A revving growth machine or the seat of authoritarian power - what is the true face of Narendra Modi's Gujarat?
Early in August this year, I called somebody I know advises Narendra Modi, the powerful chief minister of Gujarat. Is there really any merit, I asked him, in all the fawning over Modi? “Yes,” the advisor replied without hesitation. “I’ve seen the man in action. He is a visionary. Go to Gujarat and see. He has cleaned up the administration. Investments are flowing. He is transforming the state.”
My question had its roots in a now-familiar narrative. It begins from the glowing testimonials. “Modi’s leadership is exemplary, Gujarat will provide leadership beyond country,” India’s most respected tycoon Ratan Tata is quoted on the website of the Gujarat government’s flagship event, the Vibrant Gujarat Summit. Media magnate and chairman of the Zee Group Subhash Chandra considers Modi as the person who “redefined politics, performance and principles”.
In my mind, like in that of many Indians, Narendra Modi is inexplicably linked to February 2002 when mobs murdered, raped and burnt hundreds of Muslims, including women and children, in an inhuman orgy of violence on his watch. Then there are hazy memories from 10 years ago of the state’s commercial capital Ahmedabad. In memory it was a messy city, like many others - chaotic, polluted and emblematic of all things wrong with urbanisation in India.
But journalism is the kind of business that demands you trust nothing but your eyes. So a month later, I was in Ahmedabad. Without doubt, it looked like one of the better managed cities in the country. The roads were wider and public spaces greener than I remembered. An efficient Bus Rapid Transit System connects the eastern end of the city to the western corner. Another one connecting the other two poles is under construction.
The Sabarmati river, which runs through the city, used to be dry and surrounded by slums. Instead, fed by Narmada waters, it was in full flow between the newly-built 10-km-long promenades on either side.
I could see the city was growing with a 76-km-long ring road encircling it. That road was conceived and built in record time and with minimum fuss under Surendra Patel. He used to be chairman of the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA), which supervised the project. In his office where I met him, a detailed plan of how the riverfront would look like was pinned on a soft board. “I still follow up on the project,” he says. “It started during my time.”
Over the next one hour, he talked passionately about Ahmedabad; of how he transformed AUDA from a small office with a few people and barely any revenues into a modern city developer; and of how land was acquired for development. AUDA first got the Town Planning Act amended to notionally acquire all the land and regularise their uneven dimensions into geometrically even shapes. Then he told the landowners of a plan he had in mind.
AUDA would take over half their land. A fifth of AUDA’s share would go into building roads and the rest developed for commerce, residence and parks. He told them that once the project was complete, the other half of the land they would continue to own would be significantly more valuable than all of their land put together. “My promises weren’t empty ones. I used to take contractors with me to show them we meant business,” he says. And he delivered.
By then, it was obvious Patel’s heart was in urban development and he had a knack for it. It was inevitable then that I asked him why he quit AUDA for the Rajya Sabha in 2005. “Because Narendrabhai asked me to,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “I told him my heart was here. But he insisted I go. I cannot say no to him.”
This was strange. Here was a man who was good at what he did; he was liked by the locals; and was a respected leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Why, then, would Modi insist he leave? I called Jagdish Thakkar, Modi’s public relations officer, for a meeting with the chief minister. “Send me an email with probable questions and I will get back to you,” he said. Thakkar never responded to my email and remained elusive on the phone.
There were other things on my mind as well. For instance, the clamour of voices asking Modi be crowned prime minister is mounting. Modi has so far maintained a stoic silence on the subject. But to an observer from the outside, every action of his indicates he is manoeuvering himself to a point where ignoring him for the job would be difficult. His ambition will be put to the test in December when Gujarat holds elections. Modi wants to capture 150 seats, up from the current 122 in the state Assembly of 182, to seal his reputation as one of India’s most popular political leaders.
That said, the ghost of 2002 continues to loom.
On August 29, I was scheduled to meet a BJP MLA and former minister in the Vidhan Bhavan, the seat of the Assembly. I ran into the legislator in the parking lot itself. He looked tense. The chief minister had called an emergency meeting. “I cannot talk to you,” he said and walked away.
It wasn’t entirely unexpected. Even as I was getting there, a special court in Ahmedabad had delivered one of the rarest verdicts in the history of India. Special Judge Jyotsana Yagnik convicted Maya Kodnani, a former minister, and 31 others for rioting and murdering 97 Muslims, including a 20-day-old infant, in Ahmedabad’s suburb of Naroda Patiya on February 28, 2002. Modi’s government was bracing for the fallout of the verdict. Nobody knew what the repercussions would be. Cases are still pending and the heat could singe even Modi.