Before looking at "What the Modi juggernaut entails," according to Leo Saldanha, let us address the issues that seem to bother him. I will put them in two categories: the first, Saldanha's concern about the poor and the displaced, who, he says, are not only denied the benefits of Modi's "idea of development," but are also victims of it; and the second, the 'masquerading' and 'hype' that characterises the Modi 'myth,' and the motives behind it.

In the Sabarmati instance, Saldanha says he had seen the river soon after the post-Godhra riots. It was, "flowing weakly and slush with dirt," and he was "worried about the fate of the poor who lived along its banks in rather ghettoised circumstances." He went there a couple of years ago and notes that "the Sabarmati river front had also been dressed up and the river flowed surprisingly full, and clean.

But he notes this 'dressing up' of the river front with dismay: "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 (bus rapid transit system) now sliced through with restless urgency, had also vanished." This is where Saldanha's heart is and who can deny that it is in the right place?

But could this be an issue of poor resettlement and not of wrong development? It cannot be any ecologist's case that the river-front should have human settlements.

The development vs habitat debate is a global one, complex and even if Saldanha returns to the theme more than once in his article, he only underlines the difficulty of the question with the illustrative problem rather than any alternative solution.

The Sabarmati riverfront. Pic:Harshit Gohil/Wikimedia

For instance, he quotes an NGO representative: “18,000 hectares of grazing pastures have been diverted to industrialisation by Modi in the past decade in the Mundra region alone,” and adds his own comment: "This has decimated hundreds of pastoral families, whose suffering remains invisible to the world." Saldanha himself does not make them visible, nor does he suggest an alternative model of industrialisation.

The second category of Saldanha's issues are more troubling. He does not like Narendra Modi and he is entitled to his opinions. But he could be accused of being prejudiced. He says there is "no grace in Modi's style of functioning" and that "there is a rather brutish exuberance about him", but then continues with a contradictory idea that "he has literally masqueraded as representative of hope and change for the better." So how did the brutish lack of grace reveal itself to Saldanha? Could it be his case that he is able see through the mask, but the Indians who voted for Narendra Modi are fooled?

He is on similar ground when he says, "The lower classes have hardly benefited from Modi's developmental projects, and yet voted for him," and quotes another NGO representative, who explains, it is “Gujarati culture to ride a wave.” This, it seems to me, is snobbery, but then elsewhere in the article, Saldanha says: "A determining feature of modern political power is that if you do not wield it with care and respect, the electorate will punish you."

Towards the end of the article, he says: "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." So, does the electorate understand, or does it not?

Narendra Modi. Pic: Wikimedia

Saldanha accuses Modi of the following: Taking credit for other people's achievements, like in bringing the Narmada dam waters to Sabarmati or centrally-funded schemes; for serving corporate interests and using media hype to project his idea of development. But his own examples, yet again, seem to contradict these assumptions.

He argues that "Sabarmati's clean waters were brought through expensive canals from the distant Sardar Sarovar Dam built across the Narmada, a dam that the late Chimanbhai Patel..." So, Modi did bring the waters and the point about the cost of the canal is moot.

The author himself sounds strange when he talks of his recent impression of Ahmedabad:  "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." I am struck by the odd pairing of words, 'creepiness' and "roomy roads", "tackily wide" and "slick".

The nostalgia for "old trees" also needs to be contested: Which is 'greener': road-side trees or the bus transit system?

But where Saldanha is one-sided is on the central question itself: 'What the Modi juggernaut entails'. What he believes to be wrong about the Modi model could be held as right by many people, certainly all those who voted for him. Sample these: "Keep investors happy, is the mantra." Who wants to keep investors unhappy?

"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." But China has certainly made life much, much better for its own millions, on every human development indicator.

These are Saldanha's problems: "unmitigated urbanisation, infrastructure development and reckless industrialisation... a slew of mega infrastructure and industrial projects that Modi will announce as his method of transforming India...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".

Excepting the part where he adds 'for the rich', I'm afraid these appear rather like "solutions".

Finally, from the Modi particular, Saldanha dilutes his case even further by acknowledging that his "central critique of Modi's model" could apply to other states too - he mentions Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh: "In all these states development is not substantially more pro-justice and pro-equity than in Modi's Gujarat." But Saldanha's crucial concern is that "only Modi and the BJP have made the case out of Gujarat for India as a whole." However, "the adverse and irreversible consequences of a reckless industrialisation and infrastructure" that he foresees in this article seem to serve the cause of Modi, rather than Saldanha's.