…and why he still can’t make it work for him in national politics
Politically there are a number of places that are barred to Narendra Modi—they extend from Bihar to the US. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has remained firm in his stand that he does not want Modi to be seen campaigning on behalf of the JD-U-BJP alliance in the state. Way back in 2005, the US denied him entry under an Act that bars anybody who was ‘responsible for, or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom’. In 2008, Mathew Reynolds, Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, reiterated in reply to a query by a member of the US Congress, “The Department of State is extremely sensitive to your concerns and we are cognizant of the human rights abuses Modi has committed.”
But doors barred by politics can be forced open by other levers, those of commerce. And these Modi knows how to turn, judging by the just concluded fifth edition of the biennial Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit (VGSS)—his brainchild. “Gujarat is a shining beacon of prosperity, opportunity and progress. I hope that the United States would be a partner country in 2013,” said Ron Somers, president, US-India Business Council (USIBC).
The USIBC is no ordinary body. US President Barack Obama’s decision to swing by Mumbai on his India visit was largely a result of USIBC efforts. And important Indian industry personnel in the USIBC were all at the summit, the most prominent of them being Ratan Tata, whose embrace of Modi only grows stronger ever since Tata’s Nano factory moved to Gujarat. Tata made it clear at the summit why big business adores Modi. “He does not keep you hanging. When Narendrabhai told me that he would get back to me in three days about the Nano project, he did it. His decision was communicated to me before the timeframe he had mentioned.”
Investments of about Rs 2.5 lakh crore were committed within an hour on 12 January, day one of the Vibrant Gujarat Summit 2011. And everybody, from the Ambani brothers to Ratan Tata to Kumar Mangalam Birla, showered praise on Modi, calling him the change agent of the decade. “The world looks at India and India looks at Gujarat,” said Chanda Kochhar, chairperson and managing director, ICICI Bank.
Japan and Canada were partner countries at the summit. This economic diplomacy is bearing fruit. According to Toronto Star reports, Canadian Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney has indicated the country will grant Modi a travel visa despite the US ban. What’s more, this newfound warmth suddenly extends across the Canadian political spectrum, and it was no surprise that at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Delhi just a couple of days before the summit, Modi was photographed in a warm handclasp with Canadian Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla.
At the summit itself the announcements were dizzying. After a while it was impossible to process the figures being bandied about. Leading the group of investors on the first day was the Adani Group, which committed Rs 80,000 crore investments in ports and power. The Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group committed Rs 50,000 crore for power. The Essar Group promised Rs 30,000 crore for energy, ports and water infrastructure. Larsen & Toubro committed Rs 15,000 crore to infrastructure, while tractor-to-software group Mahindra & Mahindra signed six MoUs to invest Rs 3,000 crore.
Of course, in all the hype about the summit, it was easy to forget such promises are made every other year. According to the Leader of Opposition in the Gujarat Assembly, Congressman Shaktisinh Gohil, only 5 per cent of investments proposed in the 2009 summit have materialised so far. He has demanded a joint legislative committee probe into alleged irregularities in Vibrant Gujarat: “There is no progress on any of the 31 MoUs signed in the 2009 summit that promised to invest Rs 2,11,895 crore.”
This is not just political mudslinging. An RTI in 2009 revealed that against the 229 MoUs, for proposed investments of Rs 106,161 crore, signed during Vibrant Gujarat 2005, projects actually under implementation totalled only Rs 24,978 crore. Similarly, for Vibrant Gujarat 2007, while the government boasted committed investments of Rs 4.61,835 crore, projects under implementation totalled Rs 1,22,400 crore. But in Modi’s presence at the venue, there was little or no scepticism. For once, even the Ambani brothers agreed on something. ADAG Chairman Anil Ambani said, “Across the world, people today recognise Gujarat and Gujaratis as being synonymous with enterprise and industry. Gujarat is to India what India is, and will be, to the rest of the world.”
Add to this the effort that has been put in to improve infrastructure. Investment in power has paid off—Gujarat is a power-surplus state. It is also a coastal state with India’s best port, Kandla. Factor in the fact that problems of land acquisition, the bugbear of new industrial projects, are ironed out speedily by this government, and it is easy to see why so many want to do business in the state.
Industrialists, small, medium and big, are unanimous that it doesn’t take bribes to get projects passed here. Since Modi is the only political master in Gujarat, there are no politicians whose palms need be greased. As one industrialist put it, “We don’t have to keep visiting the CM over and over. Once the proposal is sent, it will be ready for implementation within three months. In Maharashtra, where we have substantial interests, we have to beg the CM, deputy CM and their political bosses to get proposals passed. It is very discouraging.”
Chairman and Managing Director of Reliance Industries Mukesh Ambani recalled how his father, the late Dhirubhai Ambani, had told him once after meeting Modi that the CM was a ‘lambi race no ghoda’ (long-distance race horse). Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman of the Aditya Birla Group, echoed, “India needs many more Narendrabhais to take [us] into the lead, [to make us] the superpower that we desire to be.”
