How Gujarat became synonymous with Modi
Modi’s embodiment of Gujarati asmita since his first shot at power in the state has dwarfed all else, forming two conflicting narratives, old and new, with the victories and tragedies that define them
"We built this Gujarat,” roared Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi at an election rally in his home state soon after the poll dates were announced. The PM’s rather grandiose assertion, virtually taking credit for Gujarat’s development, fits in with a familiar pattern. Over the last two decades, Modi has consciously projected himself as the CEO of Gujarat. Even the dramatic move from Gandhinagar to 7, Lok Kalyan Marg in the Capital, did not shake the unique bond that Modi cemented with 60 million-plus Gujaratis. And when elections in Gujarat are in the air, the PM relishes re-enacting the role by which he earned his political spurs: As the ultimate embodiment of Gujarati asmita (pride).
Since 2002, when Modi first stepped into the electoral arena as chief minister (CM), he has repeatedly invoked Gujarati self-respect as his calling card. Recall the Gujarat Gaurav Yatra of 2002 when Modi equated any criticism of his government’s handling of communal riots to an orchestrated campaign by “outsiders” against the “people of Gujarat”. In 2007, too, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) slogan was Jitega Gujarat (Gujarat will win), a reference to what Modi said was the discriminatory attitude of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. Or, the 2017 campaign, when the BJP countered the Congress’s tagline, Vikas gando thayo chhe (development has gone mad), with its own: “Hu Chhu Gujarat, Hu Chhu Vikas!” (I am Gujarat, I am development).
In each instance, the political strategy is obvious: Create an emotional connect between Modi’s leadership and the Gujarati voter to the point where the interests of the two are indistinguishable. As Gujarat’s longest-serving CM and now a PM in his second term, Modi’s political equity as Gujarat’s neta number 1 is undeniable. Be it escorting a foreign head of State to Ahmedabad or inaugurating a slew of big-ticket projects, the larger-than-life PM persona co-exists with his image as a Gujarati son of the soil.
But is Modi the sole builder of modern Gujarat? After all, it was when Chimanbhai Patel was CM in the early 1990s that the pace of Gujarat’s industrialisation accelerated. For example, Gautam Adani got his early break during the Chimanbhai administration. Another predecessor, Madhavsinh Solanki, focused on uplifting socially and economically backward castes while providing welfare benefits such as midday meal schemes. Balwant Rai Mehta pioneered the panchayat system, while Hitendra Desai contributed immensely to the cooperatives sector. Even the BJP’s first Gujarat CM, Keshubhai Patel, fast-tracked port privatisation in his short tenure.
Yet, so overwhelming is the personality cult of Modi that it seems to dwarf all else. More realistically, the Modi years in Gujarat built on the solid foundations laid by far-sighted leaders and efficient bureaucrats to create a robust growth engine: Gujarat rose from the fifth richest state in 1991-92 to third richest by 2011-12. With successful power reforms, widening of road networks, and scaled-up irrigation schemes, the Modi era in Gujarat had its achievements.
But the Gujarat model also had areas of darkness: Sharp interregional disparities, a concentration of wealth and opportunity in urban centres, administrative inefficiencies in municipal governance (underlined, for instance, in the Morbi tragedy), uneven public health facilities (cruelly exposed during the pandemic), and an education system still playing catch-up (for example, the 2018-19 All India Survey on Higher Education ranked Gujarat 26th among 36 states and Union Territories in pupil-teacher ratio). Malnutrition numbers, too, remain a concern: The National Family Health Survey (2019-20) recorded that nearly 39.7% of children under five suffered from being underweight, as against 45% in 2005-06. The national figure was 32.1% in 2019-20 and 42.5% in 2005-06, respectively.
When 1.7 million people applied for 3,400 vacancies for the job of a talati (village administrator) earlier this year, the grim reality of rural youth unemployment was exposed.
Even more contentious is how an “old” Gujarat espousing Gandhian values of social harmony is now trapped in the divisive agenda of a naya (new) Gujarat. Modi supporters point out how, in the last two decades, instances of riots were negligible, proof that political stability ensured a firmer grip on law and order. But such is the dominance of the post-2002 political model that its impact on intercommunity relations is visible: The stark geographical borders between Hindu and Muslim localities have hardened with time, and a mix of fear and hatred has driven a wedge between communities, creating an acute sense of us-versus-them to the point where Hindus feel wholly empowered and Muslims further marginalised.
Grisly evidence of this ominous divide was provided last month when a group of Muslim men — accused of violently disrupting a garba event in a village in Kheda in central Gujarat — were tied to a pole and publicly flogged by plain-clothes policemen even as the gathered crowds cheered wildly. While a police probe was ordered after the video went viral, government ministers praised the flogging. Is this defence of brazen mob justice also a part of the “new” Gujarat?
Post-script: On the road during the 2017 elections, we stopped at a tribal-dominated village near Bharuch. Many villagers had scarcely heard of then CM Vijay Rupani and were convinced that Modi was still running the state. Rupani was barely visible on most BJP posters. As one senior BJP leader pointedly remarked to us, “Modi is Gujarat and Gujarat is Modi”, bringing back memories of the “Indira is India” Congress slogan of the 1970s.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal