The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- An unreflective autocrat

Narendra Modi is notorious as the abettor, if not organizer, of the killing of Muslims in Gujarat during the 2002 riots. His sway is such that the judiciary, elsewhere generally secular and impartial, failed to punish the killers of Muslims in Gujarat, and the Supreme Court had to transfer their cases out of Gujarat. But Modi is not just a simple man of evil deeds. He has also run the administration cleanly, and made it friendly to industry. He made a spectacular coup when he succoured Ratan Tata from the clutches of Mamata Banerjee. In this way, his dark image has been filling with other colours in recent years. But he is a taciturn man; no one is close to him, and no stories leak about him. So he remains a dark horse.

But he too must have been a toddler once, making sweet googoo sounds and crawling between the feet of his parents. He too must have climbed mango trees and eaten green mangoes. He too must have been a bridegroom in a turban smiling shyly at guests. In other words, he may have done devilish deeds, but he is still a human. He does not show his human side too often; but how did he grow up? How was he formed into his present shape?

The story starts with the general election of 1971, and the Gujarat election that followed in 1972. The Congress won both. Indira Gandhi sent Ghanshyambhai Oza as chief minister to Ahmedabad. He lasted seven days. There was a revolt in the Gujarat Congress, and he had to resign. Then Indira Gandhi chose Chimanbhai Patel. He managed to form government. But unlike in the rest of India, the Congress (Organization), formed by the older leaders whom Mrs Gandhi had broken off with, was strong in Gujarat. Chimanbhai was in danger of losing legislators to it, and he secured support by corrupt means. He became notorious for it.

Then came the Great Inflation; in 1972 and 1973, prices rose by 50 per cent. In December 1973, students in the hostel of the Morvi Engineering College started an agitation against the rise in the mess bill. The student agitation spread, and soon there was a broader agitation against the government. It turned violent. Morarji Desai went on fast. Chimanbhai was in danger of losing support in the assembly. So Mrs Gandhi dissolved it. Then she delayed holding elections. Morarji went on fast again. Elections were held in June 1975, and were won by a People’s Front. Mrs Gandhi allowed its government to last for 18 days. On June 26, 1975, she declared Emergency and ordered arrest of opposition leaders.

After that, opposition went underground. Leaders went into hiding. News travelled by word of mouth or in code on telephone or was printed and distributed clandestinely. Students were in the forefront of the agitation; many were killed. Spots where they were killed became memorials. People would gather there, hold prayers, organize impromptu meetings and make fiery speeches against Indira Gandhi and her henchmen. Meetings would bring forth police, lathi charges, shootings, and create even more martyr memorials.

The conditions were eerily similar to those in 1942, when the British government arrested Congress leaders and the agitation went underground. Then too, the government spied actively on “agitators”; its police raided homes at night and took away young men suspected of nationalist activities. That is what happened in Gujarat in 1975. It was combined with inflation, which is a standard formula for making governments unpopular.

Narendra Modi was then a young volunteer of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in Ahmedabad. He was a handler of leaders, involved in organizing the concealment and taking care of politicians in danger of being arrested. In this way, he came to know Gujarat’s political landscape intimately, and made friends and enemies across it. In the ensuing decades, he used the knowledge and the contacts skilfully; it is his grasp of Gujarat politics and his ability to manipulate it that explain his extraordinary success.

And as he experienced the Emergency, he acquired the prejudices he holds to this day. It is these early experiences of his that explain his visceral hatred of Indira Gandhi’s followers, and the vulgar, tasteless remarks he makes from time to time about Sonia Gandhi. He wrote a book on the Emergency in Gujarati which is an illuminating guide to his personality. It is largely a chronicle of politicians of that time, what happened to them, what they did and how they coped with the Emergency. But that is not what is remarkable about it. What is striking is the absolute absence of thought in it. One would have thought that he would at least display the standard prejudices of an RSS man. But no; there is no reflection, stereotyped or otherwise.

This unreflective, practical, personality-oriented style is behind Modi’s subsequent success. Early on, he developed a functional approach to people. He looked on them as potential tools or obstacles, and dealt with them as such. He single-mindedly concentrated on peopling the Gujarat BJP with people who could work with him. When he came to power, he applied the same techniques to the bureaucracy, and turned it into an instrument of his will. Thus when he decided to “teach a lesson” to Muslims, he used the police and judiciary effectively to do so. There was no mercy and no justice; there was just efficient intimidation.

But his objectives have changed a good deal since then. He watched with consternation as Gujarat became infamous because of the violence he had orchestrated, and unpopular amongst investors as a consequence. He has worked hard in recent years to erase that unfavourable impression. He created a forum for publicity in his annual Vibrant Gujarat conferences; and he used annual NRI meetings, in which Gujaratis are prominent, to spread his message.

It is interesting how little the people of Gujarat figure in this campaign, except as stereotypes — singers, dancers, schoolchildren, or docile workers. His campaigns are mostly about material conditions and achievements — about Gujarat’s ports, which handle a quarter of foreign trade, its excellent road network, its share of India’s industrial output, etc. And the campaigns have worked — not so much because of their content, but because the material conditions for setting up industry are really better in Gujarat than in most other states. Maharashtra used to have equally good conditions, but has been falling behind. The south also has good infrastructure, but is extremely corrupt.

Gujarat always had a relatively good administration — an inheritance from the old Bombay province. Modi has done two things. He has reduced the leakage of government revenue that goes all over India into enrichment of politicians and bureaucrats, and diverted it to building up Gujarat’s infrastructure. And out of his own necessity, he has publicized Gujarat’s good administration. Modi’s success is more due to Gujarat than the other way round. But he is an autocrat, and has used his autocratic powers to give Gujarat a considerable competitive advantage over other states. His intellectual equipment is limited, but he has concentrated it in a remarkable manner to rebrand Gujarat, to his own collateral benefit.

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