Clearly, this was a summit that was not about the state government, bureaucrats or even other state BJP politicians, it was about one man: Narendrabhai Modi. This lack of political opposition or even competition to Modi from within his party or outside works in his favour. Everywhere in Gujarat, it is Modi who stares down from government billboards. Modi himself admitted that it was a one-window system in Gujarat, implying that there is no need to deal with anyone else. And he is a man who does his homework. Says GVK Reddy of the GVK Group, “When I met Narendra Modi, I was surprised. He knew everything about the GVK Group. In fact, he was advising us on where to set up the business, where we can acquire the raw materials and so on. He is the best advisor for business. I was very impressed by his knowledge.”
Hand in hand with this change in perception has been the change in appearance. The years since 2002 have seen suits, blazers, hats, goggles and fashionable shoes become an integral part of his get-up. According to photographers who have shot Modi for his campaign posters, he is so well versed with cameras and lenses, that at times, unable to get his point across, he asks photographers to take pictures just of the outfits. It is, then, that Modi reveals to them why and how the colours are wrong and what changes are required in the camera settings. Only then does he agree to model the outfits. Worried about his bulging waistline, he is almost always photographed from the waist up. He also always ensures that his hand is caught mid-gesture, or his index finger is raised, emphasising a point.
The outfits he models are always picked in consultation with advisors of some leading menswear stores in Ahmedabad. Over the years, thanks to such advisors, Modi has narrowed down the kind of kurtas and shawls that suit him. It has helped them in turn: the half-sleeved kurtas he chooses to wear have seen a huge increase in sales. The fussiness extends even to his watches and spectacles.
The one aspect of his appearance apart from his waist that has caused Modi the most worry is his hair. The local media has reported— without inviting a denial from Modi, it should be added— that a special ayurvedic paste applied on his scalp through the winter of 2006 had to be protected from the sun, and so he was seen in public only in woollen caps. According to these reports, the caps, absurd in Gujarat’s mild winter, were specially sent from Ludhiana. Modi has been using the extra crop to good effect: combing it back across his forehead.
The slick, suave Modi, now endowed with a more luxuriant head of hair (the cause of which Open could not verify), even wants a change in how he is seen intellectually. At the inaugural VGSS session, Modi said, “Today is the birthday of Swami Vivekanand, one of the greatest visionaries the world has ever produced. He envisioned a world driven by spiritual humanism that will enable everyone to have freedom, knowledge and happiness.” Of late, Modi has also been writing a series of handbooks on the state’s policies and has recently authored a book titled Convenient Action, on his state’s response to climate change. ‘Our action flows from Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of trusteeship—that wealth belongs to the community and must be used for the welfare of the community,’ in his words.
The subtle shift in Modi’s pitch was directed not at the businessmen he was addressing—they were already sold—but politicians and people outside Gujarat. The same go-it-alone, get-the-job-done persona that works so well for big business is not so effective in a top-heavy party, which has achieved a semblance of equilibrium at the top in the past one year, with different roles assigned to its leaders. Modi’s hardline approach leaves little room for the manoeuvrability central to coalition politics.
It was no surprise, then, that Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj created a stir within her party when she said Bihar did not need Narendra Modi’s magic in the election; the BJP had another Modi, the Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi, there. The party realised it could not tom-tom Narendra Modi’s aggression everywhere. Certainly not in Bihar, where Nitish had worked hard to please the state’s Muslims—who make up 16 per cent of the electorate—and break principal challenger Lalu Prasad’s formidable M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) combine. Nitish won re-election on the slogan of development.
It was in May 2009, just before the last Lok Sabha election, at a rally in Ludhiana meant to showcase the strength of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar shook hands with his Gujarat counterpart, Narendra Modi. It was a moment press photographers lapped up. Even before the meet, there was speculation that Nitish Kumar, who had treated Modi as a political untouchable, might not show up at all. True to his reputation, Modi spoke of Afzal Guru’s much-delayed hanging at the rally.
The next day, in the same city in Punjab, even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not miss the opportunity to take a swipe at Nitish: “There is no doubt that Nitish Kumar professes to be a secular leader. But yesterday, after seeing him shake hands with Modi, a doubt did arise in my mind,” the otherwise mild-mannered Singh said at a press conference. In interviews later, Nitish shrugged off suggestions that he was patching up with Modi. “If someone shakes your hand, what can you do?” was his defence.
Cut to 2010. As the BJP met for a national executive meeting in Patna, the Modi-Nitish picture surfaced again in a series of newspaper ads. Nitish fumed and promptly cancelled a dinner he had organised for the BJP brass. He was willing to drop the BJP altogether, even at the cost of the alliance. He made it amply clear to the BJP that in the Assembly polls in Bihar later that year, he wouldn’t allow Modi to campaign for the NDA or even just the BJP. In the event, Modi didn’t campaign in Bihar. The election was fought —and won—with the BJP-JD-U partnership still intact.
At the recent Vibrant Gujarat conclave, Modi too showcased development. Yet, something crucial has changed within the NDA. With his second consecutive Assembly election win in Bihar, denying Lalu Prasad power yet again, Nitish has replaced Modi as the NDA’s ‘more acceptable’ prime ministerial prospect for the future.
Whatever big business might say, Nitish Kumar’s slogan of ‘inclusive development’ resonates far louder through the country than Modi’s brand of development.