Mr. Modi

It was the late Richard Holbrooke who said: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists — that is the dilemma.”

That, indeed, is a dilemma. For the Americans, even the election of a remotely anti-American government was a dilemma and they spared little effort in overturning the verdict of electorates whenever such an ugly possibility reared its fearful head.

So, it could have been an occasion of smug satisfaction for the rest when the American electorate voted in Bush except that he inflicted incalculable harm on the world while driving the US deep into the hole.

That highlights the other dilemma – whether those freely and fairly elected are racists, fascists, separatists, or just megalomaniacal fools and simpletons, the damage they end up doing to themselves and others is serious business.

Enter Mr. Modi.

Mr. Modi has not been elected yet but it seems almost all opinion-makers have conceded that he will. If he is, it would force us to come to terms with Richard Holbrooke’s painful dilemma.

No matter what you say about him, Mr. Modi is not a nice man. Indeed, that is part of his attraction. If one is to believe what one is being told, the Indian electorate is tired of nice men and women. It craves the savior who gets things done, no matter what it takes. It wants the train to run on time and if it has to mow down some obstacles in the way, so be it.

Development at any cost is what the electorate wants, a desire that brings together the poor despairing of the promise of democracy, the rich impatient with its constraints, and the young unburdened with a sense of history. Let us use the opportunity provided by democracy to vote in the authoritarianism that would deliver development. Quite akin to the thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, it would seem.

Governance in India has been so abysmal that one can sympathize with the desire for quick development. Except for the fact that almost all serious analyses of the experience of Gujarat call into question the fact of development under Modi and almost none question the lagging indicators of human well-being. (As examples, see the following: and this old post on this blog.) And yet, just repeating the myth often enough has turned into reality for the voters something that has little basis in fact. Yes, Iraq does have weapons of mass destruction because Mr. Bush said so.

The more astounding aspect is that it is not just poorly educated voters who have had the wool pulled over their eyes. Here are two former directors of the World Bank pinning their hopes on Mr. Modi’s “solid record in Gujarat.” For them, even secularism is to be demonstrated via development: “Indeed, the best way to neutralise his critics would be for Mr. Modi to show that secularism thrives, not through public arguments and abuse, but through development. As he has demonstrated in Gujarat, he is serious about making a difference by delivering results, and does not get distracted by playing the blame game.”

Thinking how a myth like this can assume such proportions that it can take in the entire spectrum of voters from the very poor to the very influential brings us face to face with yet another dilemma of modern democracies – campaign finance. We know the Supreme Court in the US has ruled (in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission) that corporations cannot be restricted from contributing to electoral campaigns. In India, the failure to limit what parties can spend on general propaganda, as opposed to on individual candidates, essentially means big money can pretty much drive the narrative it wishes to promote.

And that is what it seems to be doing. “One estimate pegs the BJP’s advertising spend across all media including hoardings at a staggering Rs 5,000 crore. That’s just a bit less than the Rs 6,000 crore — roughly $1 billion the Obama campaign spent under all heads in the 2012 US presidential election! Once other expenses are added, the overall BJP budget will exceed that.” (

Where is all that money coming from and why? What will it ask for in return? Development, of course – but for whom, and at whose cost?

There will be time enough to answer these questions if the electorate does indeed vote in Mr. Modi. Ironically, democracy in India has survived thus far because of its incredibly fractured polity and a continuation of that pattern might help keep Mr. Modi under check. It would indeed open up a new and unprecedented chapter if the voters overcome those fractures and are swept up behind the myth of Mr. Modi.

That would really bring us face to face with the dilemma of democracy. And it would be left to Indians to work through its consequences given that India is much too big for America to undo the verdict of its voters. Indeed, the Welcome to the US mat is out, dusted, and ready for Mr. Modi.

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52 Responses to “Mr. Modi”

  1. Vikram Says:

    SA, I dont see how one can argue that an electorate that handed out comprehensive drubbings to the BJP the last two times has suddenly taken a liking to ‘authoritarianism’. The vast majority of votes cast against the Congress will be because the electorate recognizes the importance of changing governments.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: I agree with the past. What I am suggesting is that voting in desperation against incumbency can lead from the frying pan into the fire. That outcome cannot be ruled out categorically and that precisely is the dilemma of democracy. Whether it happens or not (and I hope it doesn’t) is another matter.

  2. skynut Says:

    Modi or not, the dilemmas inherent in democracy are similar to the ones which God faced while creating man. They will not go away and will correlate to the human condition.

    From a public policy engineering point of view, what is important is to analyze the rules of the democratic process to see if they are fair and have the necessary feedback mechanism to ensure a correction over time as and when such inevitable outcome occurs.

  3. yayaver Says:

    I was impressed by ABV. During his electoral campaign in 1996, a lot was said about BJP and Babri Masjid demolition. Yet NDA performed relatively well on all parameters.including communal tension and relationship with Pakistan. Ten years later, many thing have changed in BJP. I was never big devout of Modi but a supporter of BJP in national election 2014. The question arises here – Can a Modi-led BJP rule the country in a democratic and non-divisive manner! I hope so and will give them a chance.

    I don’t fear rise of Anti Muslim sentiments in the rule of Modi led BJP government as they will loose a big chunk of moderate votes who are tired of Congress this time. What I dread is loss of freedom of speech and think in his rule! But I will take my chances.with Modi.

    Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the well-known think tank Centre for Policy Research has written much apt piece that can reply your fascist remark. — The rise of Narendra Modi has brought the “F” word into promiscuous use.

  4. Anil Kala Says:

    I think HDI indicators are red herring. You would think others CMs are doing a great job of improving HDI performance. Lets us not forget that Bihar begins from a very low base, a mere functional government will ensure improvement in HDI there.

    Modi should be rejected for being brash and autocratic there is no need to look for excuse.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Anil: If that is the case then the growth rate is even worse because it says nothing about development. Growth is only the means for development and the latter can only be assessed by tangible measures pertaining to health, education, etc. HDI might not be perfect but it is certainly better than mere growth rate.

      Look at the following op-eds by Professor Jan Dreze, a very highly respected analyst, who proposes many other indicators. All tell the same story:

    • Anil Kala Says:

      My point is actual performance of Modi, whatever it is, is known to public else he wouldn’t have won three state elections on mere rhetorical sloganeering. There must be something more than HDI, GDP etc that connects him to people may be he improved government public interface which is a major but silent irritant for middle class folks, may be his decisiveness that endears people like the way he made available land and other facilities for Tata’s Nano factory relocation in Gujarat.

      More than anything it is Man Mohan Singh’s comatose government embroiled in monumental corruption that contrasts and brings in sharp focus his decisiveness. People also know that he is intolerant, autocratic and religious demagogue yet they have to make a choice and he appears to be the lesser evil.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Anil: That is a fair point. There is need to study what makes people vote for particular candidates. You are right, it is not always related to HDI, GDP, etc. Just not how many times Lalu Prasad Yadav got re-elected without delivering either growth or welfare. Perhaps it is pride in identity which is what Mayawati delivered to her constituency.

        The dilemma of democracy is that sometimes what appears the lesser evil turns out to be the greater one. After all people seem to be voting against Congress for its ineffectiveness with the expectation that Modi would deliver both growth and welfare. But, if in fact he has not done that in Gujarat, how will he do that in the entire country? Is it possible that all that might be left would be intolerance, autocracy and religious demagoguery? If so, would that be a lesser evil?

      • Anil Kala Says:

        It is a possibility but very unlikely. Modi may not deliver on growth and other things or may not even be able to run the government for long due to his intolerant ways but he is unlikely to engage in Muslim bashing. The reaction to pogrom in Gujarat was universal and fierce. Although he was not indicted but many are in jail. It is true that without proof no one should be sent to jail that however doesn’t mean people have no right to form an opinion on someone’s guilt. He will think a hundred times before any such idea enters his head again.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Anil: I hope you are right. Some time it is difficult to undo an electoral decision if the people realize they made a mistake. Look at Egypt where the same people who voted for the Brotherhood had to ask the military to remove it. There is a world of difference between Egypt and India but cautionary tales abound.

