It seems that when the principal of the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi invited potential guests to deliver the annual Shri Ram Memorial Oration, the office of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi was the quickest to accept. To Modi’s many fans, that might show his efficiency, and his desire to reach out to young audiences beyond Gujarat. For the more cynical, it revealed another Modi attempt to accept any forum that might get him to Delhi, to present himself on the national stage.
The Gujarat chief minister is a politician, and not being in the Congress party, he can afford to have his fans reveal his ambition. His followers, particularly those who have formed a cult around him, see him as India’s next prime minister. If so, it is useful to read his text closely, to get a glimpse of his thinking and vision. And the interesting part about the speech is how devoid it is of big ideas, and how prosaic the text is, with some desperate attempts at the kind of humour that his speech-writers think young Indians like. Other than the mantra of “minimum government, maximum governance,” and the Star Wars-like abbreviation, P2G2 (pro-people good governance), you have to struggle to find originality. Much like what Deng Xiaoping said three decades ago, Modi’s view is: to get rich is glorious. Of course it is. The question is the means you deploy to get there, and what you do with the wealth you acquire or create.
In outlining his credentials, Modi was candid, taking much credit for what the state has achieved. He reminded the students in Delhi that the milk in their tea came from Gujarat, without mentioning that he had personally little to do with it. Those bovine creatures weren’t dry before 2001, the year Modi became chief minister. The credit for that White Revolution goes to the late Verghese Kurien who built the state’s dairy industry over decades, making the country among the biggest producers of milk in the world. He referred to the 5 Fs—farm, fibre, fabric, fashion, foreign—as if nobody had heard of vertical integration in Gujarat (or elsewhere) before he became the chief minister. He talked of his state’s impressive agricultural growth (tomatoes in Kabul; okra in Krakow) which didn’t spurt only after his assumption of office—rather, it had much to do with the completion of the Sardar Sarovar dam, the cost of which others have borne: financial, Indian taxpayers; social, tens of thousands of displaced villagers.
Quick to accept praise for the achievements of his state’s enterprising people, Modi is prompt to draw a line when it comes to taking any blame. Gujarat still has poor; it has undernourished children; and it has a religious divide among communities so deep that they might as well be living in different countries.
Modi exhorted the young to prosper by following their dreams, by seizing opportunities, by not relying on the government. He stressed the individual, rightly emphasizing that individual effort is important to realize any collective good. There is nothing wrong with pursuing individual success either. But the Gujarati asmita, or pride, also lies in remembering those left behind. Gujarati businesses don’t only build temples or feed monks and nuns as their acts of charity; they have contributed to hospitals, donated to circulating libraries, built museums, funded libraries, supported literary magazines that broke new ground and offered patronage to artists. They knew that money had a purpose beyond getting rich and looking after one’s own. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi called it trusteeship. It meant investing in the community and making everyone feel part of it. It also led to good industrial relations, where strikes were the last resort, not the first option. Enlightened industrialists helped build the fine base; far-sighted organizers of industrial workers, working women, and farmers and tribal groups, like Arvind Buch, Ela Bhatt and Indulal Yagnik, ensured that the base remained firm.
The audience inside the hall cheered him. But many outside jeered him. For hundreds of students were protesting outside, criticizing Modi’s presence on their campus because of the 2002 riots under his watch. The police prevented them by barricading the venue, and the demonstrators said that student activists allegedly from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, hurled abuses at them, threatening the women protesters that they’d experience just what had happened in Gujarat (but in far cruder language). The police immediately arrested the women. Some of them say they were groped at the police station.
But how can you blame Modi for that? How could the man, who his devotees say had nothing to do with the violence in 2002, be held responsible for what people claiming to support him did outside the college where he spoke? And is that the shape of things to come, of a leader addressing the cult, while some women protesters get molested and are threatened with rape by boorish young men, while the men in uniform snigger?
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi-