Centripetal undercurrents of Gujarat's No 1

By Rajiv Shah
Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi once again, on May 5, harped on federalism theme, his favorite for the last several months. Speaking at the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) in Delhi, he repeated what he had said previously at least on dozen occasions -- that there are “well defined and constitutionally mandated” centre-state relations, that there are “disturbing trends” which reveal the Centre’s “autocratic mindset” seeking to undermine “all canons of federalism.” He cited several instances, including proposed enactments to Railway Protection Act and Border Security Force Act, saying the Centre was behaving like the “viceroys of the yore.”
While Modi’s reflections on federalism mirrors today’s political reality when centrifugal forces become stronger every day, it is amusing that they come from a leader who is a known centralizer in Gujarat. Take, for instance, the Cabinet he heads. Modi is not just Gujarat’s chief minister. As someone who matters in Sachivalaya put to it me, a little jokingly, “There is no No 2 in his Cabinet, not even No 3 or No 4. You have only No 9 and further on in Cabinet. There is no one in between”!
Indeed, Modi is Gujarat’s Cabinet minister for home, industry, mines and minerals, energy and petrochemicals, ports and transport, information and broadcasting, science and technology, Narmada and Kalpasar, planning, administrative reforms and training. The list is long. He has not been able to find a single BJP leader in his 120 plus MLA team in the 182 member state assembly worth heading any of these major departments as Cabinet minister.
Worse, none of these departments are headed by ministers of state with independent charge.
Saurabh Patel, is minister of state for industry and mines, and for energy and petrochemicals, too, but his powers are limited -- he does not have their independent charge, which means that all files for final approval must go to Modi for nod. Same is the case with home, headed previously by Amit Shah as minister of state, and now by Prafull Patel.
Narmada -- which is considered the “lifeline of Gujarat” -- does not have any minister, let alone Cabinet minister. One has only to recall days when powerful politicians with strong convincing powers were asked to head it, as it involved frequent talks with neighbouring states as also the Centre. The predicament is the same with ports, so important for a state with 20 per cent of India’s coastline, where many private ports are operating and many more are coming up. They get more traffic than anywhere else in India.
There is a “longest serving” finance minister of Gujarat, Vajubhai Vala. Ironically, Vala can also qualify to be the weakest. He wouldn’t know the any GSDP rate of growth, not to talk of latest, unless briefed in advance. He has not attended even one meeting of state finance ministers in Delhi despite presenting state budget for the highest number of times. This job is taken care of a minister of state. Ironically it was his 18th budget in February this year! His only qualification is his powerful real estate interests and loyalty, which he demonstrated in early 2002, vacating his Rajkot seat for Modi to fight.
Not that there is anything new here. All of it began after Modi romped back to power December 2002. The only powerful department he doesn’t head as Cabinet minister is revenue, which is directly controlled by the person known to be ideologically closest to him, Anandiben Patel. There is a Cabinet minister for irrigation, Nitin Patel, who has no say on Narmada, which is Gujarat’s most important irrigation project. The irrigation minister, interestingly, is also Cabinet minister for urban development.
Only social sectors -- considered a neglected lot -- are headed by Cabinet ministers who mattered as BJP leaders in the past. And these Cabinet ministers today feel let down. A Cabinet minister, in charge of a social sector department and headed an important Cabinet rank in the past, frankly told me, “We are nobody in the present scheme of things. We do not want to be quoted by the media unless Modi wants us to. Please allow us remain in corner. It’s better if we are not projected.”
With BJP, things have been equally bad. Ever since Modi managed to politically finish off his main competitors in the party, including former chief ministers Keshubhai Patel and Suresh Mehta, and former Union textile minister Kashiram Rana, the state party has a BJP president whom few know -- RC Faldu. Former BJP chief Rajendrasinh Rana is merely a member of Parliament with no clout in the party now. Ministers, MLAs and MPs have become so dependent on Modi that they openly say, without any slip of tongue, that they can’t win an election without Modi.
Over-centralization is not just confined to the Cabinet and the party. It has become a key to all government programmes. Over the last two years, Modi held exactly 863 Gharib Kalyan melas at district, taluka and village levels, where the poor were handed over the doles at one go, allegedly “without any intermediaries”. Here too Modi ruled at each of the melas. Take the latest round of Gharib Kalyan melas, 221 of them, almost one each in all 26 districts continuously for several days in April second half.A senior official told me, “Modi obviously couldn’t go to each of these Gharib Kalyan melas. Hence we devised a novel way -- he would address one lakh people in 26 melas in all 26 districts every day simultaneously via video conference sitting at his residence. Ministers and other BJP local leaders would distribute doles on behalf of Modi, who would be still on screen.” Things are not very different with mahila sammelans, rojgar melas, kenya kelavni enrolment drive and krishi mohotsav.

Indeed, whether it is solar park in arid North Gujarat, the proposed world’s highest, 182-metre Statue of Unity in the memory of Sardar Patel, Narmada drinking water pipeline project at Botad, or a car project in Sanand, Modi is the only choice. Someone counted, on Gujarat Day, May 1, he inaugurated 16 functions in a day. Whether big or small, even for sports and cultural events, Modi is the only choice.
Modi’s over-centralized ways, interestingly, has put the entire babudom on tenterhooks. A senior state official quoted a collector of a North Gujarat district to say, “ We have no other work to do, except organizing melas for Modi’s functions. We cannot do our routine work, which keeps piling up. We feel as if we have turned into party workers. There are instructions from the top to carry out propaganda work of the work the government has done over the last five years.”
Along with centralization of power, Modi seems to show scant regard to democratic institutions. Recently, he came up with a novel concept “Taluka Sarkar”. This, after went strong that local officials had become inactive, and panchayats are unable to perform, hence a new establishment be created. Later changed to ApnoTaluko Vibrant Taluko or ATVT, Modi appointed 100 plus class one officials all over the state to “oversee” the developmental activities which are under the purview of panchayats. These officials, with funds in hands, are answerable to none, except Gandhinagar Sachivalaya.
A district panchayat chief belonging to BJP complained, “The effort here is to undermine the constitutional requirement -- of 72nd and 73rd amendments -- which gives more powers to local bodies. The state panchayats department has prepared a list of 15 items whose powers must be progressively transferred to the local bodies. However, here, under ATVT, even the jobs which are with panchayats are being sought to be monitored by 100 plus class one officials, directly controlled by Gandhinagar.”
In fact, Modi rewards those village panchayats which are elected unopposed in the name of creating a “samras” atmosphere. Working towards undermining competitive elections at the village level ever since he came to power, he has been progressively increasing the prize to the panchayats declared samras. And who would give prize to these “samras” panchayats? Certainly not panchayats minister Narottam Patel, a former South Gujarat strongman, now a non-entity. He sat in the sidelines of a function at Mahatma Mandir for sarmas panchayati chiefs held in Gandhinagar, where Modi distributed prizes.

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