          Muslim bashing would be the least of the issues – the danger of intolerance could be to all India. The way Modi has decimated political opposition in Gujarat has not discriminated on the basis of religion.

          And since you have mentioned the 2002 riots, I am linking the new report from the Stanford University Law School for the record. This way we can find it later when we need it:

          “It seems, therefore, that what happened in Gujarat in 2002 is neither unique to Gujarat, nor of concern only to India’s Muslim community. India as a whole must find more effective solutions to prevent such outbursts of senseless communal violence from tarnishing the country’s progress.” [page 65]

  5. SouthAsian Says:

    I think Dinesh Mohan has expressed the choice well:

    “We don’t need a strong Prime Minister, we need a courageous and compassionate one.”

    • Anil Kala Says:

      Courage is an attribute of strong, it cannot be an attribute of weak. I read the piece by Dinesh Mohan. He first put Modi on the pedestal then talked about general malaise afflicting the country giving impression that Modi is responsible for all the problem.

      As I said Modi should not be attacked for bizarre reasons, there is enough on him to reject him. We have already seen what happens when we have a weak but compassionate PM in a set up where multiple forces pull him form all directions.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Anil: It looks like the choice is between compassionate but weak and strong but lacking compassion. Not much of a choice. The only criterion on which such a choice can be evaluated is who is likely to do less damage to the system. Of course, it remains to be seen if the strength is for real or a hype or a mere hope.

  6. SouthAsian Says:

    Well, a Modi juggernaut. This will be good for Pakistanis. Whether it will be good for Indians, time will tell.

    • Vikram Says:

      Why good for Pakistanis ? Stable right-wing govt in India ? Or something else ?

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vikram: Yes, a stable government with virtually no opposition will be more decisive in its foreign policy.

    • Anil Kala Says:

      Strong willed people like Modi become dangerous when they find themselves in a corner. They don’t display grace, take their place away from lime light and bide for better times to return. Indira Gandhi is one such example, didn’t she imposed emergency suspending basic rights after Allahabad High Court disqualified her? As long as Modi will be comfortably ensconced in PM’s position we can expect him to behave nicely but if things get hot for him one can be assured he will be willing to take extra constitutional means to stay right there.

      • sanpatel90 Says:

        There are a number of politicians in this category. For example: Mayawati, Mamta Banerji, Jaylalita are all ladies which are highly egoist even more that Modi. In neighbouring country Bangladesh, the two ladis Khalida jia and Sheikh Hasina are both can go any extent to protect their turf.

    • Vinod Says:

      Good because it may, if Modi makes disastrous and belligerent foreign policy decisions in relation to Pakistan and discriminatory policies against muslims in India, give them conviction in the two nation theory and end that debate there.

      • Vikram Says:

        That debate ended with the formation of Bangladesh.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: A review of the Pakistani press, and some articles in the Indian press as well, does reflect the assertion that the two-nation theory has been vindicated. I think this is more the desperate attempt to salvage an argument that has been lost. As Vikram points out, it was lost with Bangladesh and the increasing sectarian violence in Pakistan confirms that verdict.

  7. Vikram Says:

    SA, Kanchan Chandra, in her book on ethnic democracy called Indian politicians amateur statisticians. But now it seems, the old equations are changing. The BJP got 42.3 % of the vote, more than that of the SP and BSP combined. A lot of the caste groups are now abandoning their caste-specific groups. Muslims have stayed loyal to the SP and moved to it from the Congress, but a lot of the younger Jats and Dalits are abandoning the SP and BSP.

    The party is making massive inroads into Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. It is now third in TN and WB behind the DMK and CPI. WB is especially susceptible, if the BJP can win the highest vote share in Assam, it can do so in WB as well. Basically, the BJP is becoming the new Congress. Modi was just a means to this end for the RSS. This will start looking the Communist Party-Government structure in China. Who can challenge them ?

    • Anil Kala Says:

      I don’t think this election can be regarded as a normal election therefore looking for trends will be misleading. Look at the decisiveness of voters…. Not just BJP, other regional players also registered decisive victories. AIDMK in TN, BJD in Odhisa, TMC in Bengal etc routed opposition. This election is truly a vote for rejecting congress and its allies.

