Vibrant Gujarat, Narendra Modi's showpiece global show, ostensibly intended to lure global investments into India's western-most state, got off to a mela-like start yesterday. This summit, the sixth of Modi's biennial jamborees that started in 2003, may not look like a game-changer for the state, but it nevertheless marks a watershed.
The inaugural session, which had a surfeit of speeches by businesspersons, foreign business delegations, and assorted people, served to emphasise one simple reality: the world is beating a path to the state. Thus, even while the session was more eulogy-oriented than business-focused, there is a tale to tell.
These are the undercurrents one felt from what was talked about yesterday. The summit ends on 13 January.
One, Brand Gujarat now vies with Brand India in the global sweepstakes. It is now being mentioned in the same breath as China and Singapore, with the Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt of the UK-India Business Council, a former British minister, saying Gujarat is growing faster than China. While some Indian states are growing even faster than Gujarat, the point is Gujarat's track record has been stronger over longer periods of time, unlike other states, and unlike India itself.
Anand Mahindra probably went overboard in suggesting that just as we now talk of the China model, someday the Chinese will talk of the Gujarat model, but many speakers made similar points: if India has to grow like China, Gujarat is the state to watch.
If Brand Gujarat now rivals Brand India, it is largely because of external perceptions about who is running the governments: Manmohan Singh's reformist credentials have faded over the last nine years, while Modi's have grown stronger over the same period.
Two, Brand Gujarat is now acquiring a life of its own, beyond Brand Modi. Most of the speakers at yesterday's inaugural, while making laudatory references to Modi's role in pushing Gujarat's image up the global investment consideration list, have now come to realise that Gujarat has strong pro-business credentials even without Modi.
This has happened for three unrelated reasons. One is Modi's own efforts to drum up Gujarat as an investment destination over five previous Vibrant Gujarat summits. The second is the result of Modi's critics: most of them have tried to rubbish his claims of taking Gujarat to double-digit growth by pointing out that the state has always had a tradition of entrepreneurship unknown in some other states. The third reason is the existence of a very strong Gujarati community in the west: the UK, Canada and US have connected the dots from strong Gujarati entrepreneurship in their own countries to Modi's Gujarat. This is what has enabled them to end his global diplomatic isolation.
But, in the process, what has really got established is Brand Gujarat's uniqueness in the global and Indian firmament. Brand Gujarat is thus delinking from Brand Modi - though they were inextricably linked over the last decade.
Three, Vibrant Gujarat is no longer about big investment commitments running into thousands of crores - all promised through memorandums of understanding with foreign delegations, many of which don't finally end up as real projects. As this Firstpost report notes: "Only about 15 percent of the total investment pledged during the first four summits actually materialised. There has been a steady dip in the commissioning of large scale projects of over Rs 10 crore in the past few years. While in 2005, 422 projects worth 16,500 crore began commercial production, the number dipped to 75 projects in 2011."
While Modi's critics have rightly pointed out that the big investment claims have not always materialised, what they miss is the big picture: ceremonial occasions are about hype, hoopla, networking and brand building. The real investments happen quietly, when a Maruti makes Gujarat its "second home", or when a Nano project shifts from Bengal to Gujarat.
What has really happened in the last five Vibrant Gujarat summits is simple: Modi has successfully positioned Gujarat for big-time investment. Whenever large investments start reflowing into India, Gujarat will get more than its fair share. This is not a mean achievement. Modi has repositioned Gujarat as the place to be within the matrix of interest in India.
Four, Modi himself was more muted this time. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he had to speak in English for a global audience. He is more comfortable in Gujarati and Hindi - where he is able to connect and communicate. But Modi did not even try to hardsell Gujarat this time. His speech talked of the broad goals and vision, not about getting someone to invest in his state. Is this because he thinks his job is done? That there is no point trying to hype something that seems self-evident? It either marks quiet confidence, or possibly a realisation that understatement may work better on the global stage.
Five, the Modi-for-PM talk was more muted this time. Unlike previous summits, this time the eulogies for Modi were devoid of references to Modi's national ambitions. The Economic Times notes this with the headline: "India Inc invests in praising Modi, but not in his PM hopes." In the past, the Ambanis and Mittals have vied with one another to say that Modi was fit to lead the country.
In 2009, Anil Ambani said: "Narendrabhai has done good for Gujarat and what will happen if he leads the nation." Sunil Bharti Mittal said: "Chief Minister Modi ...is running a state and can also run nation."
This time, Ambani was equally profuse in his praise, but there were no references to Modi leading the country. Ditto for Mukesh Ambani or many of the others.
Does this mean India Inc is not so convinced about Modi now that his national aspirations are clearer after the recent Gujarat victory, amid much media speculation about a Rahul versus Modi fight in 2014?
This writer's reading is more nuanced: Business leaders were more open in talking about Modi's suitability for Delhi when that was not a near-term prospect. So it didn't matter if they laid it on a bit thick - as business leaders usually do with all politicians, including Mamata Banerjee.
This time, though, the prospect appears more real in 2014, and the last thing businessmen want is to be victimised by the current central government for endorsing Modi in the run-up to the next election.
The non-reference to Modi's national ambitions tells its own story.
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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 15:55:54 IST