Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Separating fact from fluff about Narendra Modi

How does the foreign reporter view India’s politics in this period? The Economist has weighed in on Gujarat chief minister (CM) Narendra Modi’s 2014 ambitions. The story is headlined “Steamroller—A Controversial Leader Has Ambitions to Be India’s Next Prime Minister".

The story is disappointing because the outsider, especially the professional, is expected to observe India with a colder eye. The material was available for a great story, but what came out was ordinary and a waste of time. Let me tell you why.

The paper starts by referring to Modi as “the son of a low-caste chai-wallah who became a lowly member of the Hindu nationalist movement".

Modi is a Ghanchi, from the trading caste of oil-pressers and grain sellers called Teli in north India. Ghanchis are categorized as Other Backward Class. The Economist has confused this with caste. Ghanchis are “savarna" (upper caste) in Gujarat. If even this Manu Smriti category becomes low-caste, then 90% of India is low-caste.

Second, one can only join the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as a lowly member. One cannot join it as vice-president.

Speaking of recent developments, The Economist says Modi “alone among chief ministers muscled himself onto a pair of important party committees". This is, according to the paper, “evidence of his growing clout". Actually, it is merely the repeat of what happened in 2006, when also Modi was on the parliamentary board. Did he muscle himself in then?

The Economist then flies the kite that some in our media have that Modi “will probably run from beyond Gujarat, in a constituency in Uttar Pradesh...."

I find this difficult to swallow. The background is that Modi only runs from safe seats. He does not even contest from his hometown because he’s afraid of losing. He ejected one of Gujarat’s sitting ministers and grabbed his seat in Ahmedabad which was secure. It is likely that if he contests from Uttar Pradesh, the non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parties, Samajwadi, Bahujan Samaj and Congress, will immediately gang up against Modi’s candidacy and give him a thrashing. Why would he risk this?

The paper advises Modi to “appeal beyond his base to an emerging urban middle class worried about jobs, development and corruption". I would argue that this is his base—the urban middle class convinced that government is corrupt, they are honest and Modi is the solution. The question is: Have they previously voted on these issues? Or have they come to worry about jobs, development and corruption only in 2013?

About the positive qualities of Gujarat’s chief minister, the paper says Modi’s “outsider status is appealing". To whom? In a nation where voting is demonstrably confessional, and on the basis of caste and language, to whom exactly does the outsider appeal? This is Beltway cliché, the sort of thing said about American politicians, and not applicable here.

The Economist says “the BJP may bet heavily" on Modi but cautions it that “there are risks. He could be rejected by Muslims and moderate Hindus". This is patronizing. What is a moderate Hindu and how does he vote? Does he reject his caste when he votes? Is the BJP acceptable to Muslims without Modi? In which state has this happened?

Like most such reporting, The Economist distances itself from some of its slightly less baked pronouncements. So it is “observers" who “expect a more presidential style of contest than usual". I cannot wait. Where in India may we expect a more presidential-style contest? Tamil Nadu? Andhra Pradesh? West Bengal? Kerala? The North-East? Orissa? Bihar? Chhattisgarh?

Even while writing about what should have been its strong suit, the economy, The Economist fumbles. One of Modi’s strengths is apparently that “migrants come for jobs" to Gujarat. But they have always come in what has always been a highly industrialized state. The small textile business my family ran in the 1980s in Surat and Ankleshwar was staffed with people from Uttar Pradesh. This was the case with all the factories in those areas. Nothing new. Does Gujarat have more inward economic migration than Maharashtra or Karnataka or Delhi? No, if you’re thinking white-collar jobs.

Both in the piece and in the editorial linked to it, The Economist says, “In his time as chief minister there, income per person in the state has more than doubled."

But it has more than doubled for all of India since Modi became CM in 2001. What is special about Gujarat in this period? The urge to show Gujarat as an outlier (and admittedly it is) isn’t backed by anything substantive.

In the editorial, The Economist finally offers insight. “Mr Modi has never voiced regret for what happened. Perhaps this is because, horrible though it is to accept, his reputation as a scourge of uppity Muslims explains the devotion to him of the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist hard core...."

Correct. Modi’s appeal is to Hindus who are pleased he has put Indian Muslims in their place.

All the rest of it is unimportant.

Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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