      • Vikram Says:

        I agree that this election is a vote for rejecting Congress and the UPA. But the results have also indicated a much modified electoral arithmetic. The BJP now knows that it can sweep North India, and what it needs to do to sweep it.

        One can look to the states and see the trend. Congress has not been in power in MP and GJ for 15 years. With a weak Congress, the BJP is always going to have the upper hand, especially since the voter base for parties like the SP and BSP seems to be fragmenting.

    • sanpatel90 Says:

      I like to add that people are now taking chance and selecting candidates who are offering promise. Think how AAP within a year was able to form govt in Delhi. Same way in Punjab, they are able to win 4 seats. People of UP and Bihar has given mandate to BJP despite having strong regional parties when they saw that Modi is capable of delivering the result. Congress has just got 44 seats. Even in 1977 election after emergency, congress got around 183 seats. No where in the history of India, people punished the parties so much for their non-performance. In 2009, people gave fresh mandate to Congress for some of their good work like MGNREGA, RTI etc.

  8. rediff Says:

    There is a lot of ad hoc attacks on the character of Mr Modi here. Personally I think Modi does a lot of lip service to the RSS-agenda. There are many like me that are socially liberal, work for women’s empowerment, gay rights, backward caste and minority empowerment, and yet have turned our vote towards the BJP and particularly Modi.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      rediff: Personally you think one way, someone else thinks another way. That does not make the other’s thinking ad hoc. Some aspects of a candidate have to be evaluated based on the track record independent of how many people voted for him or her. The important thing is that the evaluation not be biased by prior loyalties.

  9. Vikram Says:

    SA, I think we are missing something here. The Modi economic and governance story looks compelling, and the opposition never really countered it with as much conviction as Modi promoted it,

    How skeptical can one be about these figures ? (See: One can make arguments about environment, but there are states in India with environmental problems that are much more serious. Even on secularism, as Shiv Vishwanathan points out, liberals failed to counter Modi without making the middle class feel humiliated about themselves.

    On both counts, the forces opposing Modi were neither cohesive nor very honest. The whole campaign, which should have been called Justice for Gujarat, became a hunt against Modi rather than a demand for justice for the victims. The latter demand would have been much more genuine and harder for the right to argue against. 1000 people died in Gujarat, who are the culprits and why are they not being prosecuted sounds much more compelling than Modi fascism, BJP Nazism and all the other rhetoric we have heard from the left. And the feeble response to the riots in Assam and UP gave further room to Modi’s supporters.

    The simple truth is that support for criminals and reactionary elements is part of the electoral apparatus of every political party in India, from the CPI to the BJP. And the voter on the ground understands this very well. And if anything, with the prosecution of Kodnani and Bajrangi it seemed that the BJP’s criminals were actually facing the courts. It almost felt like that the BJP was more serious about checking the Bajrang Dal than the Congress and the Left about the various militant Muslim groups and the LWEs.

    In hindsight, one has to be surprised (and thankful) that the results were not even more skewed towards the BJP.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: Shiv Visvanathan has arrived at the correct diagnosis. In 2011, I had written a review of Gautam Adhikari’s intolerant book The Intolerant Indian pointing to the immense irony in its title. Here is the concluding paragraph:

      “The book talks at the people but never really includes them in the dialogue and never really addresses their concerns. It never really asks how they managed to live together for centuries while continuing to adhere to narrow religious, regional or ethnic identities and why they might find it more difficult to do so now. As I read, I kept trying to imagine how the author would convey the argument of the book were he to find himself in a village in, say, Kerala. How would the notions of liberalism and secularism be cast in a vocabulary that the audience could participate in? How could we make this a two-sided conversation?”

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: I agree that we are missing something but I don’t think it is the economic performance. There is now enough work to show that economic growth in Gujarat is not exceptional and that the state was at the upper end even before the BJP tenure. Also, there is enough evidence to show that growth was pursued in an authoritarian manner with concessions to the corporate sector and with minimal impacts on human development of the majority. However, and this is important, the BJP campaign managed to convince a lot of voters that the performance was exceptional and that an authoritarian style and a pro-corporate policy was actually good for India.

