Narendra Modi and the myth of polarization
On Friday, the 13th of September, the principal opposition party in India declared its prime ministerial candidate for the impending national elections in 2014. Narendra Modi, who would challenge the current ruling coalition in 2014, has received significant media attention for several years, even while he occupied the chief ministerial office in one of India’s 28 states. He has frequently been characterized as divisive, Hindu supremacist and at times more charitably as popular but polarizing. The question that has received limited attention is whether he deserves these accolades and why have they been generously bestowed on him otherwise.
1 Is there a case for bias against Muslims?
The encomiums have frequently been employed to insinuate or even allege that he polarises the polity based on faith while appealing blatantly to majoritarianism. The facts however suggest otherwise. First, there is no denying that about 700 Muslims and 300 Hindus were consumed by communal riots in Gujarat while Modi was in once as chief minister.
The carnage has subsequently been comprehensively investigated, and rightly so. Yet, in course of the investigation, a task force monitored by the Supreme Court of India has not only absolved him of any omission or commission, but has complimented him for adopting the best possible measures for controlling the riots given the circumstances. He accomplished the latter even before he could establish full administrative control – the riots ensued merely four months after Modi assumed once.
It is also undeniable that the now infamous Gujarat riot was neither the first nor the last of its kind, neither was the destruction in life and property unprecedented given the long history of communal violence in India.
If at all, this has been the only instance where justice has been served; several high profile individuals across the political spectrum including from the Congress party, Modi’s political opponents, have been convicted. It would be worthwhile to note that Gujarat has suffered from major riots in 1969, 87, 89, 90, 92-5000 Muslims were massacred in 69 during a Congress regime-yet, first information reports have not been registered let alone convictions in any of the above. Under the watch of the Modi government, Gujarat has subsequently witnessed a decade of peace, growth and prosperity – the first in its history to be spared the taint of even a curfew.
The Sachchar committee has revealed that Gujarat ensures the economic and social well-being of its Muslim populace much better than large parts of India. Muslims in Gujarat have higher per capita incomes (Rs. 875 and Rs.668 per month in urban and rural areas respectively) than the national average (Rs. 804 and 553) as also several other states with substantial Muslim population like Uttar Pradesh (Rs. 662 in the urban area) and West Bengal (Rs. 748).
The percentage of Muslims living below the poverty line decreased from 54% in 1987- 88 to 34% in 2004 – 2005. The two districts with the highest number of Muslims, Bharuch and Kutch, in Gujarat are now among the fastest developing districts in India. In four major cities of Bharuch, 40% businessmen are Muslims and in Kutch, Muslims own 45% of ship building yard business. Owing to the tourism festivals in Kutch (like Rannotsav), the handicraft artists earned revenue of Rs 2 crore and 80% of the artists were Muslims.
The literacy rate among Muslims in Gujarat is 73.5% while the national average is 59.1%: On an average Muslim children between age 7 and 16 years receive secondary schooling for 4.29 years in Gujarat as compared to the national average of 3.26 years and 2.84, 2.60 and 2.07 years for West Bengal, UP and Bihar respectively. The government of Gujarat has employed substantially larger percentage of Muslims (5.4%) than West Bengal (2.1%), Delhi (3.2%) and Maharashtra (4.4%). Gujarat is one of two states where the percentage of Muslims (10.6%) in the police force is higher than in the general population (9.1%).
The historic third consecutive mandate Modi received reflected the support he enjoys among all sections of the society in Gujarat: 30% Muslims voted for his party which won in several constituencies with large Muslim populations. BJP won 40 of the 66 assembly constituencies where Muslim population varied from 10% to over 60%, and 6 out of 8 Muslim-majority constituencies. BJP’s Hindu candidates defeated the Muslim candidates of Congress in constituencies such as Bhuj and Wagra which have substantial Muslim population.
Subsequently, BJP swept the local body elections in Salaya a constituency with 90% Muslims and 27 seats; it won all 24 of the seats it contested. The membership in BJP’s minority wing has multiplied in the last few years.
A young, articulate thrice elected local body representative, Ms. Asma Khan Pathan, confirms that on a single day, the occasion of Mr. Modi’s birthday, 7000 Muslims joined in a single district, Kheda. It also turns out that several of the new inductees had suffered damages during the riots. Several influential Muslim voices from Gujarat like Zafar Sareshwalla (a leading entrepreneur), Asifa Khan (a Congress spokesper-son who switched her allegiance to BJP), Mufti Shabbir Ahmed Siddiqui (Imamof the Jama masjid in Ahmedabad) have narrated accounts on progress of Muslims in Gujarat.
A reputed member of the national minorities commission, V V Augustine from Kerala, has commended Modi’s initiatives that ensured peace and prosperity for minorities in Gujarat. And, Modi is yet to initiate a single legislative or administrative measure that discriminates based on faith.
