when military defeat, diplomatic humiliation and economic catastrophe (with a loaf of bread costing 80 billion marks) led to the death of public decency.

A politician who is compared to Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabbhai Patel and the legendary Arjuna needs the attendant who stood behind Caesar in Roman triumphs endlessly intoning “Remember you are only a man!” Ancient Rome knew, as Europe’s history between the two World Wars reiterated, supermen spell danger for ordinary men. The latter’s welfare matters more than highly-placed investors cavorting at jamborees even if the scorn L.K. Advani once poured on the trickle-down effect of investment was not altogether justified.