      What we are missing is that BJP ran a campaign that focused on things it stood for (whether we agree with them or not is irrelevant here) while the INC ran a negative campaign that focused on what it was against – primarily the personality of Narendra Modi himself. The BJP caught the mood of the time which was to stop complaining and to move on.

      On the skew in the results that is an artifact of the electoral design in India based as it is on the first-pass-the-post system. If you look at the numbers you will note that the share of the votes has more or less reversed – going from 29% INC and 19% BJP in 2009 to 19% INC and 31% BJP in 2014. But if you look at the seats in the Lok Sabha, they have gone from 116 BJP and 206 INC in 2009 to 282 BJP and 44 INC in 2014. The shift in seats is very disproportionate to the shift in votes – in a proportional system, one would have expected the swing in seats to match the swing in votes – i.e., in 2014 BJP should have had just over 206 seats and INC 116.

      The fact remains that more than two-thirds of the Indian electorate does not support the BJP vision but yet the party has an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. This dimension of design of the electoral system needs attention.

      • Vikram Says:

        SA, if Shiv Vishwanathan gets the cultural dimension of the verdict correct, then Sitapati clearly demonstrates the change of mood on the ground regarding material prosperity, the point about moving on. If these trends are correct, it should mean a change from the monarchical mindset of the electorate to a more self-centred, almost consumerist one.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vikram: I liked the op-ed (all the trends might be real) but I think it is incorrect in deducing why Mr. Modi was elected. Similarly, I also think Akeel Bilgrami’s perspective on that issue is equally mistaken:

          But we can leave these asides for the moment. You ask whether the trends Sitapati identifies “should mean a change from the monarchical mindset of the electorate to a more self-centred, almost consumerist one.” Not entirely, I think. People are no doubt becoming more self-centered and consumerist but they still seem to be awaiting a savior who would bestow on them what they desire.

          As for the leaders, they remain as monarchical as ever – just reflect on the symbolism of the release of the fishermen in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

          • Vikram Says:

            SA, is the search for a savior necessarily a monarchical trait ? After all, didnt we see similar sentiments around the time of Obama’s election ?

            Also, I dont think Modi is thought of as a savior in the sense of people obtaining what they desire. He is thought of as a savior in the sense of infusing new life into a stagnant and unresponsive system. More of an enabler (which is how he also presents himself) than a giver.

            I agree that the attitude of the leaders is still very much monarchical . Though I feel this is less true of BJP and CPI leaders than those of other major parties in India and even South Asia.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: You are right, that was not a good characterization. I believe the essential difference is whether an individual perceives himself/herself as a subject or as a citizen. Clearly, South Asia is in transition from subject to citizen. What one might be able to say is that there are still a significant number who carry the mindsets of subjects.

            A subject, like a citizen, could desire a savior (i.e., a good monarch) but would then accept, more or less passively, what the savior delivers. This is somewhat like accepting one’s condition as determined by fate or providence. A citizen, on the other hand, believes that he/she can play a role in changing one’s condition.

            In general, a subject is a loyalist till such time as he/she gets so frustrated as to throw out the monarch and substitute another. A citizen’s preference for one party over another depends on ideas, agendas, platforms, etc. and he/she can switch preferences on that basis.

            I hope this is better.

          • Vinod Says:

            Vikram, I do think the saviour or superman complex comes into play in the minds of voters around election time, whether it be the Indian voter or the American voter. The need for a superman to fix all the problems of the world has deep psychological roots. It is a human yearning, not an Indian or an American one, and it is universal. It surfaces when emotions are whipped up while campaigning. I’m sure that Obama’s Yes, We Can speech flushed off the cynicism of politicians in many. And so did Modi’s speech. Ofcourse time has a way of bringing all voters to the ground.

