A determining feature of modern political power is that if you do not wield it with care and respect, the electorate will punish you. Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi are learning this lesson, and in the utter misery of isolation. Despite his scholarship and vast administrative experience, Singh's perceived ineptness as an administrator, his utter lack of charisma and the apparent lack of discomfiture with unprecedented corruption that scandalised many of his Cabinet colleagues were sufficient to destroy Congress' electoral prospects.
This retrograde movement gathered momentum with Rahul's “hesitant prince” approach and readily fueled a rather kitschy politics that dominated this Parliamentary election campaign.
Decisiveness was key to this election, what with over 100 million new voters jumping in to vote without strappings of the past. Narendra Modi proved to be decisive in every way, including putting the grand old men of BJP in their place. There is no grace in Modi's style of functioning. There is a rather brutish exuberance about him which he has literally masqueraded as representative of hope and change for the better. The qualitative aspect of Modi's hope is almost entirely defined by his idea of development, which he claims has succeeded in Gujarat.
Kejriwal's fledgling AAP, in contrast, foisted largely on a chest-thumping anti-corruption theme (which BJP's campaign managers successfully captured, to benefit from an anti-incumbency climate), was found grossly insufficient to make change happen. In any case, AAP was an alternative an electorate desperate for radical change was unwilling to bet on.
Voters’ Dil Mange More and Modi successfully spun into their minds a picture of unprecedented development, of an India unshackled and an economy bursting at its seams and willing to grow with unabashed fervour. Elections are over and done with, but the promises made in the run-up to it are the stuff that will define the government Modi will lead. For this reason it is critical we understand what Narendra Modi's development entails.
I had seen the Sabarmati a year after the post-Godhra riots, flowing weakly and slush with dirt, and worried about the fate of the poor who lived along its banks in rather ghettoised circumstances. A couple of years ago as I went through Ahmedabad again, I felt a strange creepiness about its roomy roads. They were tackily wide, bereft of a sense of history and old trees and the BRT ran through many of them. It was a home-made BRT, and yet slick.
The Sabarmati river front had also been all dressed up and the river flowed surprisingly full, and clean. None of the settlements of the poor that lived on the river's banks remained. During Modi’s tenure, they had disappeared just as those that had worked and lived in the streets, where the BRT now sliced through with restless urgency, had also vanished.
Modi had successfully claimed Patel’s efforts in building the dam as his, showcased the short stretch of Sabarmati flowing full with Narmada's diverted waters as an incredible success, and equally successfully managed to distract attention from the fact that the Narmada's waters had failed to reach the intended destination of Kacch. He had also ensured that the perpetual water crisis in over half of Gujarat's districts did not become a political issue.
Development is a catch-all phrase with Modi. It catches the possibility that when showcasing success, the capacity to successfully hide failure is an important prerequisite. In Modi's case, it is an art, like our ability to rush a blanket over a clothes pile and rustle up a clean house when we hear guests knocking on the door. But one does deal with that mess sometime or the other.
Mahesh Pandya of Ahmedabad-based Paryavaran Mitra calls Modi a “brilliant marketing manager”. Modi has taken all the benefits of centrally-sponsored schemes, such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (a flagship urban revitalisation scheme of the UPA government), and represented them as his ideas, says Pandya. Just as he has managed to get Samajwadi Party loyalist and thespian Amitabh Bacchan to showcase a resurgent Gujarat as a tourism destination, promoting Gir forest as a successful project.
The fact, though, is that Gir is a habitat struggling to sustain the last of the Asiatic lions as the Supreme Court recorded with concern in its direction of 13 April 2013, in the Centre for Environmental Law case. The Court in fact directed relocation of Gir lions to Kuno National Park, to safeguard the species relying on “ecocentric” principle.
These families are representative of the thousands more who have been similarly dispossessed by Modi's developmental model across Gujarat, such as in critically polluted Vapi and along the entire south Gujarat coast where a fish drought has prevailed for a decade now, says Patel. The lower classes have hardly benefited from Modi's developmental projects, and yet voted for him. This, Patel explains, is due to the penchant of “Gujarati culture to ride a wave”.
It’s that simplistic, really, Modi's developmental model. But it works, as it is delivered to mesmerise and has a mythological zing to it, which is critical to winning an election. But will this model work at the national scale?
