Home >Opinion >Online Views >Narendra Modi: right time, right place

No politician in recent memory evokes reactions as extreme as does Narendra Modi, the three-term chief minister of Gujarat. His critics believe he can do no good. And his vociferous fan following insists he can walk on water.

It is tough to make an objective assessment of the man, especially if you don’t belong to either side. Yet, that is just what is needed, especially because Modi may lead the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into the next general election, which could happen any time between now and next May when it is officially due.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in between.

Indeed, I have been asked questions about Modi so often in recent months, and in so many fora, that I have lost count. My response has always been the same: Right time, right place.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would understand this.

In its first tenure, the alliance lived out a dream, and the growth of the Indian economy averaged 8.4% a year, powering it into the exclusive preserve of countries with a gross domestic product (GDP) in excess of a trillion dollars.

Even the most diehard UPA fan is unlikely to claim that the new regime took charge, and, just like that, India’s economic growth zoomed. Instead, the growth was an outcome of the structural reform that transpired over the previous two decades that enabled the Indian economy to exploit the opportunities made available by a surging world economy and the global gush of liquidity.

Something similar is playing out for Modi.

His ascendance over the last decade and more has assiduously fed an image of a politician with a difference. Not only has he not been stung by a corruption scandal (a rarity these days), his no-nonsense style, which discourages hangers on and favour seekers, is refreshingly different from that of most other politicians.

There is, of course, the matter of the 2002 riots in his state and his involvement or non-involvement in them, but these have become so much part of the Modi myth that his critics exclusively focus on this, while his supporters completely ignore it.

Modi’s resounding win, in December last year, to return to a third term in power came even as the UPA was, thanks to its own internal contradictions, imploding amid a raft of allegations of misuse of public office and mismanagement of the Indian economy. The contrast could not have been better from Modi’s point of view—it has made him shine brighter than he already is. What has also added to his lustre is the fact that during his tenure Gujarat has grown in the double digits .

But is all this on account of Modi’s doing? Without taking away his contribution—immense, especially when contrasted with the administrative nightmare of the UPA’s rule—it is a fact that Modi has been the recipient of a harvest of good coincidences. By the time he took charge, he inherited an enviable combination of fortuitous circumstances: the successful construction of the Narmada dam, a recently overhauled government structure and the beginnings of an economic boom, both nationally and globally. Then there is the omnipresent entrepreneurial instinct of the average Gujarati.

The availability of water from the Narmada dam has been crucial in the state’s ability to ramp up its irrigation capabilities. Between 1990-91 and 2000-01, the growth in irrigated area for food crops and non-food crops was 3.9% and 28.6%, respectively; however, in the six-year period ended 2006-07, there was a surge in the growth in irrigated area by 65.6% for food crops and 50.6% for non-food crops. The numbers say it all.

At the same time, the fruits of serious structural reform of public finances (fiscal rectitude) and infrastructure (entry of private sector in power, introduction of mandatory metering and other such) that the state initiated from the mid-1990s had primed the state’s economy for take-off. The more interesting sub-text of these reforms initiated under the aegis of the Asian Development Bank (the first time that a multilateral agency loaned directly to a state government) is that it had bipartisan support—the BJP and the Congress inked a document committing to the blueprint for reforms with the promise that neither would tamper with it if elected to power. So when the Indian economy, led by a housing and construction boom, took off, Gujarat was probably the best placed to exploit the opportunity.

To Modi’s credit, he probably read the circumstances well and chose to be a facilitator. His pro-business approach only worked to reinforce the positive trends in the state economy, resulting in rapid growth in new investments and expansion of existing ones. Indeed, he was lucky to get the right kind of opportunity, but he was astute and industrious enough to take advantage of it (unlike the UPA in its second avatar that blew off its dream start in 2009).

Would Modi have been all he is in the absence of the right set of circumstances? Maybe, or maybe not.

That, though, is in the realm of speculation.

What matters is that Modi is a man who is in the right place at the right time.

And he seems to know it.

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