    • Anil Kala Says:

      Anjum: There is problem in simple inference. A loyal voter votes for Congress or BSP, does it mean he rejects other parties? The fact that two thirds of of Indian electorate have not supported BJP does not mean two thirds of Indian voters have rejected BJP? The truth is that in past three years Congress painted it self so dark that in contrast even brown looked dazzling white. Predictably loyal voters sleep walked to polling station and voted according to their loyalties but major swing in vote share truly reflects general choice of the people.

      • Anjum Altaf Says:

        Anil: It depends on what you understand by the term ‘rejected.’ We are not talking about people who did not cast a vote – their preferences cannot be determined. We are discussing people who actually voted. Any one who did not vote for BJP voted for some other party, i.e., he/she preferred the other party to BJP. Therefore one can say that over two-thirds of the voters actually expressed a preference for a party other than the BJP.

        This is important because the design of the electoral system has a great (sometimes a very great) impact on the outcome that can make it unrepresentative of the preferences of the voters.

        For an example, look at UP. BJP has 40% of the vote and 71 seats out of 80. BSP has 20% of the vote and no seats while SP has 20% of the vote and 5 seats. Therefore an equal number of the UP voters rejected BJP in favor of BSP or SP but are virtually unrepresented.

        The question being asked is: Is this a problem of electoral design that has negative implications for representative democracy?

        • sanpatel90 Says:

          This sounds like favouring proportional representation. But proportional presentation has its own pitfalls. It makes segmentation between communities more solid. Why any community will join other community when it is sure of its representation as per its population? Given the diversity in India, we would have thousands of parties having representation in parliament. Making decision on any topic in such a case would have been very difficult. In first past the post system, we see electrol alliances like yadav + muslim, upper castes + OBC etc. which propably won’t happen in proportional system. Another problem is once proportional system is implemented, it is difficult to remove it.

          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Sanpatel: It is not favoring proportional representation, just asking how it would compare with the winner-take-all system that is presently in force in India.

            Re your concluding remark, every system that is in force is difficult to remove. In England, a movement for change has been on the agenda for decades but stymied by the two big parties who have most to lose. Also, PR is the dominant system in the world (very few countries have winner-take-all; India has it only because it was inherited from Britain) and no country has felt the need to change it. See this map of electoral systems in the world:

            Your most critical objection to PR is not valid. India will not have thousands of parties in parliament because PR usually has a threshold – a party has to obtain a minimum percentage of the total vote to become eligible for representation in parliament. The most typical threshold is 5 percent. If that were used for the 2014 elections, only BJP and INC would be represented in the Lok Sabha. This feature of the system actually encourages small parties to reach agreements with each other to cross the threshold.

            The flip side of this is also of great relevance. You mentioned that FPTP encourages electoral alliances “like yadav + muslim, upper castes + OBC etc.” Now think of the electoral strategy of a party competing against such an alliance. Its goal becomes to break the alliance – success depends less on a positive response to its program and more to crippling the opposition. Now consider how the BJP went about implementing its electoral strategy in UP. This negative incentive would disappear under PR – the seats a party wins depend only on its share of the vote.

            The following op-ed discusses some of these points in detail with reference to the 2014 election:

  10. Vinod Says:

    “…and the young unburdened with a sense of history”. SA, here’s an article that supports this statement –

  11. Armchair Guy Says:

    I think it’s hard to judge what’s really going on in Gujarat. It’s pretty clear that Modi has an interest in amplifying his achievements. But most of the authors of articles that say there wasn’t enough development are written by people who detest Modi. Having read arguments both for and against development in Gujarat, I’m convinced that, although the true story may not be as stellar as it is portrayed to be, Gujarat has indeed progressed quite well, and a good part of it is because of Modi.

    The so-called “serious analyses of the experience of Gujarat” make some good points, but they quite clearly try to mislead the public on some aspects, and try to downplay genuine structural improvements that clearly come from Modi’s government. Statements comparing the current state Gujarat’s human development to Kerala or Tamil Nadu, for example, are quite common — these comparisons are patently misleading, and people like Amartya Sen who make these statements know it well. Indeed, anyone who has had a few economics classes can see the problem with such comparisons. The “serious analyses” have been over-used in this campaign, and should be seen for what they are: political tools, and not academic analyses.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Armchair Guy: The “serious analyses” may be right or wrong but they have been very few and far between. The “non-serious analyses,” based just on perceptions have dominated the conversation, accepted as truth, and become common wisdom. Therefore there is all the more need for serious analyses to separate fact from fiction.

