By Jonathan Power
There is a sense in the country that the ruling Congress Party and the influential Gandhi/Nehru core of it is on its way out after 10 years of a government that has hit the high points and the lows. To my mind, if the inexperienced Rahul Gandhi steps back from offering his own candidacy for prime minister and his mother, Sonia Gandhi, president of the party, pushes to the fore the very clever finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, Congress is still in with a chance.
If not, the BNP candidate, Narendra Modi, looks like romping home, despite the cloud hanging over him as chief minister of the state of Gujarat at the time of Hindu-Moslem riots in 2002 when, it is said, he didn’t use his authority to halt the rampaging Hindus who slaughtered Muslims. The Supreme Court later absolved him and now the US has lifted its refusal to give him an American visa. Many say he now has a clear run.
His other claim to fame is that he has presided over the industrialisation of Gujarat that has produced the second highest rate of growth of any state in India- consistently each year over the 10% mark, putting it in China’s league. (Moreover, these statistics in India are more reliable and probably less inflated than China’s.)
His critics say there has not been much “trickle down” in Gujarat. The middle class has grown fast but the majority of the working class and the peasantry have not seen much improvement in their lives that they can credit Modi with. In contrast the poor have seen their lives improved, as they have in most of India, because of what they receive in the increasingly generous financial and social aid from the central government in Delhi. This ranges from income support to guaranteed work, to subsidised food, to improved health and educational facilities.
Three indicators alone prove the effectiveness of these – the rapid falls in infant mortality and in the deaths of mothers during child birth, and lengthening life spans across the board.
In fact the sub-story of this election is how well some of the Indian states are doing, despite a gloomy set-back for the country as a whole that 3 years ago reached a growth rate of 10%, only to see it fall back to 5%.
Three other states have done as well as Gujarat in their economic growth – Maharashtra (that includes Mumbai), Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Orissa has done nearly as well and has become one of the top destinations for foreign companies investing in India. Two states have done even better – Uttarakhand, at the foothills of the Himalayas, and Bihar which used to be the basket case of India with crippling poverty, extensive kidnapping and deeply rooted corruption. The novelist, V.S. Naipaul, once described Bihar as “the place where civilization ends”. These latter two states have experienced growth rates of 12% over the last five years.
In Bihar, when Nitish Kumar became chief minister he reformed the crooked police, ordering them to move aggressively against all criminals, from robbers to corrupt senior officials. He established a new fast-track court to hurry their path to jail. The state, in the far north, doesn’t have a natural market like Gujarat, for the export of manufactured goods. So Kumar put the state’s energies into improving agricultural yields and encouraged a boom in construction.
Although Congress is poorly represented in most of these states it is the Congress government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh which has devolved power to the states, giving them the chance themselves to kick start speedy development in contrast to the overweight central government. Moreover, the average age of state chief ministers at their election is 56. In the central government the cabinet averages 65. Interestingly, the more successful chief ministers are unmarried, a highly unusual state in India. It suggests they are highly focussed individuals who give all to their careers.
Whoever is elected as Congress’s candidate must go for the soft underbelly of Modi. This means attacking his chauvinist Hindu-first attitude. There are as many Muslims in India as there are in Pakistan. A peace deal with Pakistan should be a political priority. Second, he or she must highlight that Gujarat is not the only state to have had economic success and that many of the other high growth states have a better record in helping the poor than Modi’s Gujarat. Third, it must stress that in its outreach programmes it has done more to help the poor than any previous Indian government. Fourth, it has avoided confrontation with Pakistan.
Modi deserves to be defeated. It would be a bad day for India if he won.
Copyright: Jonathan Power 2014