Is Narendra Modi ’s triumph in Gujarat a vote for economic development? If we take the numbers for the growth in Gujarat’s state domestic product provided by the Central Statistics Office, the average growth rate in the five years between 2006-07 and 2010-11 works out to 9.3%. The figures for 2011-12 haven’t yet been put up. The average rate of growth of the state domestic product for Himachal Pradesh, which rejected the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was also high, at 8.4% over the same period. Uttarakhand, where the BJP lost earlier this year, had an average growth rate of—hold your breath—14.5% between 2006-07 and 2010-11. These are rates of growth of gross state domestic product at constant 2004-05 prices. (I’ve taken the annual percentage growth rates over the period and divided them by five to arrive at the average, which is strictly not kosher. But you get more or less the same numbers if you consider compounded annual growth rates.)
Many other states have had high growth rates over the same period. Bihar, for instance, had average growth of 10.9%. Tamil Nadu, which had an election in 2011 that dislodged the ruling party, had a growth rate of 9.3%, the same as that of Gujarat.
True, Gujarat’s economy is much larger than that of Himachal Pradesh or Bihar, so it has the disadvantage of starting from a higher base. But then Tamil Nadu’s economy is bigger than Gujarat’s. Also, more tellingly, Maharashtra, the state with the biggest economy, grew at an average rate of 9.6% over the same period.
So the numbers show it wasn’t just development that was responsible for the BJP’s landslide victory in Gujarat, although that undoubtedly played a part. The other ingredient in the winning formula was Hindutva. Modi is not just a champion of development or of Hindutva—he has successfully combined the two. It is this Hindutva rate of growth that Modi is riding on.
Development alone is not enough. There have been no rhapsodies to economic growth in Maharashtra, in spite of its rate of growth being higher than Gujarat’s. There were no hosannas to Manmohan Singh in the three years when growth in the country went above 9%.
But there’s much more to Modi’s victory than slick advertising. What Modi delivers to many urban middle-class voters, his biggest and most vociferous supporters, is not just jobs and prosperity, but also a sense of self-worth. Man does not live by dhoklas alone. It is Hindutva that supplies them this sense of self-worth, a sense of pride in their culture. For what, after all, is the point of beating the West hollow in economic growth if in the process we become just like them?
This mix of Hindutva and growth, this combination of a liberal economy and a conservative society, has enormous appeal for the urban middle classes, especially the large part of it not very comfortable with Westernization. There was a time when we used to believe that industrialization and economic growth would lead to a more modern, more open society—recall Jawaharlal Nehru calling steel mills and dams the temples of modern India? He was, of course, completely wrong—it turns out that what we want are shopping malls and temples.
Nor is this potent mix of high growth and cultural revivalism confined to India. Take, for instance, the unholy marriage between Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. The head of the Orthodox Church has called Putin’s rule a miracle. And look at neighbouring China, where a government, Communist only in name, has been busy reviving Confucianism and whipping up patriotic sentiment while delivering very high growth.
It’s not difficult to understand the reasons for this display of cultural revivalism. Development is a violent process, uprooting people from their age-old moorings. The old certainties are dissolved, new opportunities give rise to new fears. As someone said long ago, all that is holy is profaned, all that has been solid for centuries melts into air. In short, it destroys traditional society. Faced with unprecedented and rapid change, people want the comforts of an ideology that will allow them the benefits of development while at the same time provide a safe cultural haven, however illusory, against the wrenching changes in society that it ushers in. It is the opium of the classes.
There is another important factor. Despite all the rhetoric about a resurgent Hinduism, the inconvenient truth is that caste continues to divide Hindu society. That is where the cult of the strongman comes in. During the recent elections, Modi asked the electorate to vote for him, rather than for his party or the local candidate. There is a longing for a strong leader who can cut through the complexity of caste and class and get things done.
It isn’t inevitable that the rise of the urban middle class will mean a shift to the Gujarat model. Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Kerala are even more urbanized than Gujarat and have seen a different kind of politics. But Modi has the backing of big business, he is fast becoming a darling of the young and increasingly affluent middle class, and the Right has always used religion and patriotism to mobilize the masses. It is doubtful, as many political commentators have said, if Modi will be able to lead a coalition in Delhi. But he has positioned himself well as the natural leader of the political right.
Manas Chakravarty looks at trends and issues in the financial markets. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org