      These serious analyses have to evaluated strictly on their merit. It would not help if all analyses that run counter to our preferences are dismissed as being written by people who are biased. That leaves no way out for analysis to inform the situation since all analysis we don’t like can be dismissed as biased.

      Let us just take one analysis that is based on verifiable statistics and dissect it carefully. It would be very useful to the readers of this forum if you can identify the errors in this analysis:

  12. Armchair Guy Says:


    I feel people need to be careful what they accept as “serious analyses”. It’s important to remember that authors can quite easily choose their data to support their intended conclusion. Quite apart from the quality of the data source, different statistics from the same data source might tell very different stories. And quite frequently, this is done with political ulterior motives in mind.

    Now, with the Gujarat model, Modi’s camp has sought to claim that magic has occurred, while his opponents have tried to claim that he has done absolutely nothing worthwhile. And each camp supports their statements with analyses of various types. What’s the problem with a specific analysis? Could be the source data, selective reporting of statistics, an insufficiently detailed look at the results, ignoring variation in the estimates, a misinterpretation of what the results mean, etc. We also need to worry about how to reconcile data-driven analyses that seem to lead to conflicting conclusions.

    Let’s come to the article you point to. I think it’s actually not such a bad article, but a few points below.

    First, the article doesn’t focus only the Modi years — it goes back all the way to 1993!

    Next, wherever it appears that some progress has been made by Gujarat, the article seems to go the extra step to show why this shouldn’t be viewed as progress. For example, by the articles own data Gujarat went from 4% share in agriculture GDSP to 7% during the Modi years. The article claims this is no big deal since Gujarat was at 7% in 1996 so it just went back to its historical status. This isn’t the right way to think about it because we’re not talking about absolute numbers: this is % share. Perhaps it’s not easy to recover 3 points in national percentage share at a time when several other states were also experiencing robust agricultural growth. Indeed, even maintaining 4% share might be difficult when other underperforming states begin to do much better. (I say “perhaps” because I’m not an expert in this field and maybe I’m missing something.) Indeed, some statistics I found online show that Gujarat had excellent agricultural growth in 2000-2009 compared to other states with similar growth in 1994-2000:, Figs 1.3 and 1.4. Even Amartya Sen agrees that Gujarat has witnessed particularly impressive agricultural development, but this article implies there’s been basically no agricultural development.

    Third, the article says that Gujarat’s and Bihar’s share in the national pie has hardly changed since 1993. Yet, “secular liberals” in India, including great academics like Amartya Sen, have said that growth in Bihar is truly impressive and that Nitish Kumar would thus be ideal prime ministerial material. Sen says that “Nitish has taken measures that have resulted in a jump in Bihar’s GDP growth rate.” See How could Sen come to that conclusion while the article says Bihar’s relative position has remained almost completely unchanged in the last 15 years? Was he simply mislead by Bihar’s propaganda? I think it’s more likely the measures are constructed so that they are likely to tell different stories.

    Next, percentages of the national GDP may not be the right way to assess performance for 2 reasons: 1) we should compare to similar states (and the measure of similarity would be a topic for a debate all on its own), not the entire nation, and 2) comparing absolute numbers is better than looking at % shares. For example, if some states that were backward or doing very poorly in 1994-2000 do reasonably well in 2000-2009, they would make it extra hard for Gujarat (or any other state in particular) to grow its national percentage share. This is simply because there are now more states that are contributing percentages. The right comparison is to look at states that are somewhat similar and compare actual growth, not percentages.

    This reply is already too long. It would take a lot of time to look into the claims in the article in full detail, assess the quality of the data source they’re using, and try to understand whether/why it’s different from what other sources seem to indicate. Like I said, I think Gujarat isn’t shining as brightly as Modi would like us to believe, but neither is it true that his structural improvements haven’t had a large positive impact.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Armchair Guy: Thanks for the extended response. It’s depressing to conclude that if one side claims magic and the other insists nothing worthwhile has occurred, there is no objective way to discern which has the evidence in its favor. All claims cannot be equally valid?

