‘Development’ and the Indian General Elections by Subir Sinha

By Subir Sinha|April 9, 2014|Development|

‘Development’ has become a key criterion for a substantial and vocal section of the Indian electorate to decide for whom they will vote in the Indian general elections. Particularly for the supporters of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, his USP is that during three continuous terms as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, he has been an exemplary developer, and that this makes him the right man to lead India out of its perceived current developmental impasse. What is needed, they argue, is that the author of the ‘Gujarat model’ be allowed a similarly continuous tenure as Prime Minister so that he can scale up his achievements in Gujarat across the country.

To those of us who teach Development Studies, ‘development’ has numerous, sometimes contradictory meanings. Prominent among the definitions would be ‘the development of productive forces’, that is, ‘growth’, commonly understood as increases in the size of the economy, GDP and GDP per capita. Analysts often disaggregate it further by sector: agriculture, manufacturing, infrastructure, etc. This was the standard definition of ‘development’ until the 1970s. Since then, other criteria have become important: basic needs provision, freedom from absolute poverty and hunger, development of capabilities, ‘social development’ including of health, education reduction of inequality, improved employment and livelihoods, increased participation in decision-making, security and so on.

That developmental performance should gain salience in deciding whom to vote for is, of course, a sign of a new sensibility in Indian politics. However, since there is wide diversity in the very meaning of ‘development’, it makes sense to ask what ‘development’ is implied in the Gujarat ‘model’, whether it is the ‘best model’ among competing sub-national ones (for example the Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar models). It also suggests that depending upon which meanings are given more weight relative to others within a ‘model’, one model can be shown to be superior to another.  So the fact that for the ‘new middle classes’ and for influential media commentators, as well as for a section of the Indian and transnational capitalists the Gujarat model comes tops is worthy of explanation. Simply put, given that Gujarat’s developmental model is not unambiguously ‘the best one’, what explains the political momentum behind the claim that it is, indeed, superior to competing ones?

In their assessment of the Gujarat model, economists Maitreesh Ghatak and Sanchari Roy (http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-gujarat-model-of-development-and-other-growth-stories-1973622) make a number of observations. On per capita income, Gujarat stands not first, but third, behind Maharashtra and Haryana. Gujarat’s is among the highest growth rates, together with Haryana and Maharashtra, with Gujarat having a high rate of growth in decades preceding Modi’s Chief Ministerial innings as well. On the human development index, Kerala and Delhi head the list, while Gujarat ranks 11th as per the Institute for Applied Manpower Research, and 8th in the UNDP’s report. On environmental sustainability, Gujarat ranks among the bottom five states. In terms of reduction in absolute poverty, states like Bihar rank better than Gujarat. There is low unemployment, but then Gujarat has led the way in deregulating labour markets, and has low and declining rates of workers’ organization. Despite its claims of being conflict-free, Amitabh Dubey has shown that Gujarat has a higher rate of casualty in communal conflict than the national average. (http://www.firstpost.com/politics/gujarat-not-riot-free-since-2002-heres-the-proof-1468735.html#disqus_thread) Modi’s supporters have claimed that he is the embodiment of ‘good governance’, but the CMR index ranks it 4th, with Delhi coming out on top. Only if one favours ‘economic freedom’ and ‘ease of doing business’ in making an index of good governance, does Gujarat rank first.

So, if it turns out that Gujarat is not the top performing state, and that its performance is high in some measures of development but also very low on some other equally important ones, then what do we make of the wide acceptability of the claims of the supremacy of the ‘Gujarat model’ among the vocal sections of the India’s new middle classes and Indian and transnational capitalists? Is it the case, as Rohini Hensman and Shivam Vij have recently argued, that this is down to the PR firms acting on behalf of the Modi machine, or because corporate media has been very accommodating to Modi’s campaign? Or can we understand this another way as well?

One cannot minimize the role of the media in building up the Modi model. There has been a shrinking space for the model’s critics in the mainstream media, including on TV: this is partly due to the eclipse of the party-left and associated intellectuals in the past five years. Claims on behalf of the model are rarely contested on superficially argumentative shows on TV. Because the standard media narrative holds the claims on behalf of the Gujarat model as being self-evidently true, skeptical and dissenting voices are received with incredulity and derision from Modi’s core supporters. Claims of competing models are also not seriously entertained. Delhi and Maharashtra’s performances under UPA coalitions are waved away as having come with corruption and kickbacks, though these same criteria are not used to make sense of the Gujarat trajectory.

