It shows the deep sense of insecurity and, to some extent, an inferiority complex, among the easily excitable followers of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, that they feast over statistics of investment commitments made by businesses and government officials at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit.
The emphasis is on who came (European governments) and who didn’t (some public sector undertakings) and who left quietly (delegates from Pakistan), than the more real achievement of Modi—winning a fourth electoral term. And that’s because the cult surrounding Modi takes the voters for granted, and is eager to earn accolades from abroad.
Witness the laughable mobilization a year ago, to get people to vote for Modi as one of the most influential people in the world, in Time magazine. Recall their thrill when a foreign publication considers him as a leader to watch. Look at the excitement when in a cable leaked on WikiLeaks, an American diplomat interprets Modi’s popularity and Gujarat’s growth, while ignoring the same government’s criticism of Gujarat’s handling of 2002 riots in similar cables. And notice their deep sense of dejection that in spite of lobbying the US government, its State Department simply won’t issue the man a visa, so that he can address motel owners in Hoboken, New Jersey, or Paris, Texas, or Kansas City, Kansas. Indeed, it is pathetic when a leader is considered to have arrived if the US government lets him in. (And so what if it did? Americans don’t vote in India’s national elections.)
It is in that context that I find the excitement in Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad over getting Britain to “re-establish” contact with the Gujarat government amusing. First, Britain has relations with India, not with its individual states. Britain doesn’t exchange ambassadors with sub-sovereign entities, which Gujarat is. The excitement over the presence of Patricia Hewitt, an opposition leader in Britain (it should be remembered), and the High Commissioner, at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit has a symbolic value. It does not imply that millions of pounds of investment will follow. Nor does it mean Britain now actively encourages investment in Gujarat over other states. If it did discourage it, not many people appeared to know that. In the past decade alone, dozens of British companies have invested in Gujarat, in spite of the so-called “boycott” of Gujarat’s political leadership, just as they have invested in other parts of India and beyond. British Gas had set up shop in the 1990s, and Formica has been around since 1962. If the British government did not want companies to invest in India, clearly Mott MacDonald (in 2000), Cairn Energy (since 2003), D&H Engineering (since 2005), HR Wallingford (in 2007), and Shell, among others, didn’t get that memo.
And which is as it should be, because “directed” investment never does much good to investors, and investors voting with their wallets inevitably make smarter decisions than investors voting as per government diktats. Just as comprehensive, blunt sanctions are counter-productive, so are decisions made when influenced by the state.
And at no stage over the past decade did Britain prevent business ties with Gujarat, as the partial list of British companies investing in Gujarat shows. None was prevented from access to credit, or export finance, or any other domestic incentives in the UK. Read high commissioner James Bevan’s speech closely: there’s not one direct, personal, effusive mention of Modi of the sort captains of Indian industry handed him, as though they were addressing a Gandhi scion and were members of the Congress Working Committee; in Bevan’s speech, there is deserved fulsome praise for the state’s people’s dynamism; there is a call to forge closer ties. If Modi’s fans think it is an endorsement, I won’t interrupt their dream. Indeed, the ties are bilateral—many Gujarat-based businesses have invested in Britain, in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, software, healthcare, and engineering. The return of Britain to Gujarat is, to paraphrase the Bard, Much Ado About a Routine Thing.
Investors who have put their money in Gujarat have done so because it makes sense, just as those putting money in other states have. For a state as soundly administered since its formation over 50 years ago with an infrastructure that was always superior to its neighbours; a bureaucracy that had always been cooperative to entrepreneurs; where large projects were the norm since Amul, since Gujarat State Financial Corporation mobilized resources; since one of the country’s first export zones was set up here and with its vast coastline and seafaring culture, it would require spectacular incompetence to mess things up.
Modi’s chief characteristic appears to lie in letting people do what they want—be they businesses seeking profit, or—let us be honest about it—be they people seeking revenge.
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