In March 2012 many Gujaratis and many other "patriotic" Indians rejoiced for Narendra Modi was on the cover of Time magazine. As someone ecstatically tweeted: “West finally awaken[s]. Hindu Fighter gets highlighted." India might be the elephant awakening from its slumber, but what better way to confirm it than approbation from the West? And after all, Modi was merely the third Gujarati after Gandhi and Patel to be featured on the Time cover.
If Narendra Modi is going to inaugurate another chapter of India in 2014, then the last twelve months seem to have laid the groundwork for that. It started with the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a US-based think tank report, although basing itself largely on secondary sources, choosing to term Gujarat as "Perhaps India's best example of effective governance and impressive development…" This was followed by a bigger encomium: praise from the Managing Director of The Brookings Institution, USA--ranked as the most influential think tank in the world-- William J. Antholis. And then the Time story happened.
Even at home, the chorus of Modi as PM has grown louder and it is not just among corporate heads. In a survey conducted by India Today in January this year, 24 percent respondents chose Modi as the prime ministerial candidate (compared to the 17 percent support for Rahul Gandhi, and the 12 percent support that he had last year). And although the monkey of Gujarat 2002 is hardly off his back, Modi has claimed a moral victory in the SIT's clean chit to him. So if he can surmount the seething troubles within his own party as well as NDA against his candidature for the top job, Modi appears all set for it.
Despite the fact that Narendra Modi is such a divisive figure, the single factor that has propelled him to national and international limelight is his association with the word "development". He might be complicit in state-sponsored massacre of his own citizens, but ultimately, he is seen as a deliverer of development, the Vikas Purush. And what does development mean? As the CRS report puts it, it is about "streamlining economic processes, removing red-tape, curtailing corruption and managing heavy investment in modern roads, power infrastructure and an annual growth of 11 percent"? Or development, as the Time story puts it, is about "good planning" (found in abundant measure in Gujarat and which is exactly lacking in "so much of India").
And it is this development that delivers "faster growth than almost any place on earth, including most of China" and almost 8000 MOUs signed in 2011 worth $ 450 billion that makes Antholis, come away after meeting Modi with the "thinking that this was a man America needed to know better." It is this development that makes Gujarat, as an Economist story put it, "India's Guangdong".
What is fascinating in this discourse of development that is constructed, internationally (and nationally, of course) around Modi is that how seriously empty it is of any real understanding of development. Of course, development would have to have some of the features that were breathlessly mentioned above. But what is shocking is how brazenly this discourse promotes the notion of development as merely economic growth. There is a complete ignorance of the other aspects of development, specifically to do with human development and related to health, education, gender equity and so on, or that these could be negatively affected by the same processes that produce stupendous economic growth rates. When they get a mention, they are reduced to a footnote. One has to note that the powerful opinion makers represented by leading international media and think tanks speak in terms of development as only economic growth/GDP/GNP when attempts to go beyond such narrow understandings to broader (even if not perfect) measurements like the Human Development Index (HDI) were begun more than two decades ago.
A cursory look at the social and human development indicators of Gujarat will disabuse us of the warped understanding of development propagated by Modi and his admirers. A state that has had stupendous economic growth rates in the last three decades has seen a deceleration in human development in the same period! It is quite an incredible paradox. If Gujarat was ranked 4 among major Indian states in HDI in 1981 now it is down to 8. In UNDP's newly formulated inequality-adjusted HDI (2011) Gujarat is ranked 9 in education and 10 in health in a group of 19 major states (it is 5th in the income category). In terms of the HDI rate of improvement from 1999 to 2008, Gujarat is ranked 18 among 23 states. In the first India State Hunger Index (authored by the International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC, and published in 2009) Gujarat is 13 out of 17 states and ahead of only Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Bihar. Is that not a shocking piece of statistic for a state that is growing at 11 percent per annum? A hardly known fact about Gujarat is that it has been at the bottom tier of states in terms of social sector expenditure for some time, and in fact was the last among all the states in 2011-2012 (Reserve Bank of India figures)-- definitely, a contributory factor to its poor performance in human development.
The foreign admirers of Modi might express some sort of displeasure at his alleged complicity in communal pogroms (thus the status quo about his visa to the United States), but fundamentally they converge on the idea of development. Thus they let Modi appropriate its meaning.
While the stellar economic growth rates of Gujarat are worth paying attention to (even here, the international opinion makers have ignored Gujarat's good economic performance in the pre-Modi era, and also have ignored other Indian states which have done equally well), what is a bigger puzzle is the paradox of Gujarat's high economic growth rates and low human development indicators (the negative implications of which are always excessive for marginalized groups like adivasis, dalits and Muslims). The inability to translate economic gains into social welfare gains is a serious anomaly. It merely reinforces the point that has been established for sometime, but ignored in the circles of policymakers and powerbrokers, that smoother roads, better tele-density, and electric connectivity do not necessarily translate into lower rates of hunger, poverty, infant mortality and malnutrition, or lower gender disparity. In short, economic growth is not equivalent to development. Nevertheless, stories like that of the Time magazine continue to see good planning as leadership with the "ability to get things done"-- but only in the economic sphere. It also does not matter that this ability might mean a technocratic subversion of democratic processes. After all, in its rose-tinted view, this ability has made Gujarat "India's most industrialized and business-friendly territory" without "the land conflicts... that often paralyze growth elsewhere in the nation."
The international opinion is off the mark when it sees, as Antholis does, Narendra Modi as "pushing New Delhi and not following [it]", or as the Economist does, "so many things work[ing] properly in Gujarat that it hardly feels like India.
In fact the same paradoxes that characterize India animate Gujarat as well, but in a more exaggerated fashion. The country has also seen stellar economic growth rates with abysmal movement in human development since 1991.
It is commendable that with 5 percent of India's population, Gujarat contributes to 22 percent of India's exports. Whatever credit that is due to Narendra Modi for this has to be given to him. But any rational and balanced assessment of development in Gujarat has to also take into account the other side which has been submerged in myth-making. If the fact that Gujarat has the highest number of domestic airports in the country should attract attention the fact that it does so poorly, for example, in child malnutrition should also be of equal concern. Unfortunately, the latter is not something that can be eliminated with "single window" clearances!
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