The general elections have thrust themselves into our calendars. They led to the emigration of the one show that really excites Indians, namely the Indian Premier League. Instead of entertaining their fans, our cricket heroes had to play before empty stadia in distant places like Dubai and Durban. And all this hardship for what? For watching politicians abuse one another in empty fields. Not all of them are as empty as the one where Anna Hazare failed to turn up. There were conflicting reports on whether it was due to indigestion or congestion. The congestion was certainly not on Ramlila Maidan. Mamata Banerjee kept the appointment despite pressing engagements. In spite of her eloquence, an aspiring listener could have got a dozen chairs to himself.
But there is one speaker who has been addressing roughly one crowd a day, in all nooks and corners of the country; despite chances of bombs being thrown, there are not many empty seats in his meetings. He is a pretty uneducated character; but some of his most enthusiastic listeners are in colleges. He can hardly go beyond a single mugged-up sentence in Telugu or Malayalam; but his Hindi speeches have drawn erstwhile enemies of Hindi in thousands. He asks his listeners to hang him if he is guilty of the Gujarat riots; instead, they stand up and chant, MOA DEE MOA DEE. He has made the current election the most dramatic in a couple of decades.
Last September he spoke in Amroodon Ka Bagh (guava garden) in Jaipur; he taught his audience the English alphabet: A for Adarsh, B for Bofors, C for Commonwealth Games, D for Damaad (meaning the son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi), and so on. As the Prime Minister hoisted the flag on Red Fort in Delhi on August 15, Modi donned a stippled red turban and hoisted the flag in Bhuj. He did not dismiss the herded children with a ten-minute speech; he spoke for 55 minutes. Much of his speech was addressed to the Prime Minister: he asked how the PM felt about presiding over so many scandals.
Four days before that, he spoke in Hyderabad. For the first five minutes he spoke in Telugu. Then he went on to accuse Congress of disuniting people: the proof was in the number of states they had divided, including Andhra Pradesh. The rest of the speech was populist: the message was that Congress had promised food, education, medical care etc, but not delivered.
He gave a talk to chartered accountants of Ahmedabad last June; how would he relate to these chaps in suits and ties, who work entirely in English? He told them there was so much black money and money parked abroad; he asked them who could detect it: chartered accountants, obviously. He described their own work to them: staring at computers, adding up figures, looking for errors — how boring! Then he told them about stone-cutters. When they were asked why they did such hard work, one said it was to feed his family, another said he knew nothing better; then one said, I am breaking these stones to build a temple. He said that he himself had left home to do social service, but fate worked differently, and he had reached where he was. He told them about an aborigine, who asked Modi if he was on the way to Sabarmati. Modi told him: start walking, otherwise it will get too hot. The tribal asked him not to worry about that, what mattered was whether he was going in the right direction.
Then he came to his favourite theme. The Delhi sarkar spends only 30 per cent on development expenditure. Gujarat also spent such a proportion when Modi came to power; today it spends 65 per cent on development. This is an argument that might appeal even to a Congressman chartered accountant. Modi then came to Gujaratis’ favourite sport. He talked of a poor man who invested a few thousand in shares in the hope of earning enough to marry off his daughter. His bet was based on companies’ performance; he could trust the performance figures only if chartered accountants were competent and honest. He asked the CAs to keep that common man in mind when they audited accounts.
In June he chose the occasion of the release of a book, Beyond a Billion Ballots, to question the status of the National Advisory Council. There was a sixty-year-old planning commission, which brought all state governments together and coordinated their development. Yet, the Congress government set up the NAC — it was a second cabinet of the other prime minister. What was the need for it, and how right was the process of setting it up? Modi has often attacked the Family, and the attacks seem personal and unbalanced. But the issue of two centres of power has been a real one. Modi has an alternative concept of good government: it is one in which the elected representatives decide the direction, but go no further. They leave it to the bureaucracy to work out the operational details and implement it. That is how the British government works, and how Modi claims he has run the Gujarat government.
He also talks often of people’s participation, and gives examples of how he has involved them. After the earthquake in Kutch, the government of Gujarat asked each village to appoint a school committee, and gave it money and authority to build a school; it set up a material bank from where the committees could get building materials. Similarly, when the Narmada dam brought water to new villages, it set up villagers’ committees to decide how the water should be distributed. In this context, Modi cites Gandhi’s concepts of trust and trusteeship: the government should act as a trustee of the people, and trust the people. And it should change over from procedural to performance audit. This is the same idea as Chidambaram’s of an outcome budget. Chidambaram talked about it in one budget speech and put it to sleep; Modi scores better on performance.
Modi is an energetic politician and a superb orator; both qualities count in an election, and have brought him much publicity. But most of the commentators base their judgment on Modi on the performance of Gujarat. It is good in some areas, poor in others. But it is futile to look for a correlation between a chief minister and the economic or social performance of a state: too many variables determine performance, of which the identity of the chief minister is one. What I would look for in a chief minister — or prime minister — is ideas and vigour, fluency and energy, ability to carry people along and inspire them. Modi has these things. One can think of other factors that count against him. One may have doubts about his honesty. One may believe that his performance in the Gujarat riots was unforgivable. These are perfectly valid opinions. I would only add three things to these considerations. He is a riveting speaker; he has achieved a number of things that he set out to in Gujarat; and he is a collector of good ideas.