If I belonged to the urban Gujarati middle class, I would vote for Narendra Modi.
Forget his ambitiousness, his obsession with showcasing himself, his proclivity to steamrolling dissent within the party and the government he heads and his manipulative traits. None of these take away much from Modi's contributions to urban Gujarat in the last ten years. He has been an effective chief minister, providing competent leadership to a state which is full of enterprise. Even his diehard detractors admit it grudgingly.The rural areas could be a different story though.
His continuation in power for so long – he is the longest serving chief minister of the state – is testimony to the fact that his appeal goes beyond narrow-focus Hindutva. If Gujarat is a global brand today and an alluring industrial destination, the credit for it should go to Modi. Gujarat was always a progressive state with a lot of entrepreneurial energy, but under him it has got a new, vibrant dimension.
How did he manage that?
"There have been visible differences ever since he took over. The business environment in the state has been better after 2003. He has ensured peace in a state prone to bouts of communal violence. Clearances are faster as are the processes of land acquisition and pollution control approvals, says Bhavesh Shah, senior journalist, putting Modi’s record at the helm in perspective.
"Kutch was reduced to rubble immediately after the earthquake of 2001. It is now a bustling industrial hub. Port development has been one of the most significant achievements of this government. Infrastructure has improved in and around the ports developed by the state government. Power cuts used to be a routine problem in places like Rajkot and Jamnagar but since 2002 the situation has changed. There’s better production and distribution of power. It is a bit expensive but at least the service is good. This has helped the industrialisation process,’’ he added.
Modi has ensured that by managing all the critical portfolios by himself. He is the state’s minister for petrochemicals, minister for ports, minister for industries and minister for energy. His achievements are reflected in the rapid growth of these sectors. He has been accused of promoting big industrial houses such as Reliance Industries, Adanis, Jindals and Tatas at the cost of small-and-medium-scale industries and adopting a policy that has not facilitated creation of jobs.
There is truth in the allegation. The industries he has been backing aggressively are not job intensive. "At this stage there’s jobless growth. But it’s a temporary phase. Once ancillary industries start coming up around these big players, there will be enough jobs for the youth. Modi’s vision is long term and it’s a sound one,’’ said a retired top bureaucrat who did not want to be named.
"Modi has been full of positive ideas. His urban development work has been impressive. He has made the best use of JNUURM funds and put to good use other central assistance. The BRTS, Kakaria lake and river front development are his notable achievements. Gujarat has developed under Modi, no doubt about that but if you look at the trend in the state there’s nothing miraculous about it. Also, you need to find whether the development has been uniform and equitable,’’ said senior journalist Ajay Umat.
Not many find fault with his development agenda, though many maintain that he is just following the road map for Gujarat laid out by the likes of Keshubhai Patel and others before him. Perhaps that has been the key to his survival as chief minister for so long. If he gets elected for another term, it should be no surprise. He has managed to live up to the expectation of his core vote bank, the middle classes. This section is enterprising and businesslike. It wants development and new avenues for its entrepreneurial skills. Modi has not disappointed.
"No doubt he is a strong administrator, a dictator. He has marketed Gujarat’s development well. This has also been his vehicle to marketing himself across Gujarat,’’ said senior journalist RK Mishra in reluctant admission of the development reality.
There are many such voices in the state who find serious faults in Gujarat’s growth story and its many contradictions – most of these are genuine - under Modi. But that’s for another day.
The only problem with Modi, it appears, is he is marketing himself too hard, making his ambitions too obvious. It raises the obvious question: is he desperate to conceal something uncomfortable? Perhaps yes.
But yes, if I were an urban middle class Gujarati, I would vote for him.