      On thinking over the case of Gujarat, I have a perspective to share which, having never been there, is completely speculative. I would like readers with first-hand experience to let me know if it has any merit.

      It seems to me that the evaluation has primarily concerned two aspects using hard numbers – indicators of economic growth and indicators of human development and the sides place more weight on one or the other depending on what suits their narrative. However, there is a third aspect that has been less frequently discussed – the efficiency of the bureaucracy and delivery of public services. It is hard to quantify this but very easy to experience in day-to-day interactions. Perhaps, Gujarat is much better in this dimension than the rest of India and perhaps the hope is that Shri Narendra Modi would be able to pull the rest of India up to the standards achieved in Gujarat.

  13. Vikram Says:

    SA, I just wanted to respond separately to the Bilgrami article because I think there is a point to be made. We need to acknowledge that the word fascist has a particular meaning in an academic setting and a related but different meaning in popular discourse.

    Bilgrami might be right about the BJP being fascist in the scientific sense of the word. But in popular discourse, the word fascist is extremely pejorative and is associated more with crimes committed by fascist regimes than the mechanics of the regime itself. There might be theoretically fascist regimes that havent committed anywhere near the scale of crimes Mussolini led Italy did and there might be regimes that are technically non-fascist but committed far more serious crimes against humanity.

    The argument against using the word fascist is in specific parallel to the events in Europe. And strictly speaking, there are governments in the west who work in tandem with corporations, identify outsiders of a particular type as the enemy and have committed sustained and far more serious violence against them. Yet, this terminology has never been applied to them.

    The same goes for terms like genocide. There is a singular insistence that Turkey acknowledge the Armenian genocide, but that same term is not allowed to be used for the eradication of native Americans in North America. Ultimately, this is about who controls the discourse and its production, and what their political/ideological objectives are, and this is why the use of such terms needs greater scrutiny.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: I agree completely with your observation that power has a lot to do with what is spoken and in what terms. Even more, it determines what cannot be spoken of or about – a point Foucault made with great conviction. In our time we have this endless back and forth with the terms terrorist and freedom fighter. Think of Mandela.

      Bilgrami goes to great lengths to establish the structural dimension of fascism but I also feel it would be better, especially in an op-ed, to stay away from the term. Whatever the intention of the author, it is virtually impossible to avoid damnation by association.

      On genocide, I would not go that far. Whether Americans acknowledge or not their interaction with the natives, the interaction of the Turks and Armenians has to be judged on its own terms and based on facts and evidence. If a genocide did happen, its occurrence cannot be mitigated by the hypocrisy of the Americans.

      Of course, there are fractured opinions in the US on how to interpret the American encounter with the the native population (as also with other populations) as you can read here:

      • Vikram Says:

        SA, indeed it was not my intention to say that the interaction between the Turks and Armenians should be judged on the basis of the how the European-Native American interaction is judged.

  14. Vikram Says:

    SA, I agree that there is a transition going on in South Asia from subject to citizen, some regions like Kerala and Bangladesh are farther along in this transition than places like UP/Bihar.

    I have a question, are the words ‘Sir’ and ‘Mam’ used a lot in Pakistan? I am asking because I am wondering if guru and disciple is the right framework to think of some of the relationships between leaders in South Asia and their ‘flock’. One usually thinks of a guru-shishya (or yogi/sufi-bhakt/disciple) relationship as one where the shishya learns to dispel ignorance under the learned guru. I am wondering if a lot of Modi’s ‘disciples’ think of him as some master who has answers that others dont. Almost all of them refer to him as Sir, and I have seen the same deference towards people like Tendulkar, Bachchan and Mangeshkar.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: I can answer that. The use of Sir and M’am is very common in Pakistan. However, I see a guru-shishya relationship as an active one based on genuine respect and transmission of knowledge while a subject-master relationship is a passive one based on dependency and an exchange of favors. Most subjects just feign respect because otherwise they would be out of favor.

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