It is also the case the far more media resources have been used by Modi’s campaign to champion a developmental model than the UPA’s or other state models. The UPA Prime Minister, derisively labeled ‘Maun’ Mohan Singh (or ‘silent’ Mohan Singh) has been successfully labeled in the media as someone who is not his own man – in contrast with Modi who is the undisputed leader. UPA ministers, when they have come on TV, have taken it as self-evident that they have done a great job with rights to employment and food, construction of infrastructure, and delivering high growth rates across their two terms. But they do not realize that, in a way, the very success of their policies has changed the terrain on which this election is being fought. It is true that the UPAs’ programs had a deep impact, despite substantial corruption in all of them. But by succeeding to reduce absolute poverty, in a situation of rapid growth and large scale migration, they have produced aspirations of greater and quick social mobility among the less-poor, for whom the economic slowdown is unacceptable, and for which they blame the UPA government squarely.

But more than anything else, I believe that it is the composition of the new middle class that provides the politics of support for the Gujarat model. Those who have become employed in the private sector in the past 10 years – years of high growth – believe that continuous high growth is possible, and, whatever its human and environmental costs, desirable. For them development IS growth, and human and social development indices, on which Gujarat has performed poorly, are seen with suspicion, in the most extreme cases even as a sort of global NGO conspiracy to sully Gujarat’s good name. So the success of the Gujarat model is not due to objective criteria. It is due to the success of creating a narrative at the centre of which is Modi, whose ‘leadership’ alone is credited with high growth. The declining standards of social science education has produced a middle class that accesses and consumes data but is unable to understand development either as a historical process or as a societal good. Perhaps it was to this segment of the population that a prominent Indian magazine was referring to some years ago, when it claimed that its survey showed 30% of the Indian middle classes wanted to vote in an authoritarian government for a 20 year period to usher in rapid growth and to politically control the dissent it would inevitably unleash.

What about for Indian and transnational capitalists? One common criticism of the Gujarat model is that it exemplifies ‘crony capitalism’, and the model’s critics will point to Adani, Ambani and Tata business houses that received public lands for a pittance, who were given very low rates for electricity and other inputs, and who were given tax breaks. Legendarily, their projects were cleared by ‘Modi himself’. Capitalist development in India today requires the transfer of public property to private ownership via state intervention, a task that Modi has achieved in Gujarat not without conflict, but with less conflict than in other parts of India, such as Bengal, Odisha and Chhatisgarh. This expansion of the sovereignty of capital – at the cost of labour, the environment and the public’s property – is a major reason why capitalists love Modi, and why international credit rating firms have given him high marks, predicting a rapid bounce-back of the Indian economy once he is in power, whatever the dynamics of the global economy. In all this, his highly problematic pricing of gas and electricity provided by business houses close to him have never been publicly debated.

We have, therefore, an interesting and contradictory development project underlying the Modi model. Its salient features are as following. Growth IS development, everything else – those pesky development indicators on which Gujarat does not perform well – is an inevitable consequence of growth, and growth alone can generate the solutions to these problems. Insofar as Modi is seen as a ‘nationalist’, in today’s context nationalist development involves making the most of national and transnational capital. Modi has lampooned the UPA for making a business out of poverty, and in his speeches there is contempt for the poor and programs directed at the alleviation of their poverty, but the much-delayed BJP election manifesto seems reluctant to discontinue the UPA’s flagship anti-poverty programs, or even its subsidies, despite having fulminated against them on the campaign trail. The model has done very poorly for women, who have high rates of malnutrition in Gujarat and about whom Modi had commented that they were thin not because of malnutrition but because they were ‘figure conscious’. Still, ‘women’s empowerment’ features in Modi’s development agenda. We find the social and cultural conditions of Dalits in Gujarat to be bad, with the prevalence of manual scavenging and caste-based exclusions and oppressions, but the agenda promises to include them in the growth story. And finally, in desiring a model of growth fronted by an authoritarian and authoritative (albeit elected) leader, as in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, and East and Southeast Asia of the 1980s 1990s, the model is both out of place and out of time.

With so many internal contradictions in the BJP’s development agenda, one can see Modi as an empty receptacle into which the new middle classes pour in their desiderata of development, and which reflects back to them these desires. The persona of Modi as a supreme leader into which his followers dissolve – witness the sea of Modi masks in any rally – and the taken-for-granted, only rarely-articulated Hindutva background that is his make-up suture into an unwieldy unity the myth of the Gujarat model today, and its applicability to the whole of India if Modi was to come to power tomorrow. By talking of development as the national project and himself as its capable helmsman and chowkidaar of the eonomy, Modi has tried to lift himself above the criticism of him as Hindutva hardliner, even to erase the memory of his previous avatar as a Hindutva warrior. Can this narrative of the model convince the victims of rapid growth in India, and those residing in regions where the history of development and its social dimensions have been very different? That is one question that will be answered on May 16, when the general election results are declared.

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About Subir Sinha

Subir Sinha is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS. A historian and political scientist by academic training, he studies the increasing political power of India's poor by looking at their social movements. He is also interested in how the Indian state and transnational development agencies shape their politics.