2 A paradigm shift in Indian politics
All recent opinion polls indicate that Mr. Modi is currently the most favored choice of the electorate to lead the nation, with the Timesnow C-voter poll in July giving him 20 percentage point advantage over his nearest rival, the Gandhi scion, Rahul Gandhi. An opinion poll conducted in July by CSDS, an academic organization, dispels the myth that he is loathed in equal measure.
It revealed that across the political spectrum, every top ranking politician in India, is disliked by about 18 – 24% of the populace – astonishingly, Mr. Modi is the least disliked among them (18%). Yet, the divisive label continues to identify him in journalistic assessment if not in public perception. I submit that this evaluation is a direct consequence of the fact that his politics promises a paradigm shift from the current practices and therefore naturally disrupts certain established schools of thought.
2.1 Transition from politics of identity to politics of aspiration
First, politicians in India have traditionally sought mandate based on identity, either faith, caste or lineage. The prime minister of India has professed that practitioners of a certain faith, Muslims, have the first right to the nation’s resources. Several political entities have sought reservations in education and service sector based on faith, specifically, for Muslims. Political parties have been formed to represent the interests of specific caste groups, eg. the two pre-dominant parties in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, Samajvadi and Bahujan Samaj parties primarily associate with yadavs and dalits. Finally, the premier positions in the largest party, the Indian National Congress, have long been the prerogative of one family. This is where Modi has been unique.
He addresses the citizens in his state as Gujaratis without appealing to other identities. Moving beyond the symbolism, he has resolutely preserved the separation between the church and the state as mandated by the classical de_nition of secularism.
His government has demolished structures associated with his religious faith, Hinduism, simply because those illegally encroached on public property, and has suppressed vandalism against exhibitions organized by Pakistani artists even when it was spear-headed by certain Hindu bodies. Similarly, his government has judicially challenged scholarships administered preferentially based on faiths to minorities – it however provides scholarships based on economic dis-advantage which has benefitted members of all communities.
Last, but not the least, he has attained his current stature without ever appealing to his caste identity although he has originated from one of the most backward castes in his state. His ascent from a humble social and economic origin represents a politics of aspiration that is hitherto unprecedented in India.
2.2 Transition from politics of entitlement to politics of empowerment
Modi presents a welcome departure from the politics of entitlement to that of empowerment – he earned his mandate not only through good politics but also good economics. He has invested the state’s resources more on infrastructure and less on doles and subsidies. Gujarat is one of the few states in India where the infrastructure and facilities match those of developed economies.
The annual survey of India’s City-Systems (ASICS) has recently conferred four awards on Gujarat. The state received an award in the general category of overall quality of life and in the special category for quality of city and governance. Surat bagged the best city awards for quality of life and quality of city systems -based on cleanliness, mobility, pollution control, water supply network, public amenities, greenery, safety and efficacy of the urban local body there.
Gujarat has transcended to a power surplus state from a power deficient one through implementation of innovative generation and distribution strategies. The generation strategies have involved large scale harnessing of alternate energy sources such as solar and wind. Gujarat for example has Asia’s largest solar power park which generates 600 MW, 2/3 of India’s total solar power generation capacity.
The data released by the Indian Wind Energy Association (IWEA) reveals that Gujarat has registered the highest growth in India in wind power generation capacity in the last four years; the growth during 2011-2012 has been a whopping 36%: Curtailment of power theft through technology based monitoring has also helped solve the power crisis.
The measures were opposed tooth and nail by Bharatiya Kishan Sangh, the farmer’s wing of Modi’s own party their execution is therefore a testament to his decisive leadership and ability to transcend short-sighted electoral and political considerations. Pirating of power incidentally contributed to the largest blackout in human history when all of North India plunged into darkness for two days in July 2012 – Gujarat was isolated from this disaster which affected 600 million Indians.
Electricity companies incorporated on by Gujarat Electricity Board received multiple national awards in 2011 in the energy sector for instituting power sector reforms and uninterrupted power supply in rural areas (under Jyoti gram yojna) and innovative information technology metering applications Law and order and in particular gender crimes are one of the lowest in the state.
A media group, ABP, not traditionally supportive of Modi, has adjudged Rajkot as the safest city for women. All the above, in addition to a reduction of administrative corruption and red tape-a principle Modi espouses as minimum government and maximum governance- have enabled a sustained double digit economic growth during the last decade.
On an average, Gujarat’s economy grew by 10:3% over the last decade (2001?02 to 2010?11) with 10:7% growth in agriculture, 10:3% for industry and 10:9% for services. Remarkably Gujarat’s gross state domestic product grew by 11:58% with the industrial sector registering a 10% growth during 2010?11 while several economies in the world were deep into recession. It is thus natural that an overwhelming fraction (72%) of new jobs in India have been generated in Gujarat, organically.
In contrast, the subsidy based rural job guarantees provided by the Union government under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) scheme has turned out to be a fountainhead of corruption. In 2005, the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, headed by Modi’s political opponent, Sonia Gandhi, had adjudged Gujarat as the best state in terms of economic freedom index.
The decadal double digit growth in agriculture in a state that has traditionally suffered from water deficiencies constitutes a remarkable accomplishment. The growth has been realized through innovative water management.Data from the central ground water board shows that Gujarat is the only state where ground water level has considerably increased in the last 8 years.Rivers Narmada and Sabarmati have been inter-connected through a network of canals.
Over 5.5 lakh water management structures comprising of check dams, boribandhs and khet talavadis have been created in last 10 years and micro-irrigation schemes have covered 4.5 lakh hectares. The prime minister awarded Gujarat State Watershed Management Agency (GSWMA) an award for excellence in public administration for 2010-11 for its “Participatory Watershed Management Programme” initiative and the president conferred the total food grain production award in 2013. More importantly, the detriment of a severe drought that ravaged the neighboring Maharashtra in 2012 could be contained in Gujarat through the above deliberate measures. In fact, Modi won his third consecutive mandate amidst this drought, the most severe to have afflicted the state in a decade.
The benefits of this comprehensive growth and resolute efforts from the government has percolated to the social sector where Gujarat traditionally lagged behind other states. In 2011, the union ministry of urban development ansdinistry of housing and urban poverty alleviation adjudged Ahmedabad as the best City in the implementation of basic services to urban poor. Using the data released by the union ministry for women and child welfare, comptroller and auditor general (CAG) concluded in its report on the integrated child development scheme (ICDS) that Gujarat had the most substantial decrease in child malnourishment among all states in India, from 70.69% in 2007 to 38.77% in 2011.
Gujarat has arrested the severe decline in child sex ratio noticed between 1991 to 2001 (from 928 to 883 women per 1000 men), and in fact slightly enhanced it to 886 per 2011 census. The education sector, in particular primary education, has substantially reduced the drop out rates. The literacy rate of girls has increased by 13% and the school dropout rate has dropped by 29.77%; the dropout rate in primary schools is now 2% (per census 2001 and 2011 data).
Nation-wide surveys conducted by a reputed media group, India today, has thrice consecutively rated Modi as the best chief minister. Gujarat has secured various awards from international bodies like the United Nations, World Bank, Commonwealth Association of Public Administration and Management (CAPAM) and various ministries (eg, of power, non-conventional energy) of the politically hostile regime running the union government
2.3 Direct outreach to the electorate
Modi has introduced a model of communication with his electorate which is fundamentally new in the Indian context. The traditional outreach of politicians has been through media which has obliterated in due course a requisite professional separation between regimes in power and the fourth estate. This has in part contributed to several high profile media scandals in India including but not limited to allegations against several media icons of abuse of journalistic offices for political lobbying.
Modi has instead primarily relied on direct contact with his electorate through social media, a technology which is rapidly reshaping the evolving political landscape of India. His once maintains an easily navigable and informative website, which is again an exception rather than a norm in the Indian context. He has been one of the first Indian politicians to start his own blog and join social media platforms such as facebook and twitter. He has the largest social media following among all political leaders in India.
He conducted a well-received google-hangout right after president Obama of the United states and prime minister Julia Gillard of Australia. He has employed innovative campaigning strategies including multiple simultaneous rallies through 3-dimensional projections which has entered the Guinness book of records. It is only recently that several other political dispensations in India have taken recourse to outreach through technology. Modi has also generated his own constituencies that have so far not been appealed to as an aggregate.
First, through his technology outreach and even otherwise, he instantly connects with youth which constitutes a significant part of the demography in the young nation that India is. He had also effectively reached out to the women electorate in his state through a diverse set of women empowerment and outreach programs.
It is worthy of note that he enthusiastically embarked on one of his signature projects, the Kanya Kelavani girl child education scheme, fairly early during his regime, when women empowerment was yet to be the buzzword that it is now in Indian politics. He has long been donating to this initiative the proceeds from the auction of all the gifts he receives. Enrollment of girls in primary schools now matches that of their counterparts. Women constitute a significant part of all his rallies and voting percentage of women increased from 57% in 2007 to 68.9% in 2012 after his public call for the same.
Not surprisingly, some of the stringent critics of Modi, like Mahesh Langa, Aakar Patel, Rajdeep Sardesai have ceded that Modi commands a strong support base among the women in Gujarat. Recently, he has been addressing rallies designated for ex-servicemen, yet another sector that politicians routinely address in US, but rarely in India.
Modi has challenged the legacy of politics of identity and entitlement with that of aspiration and empowerment. He seeks mandate on the basis of a record of a decade of decisive, corruption-free governance rather than on the bloodline heritage of generations of prime ministers. He is a brand new concept in the Indian context and as such would naturally generate strong opinions among the electorate and perhaps obliterate neutrality. Some would contend that the conflict of ideas which he seeks to introduce would render Indian democracy the vigor that it desperately yearns for.
As a politician of conviction, like Mrs. Thatcher, he does not represent a consensus of the lowest common denominator that which welcomes only the least disagreeable – he may not need to either – democracies all over the world require leaders to win through a majority mandate. The die has been cast – let us wait for the verdict of the electorate!