Keep investors happy, is the mantra. China went through such simplistic developmental processes and is now paying a very heavy price as the quality of its environment and public health has deteriorated rapidly. The affluent who gained from this model of development are now fleeing to more livable cities, including in other countries, leaving to those who cannot afford to flee to suffer consequences. Such developmental juggernauts roll with monstrous pace and it is impossible to correct them mid-course.
It is however true that the central critique of Modi’s model, as presented here, could be applicable in case of so many other states in India too. Orissa has a long history of environmental conflict over the Posco investment. The damage being wrought in the name of energy security and power in states like Uttarakhand and Maharashtra, with the tacit support of the various investing states, is no secret. In Karnataka and Himachal rampant diversion of forest land for dams, industrial or other non-forest purposes is widespread, and yet the ruling regimes do not seem to want to contain the damage. In all these states development is not substantially more pro-justice and pro-equity than in Modi's Gujarat.
And yet, none of these other states or political parties or leaders in power in these states have held up their developmental models as universally applicable or desirable for the country as a whole. Nor has media extolled any of these as the one to emulate. Only Modi and the BJP have made the case out of Gujarat for India as a whole. Successfully marketing development in Gujarat as inclusive and thus necessary for the entire country, is the mythology that we must all be seriously concerned about.
The adverse and irreversible consequences of reckless industrialisation and infrastructure development have been successfully hidden from the wider world by a team that has managed the Modi wave. They have succeeded in meticulously managing the media to promote Gujarat as an unprecedented success story. TV channels uncritically hype this “success”, possible only in a medium where catch-phrases are everything and qualifying what one says is tedious and distracting.
Even the mainstream print media has shockingly shied away from interrogating Modi's claims of success for years now, and seems to have left the task to a few independent civil society organisations that now remain in Gujarat. Opposition parties, too, have been strangely reticent on contesting the “success” of Gujarat’s claims, leading one to suspect if corporations that benefit from Modi's model of development are responsible in managing such tactical silences.
Modi's messages of change are simplistic and deliberately meant to be that way. It is delivered with such elan that even the hungry can dream they will have a well–stocked kitchen. It is like Aamir Khan advertising that thirst can be quenched with a Cola. In this kitschy journey, the BJP, RSS and the rest of the Hindutva family have tagged along, rather opportunistically.
The old guard in the BJP, RSS etc are clueless about Modi's ideas of making change happen. Some are worried even of its consequences, as is evident in the obvious discomfiture of Advani, Joshi and other stalwarts. Modi talks about inclusive development, of assured power and water supply for all, without any due-diligence of the viability of such promises. Such promises don't cost anything, not especially if one is riding a wave of massive investment in industrial and infrastructure sectors, unmindful of their social and environmental consequences.
For the RSS, which has always championed a swadeshi paradigm of development, Modi's model of growth is so contradictory to its core philosophy that it would shudder at the thought of discussion of such matters in its shaakas. But the RSS is a shrewd political entity, and is willing to live with such contradictions, if in the end 'the Modi way' delivers their overarching project of supremacist and intolerant Hindutva.
The mistake Modi will not make
Now that Narendra Modi is Prime Minister of India, and has promised to replicate what he did in Gujarat all over the country, one can expect an unleashing of a developmental paradigm that does not have time to listen and will not care to comprehend its consequences. The unmitigated urbanisation, infrastructure development and reckless industrialisation that has been the hallmark of change in Gujarat, will be dominant forces working at a national scale. Not to deliver on this election promise would be to risk defeat in the next one, a mistake Modi will not make.
The people of India did vote for change from the administrative ineptness, policy paralysis and the utter lack of charisma that Manmohan Singh in the UPA II epitomised. But I am not sure at all that they voted for the NaMo version of developmental juggernaut. In any case the Indian electorate must now be prepared to accept a slew of mega infrastructure and industrial projects that Modi will announce as his method of transforming India.
These will include 8-laning of inter-city high-growth corridors, interlinking rivers, glitzing up urban thoroughfares, unleashing real estate to revitalise inner-city areas for the rich, unprecedented support for thermal and nuclear power generation, comprehensive industrialisation and financialisation of agriculture and food supply chains, and a transformation of governance where centralised administrative “efficiency” will prevail over representative decision making. This is the India Modi has promised and he is well aware that an anti-incumbency tsunami will devastate him if he does not deliver on his electoral promises.
1. Order of the Supreme Court of India dated 13th April 2013 in Centre for Environmental Law (WWF) vs. Union of India and ors., IA No. 100 in W.P. (Civil) 337/1995.