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Urban Gujarat: The incumbency riddle

Three years ago, a high-level Gujarat government document made a glaring observation, which I haven’t forgotten even today. Ever since I quoted the observation in a news story in late 2009, I have wondered: If things are really so appalling in urban areas, as the document tried to make out, then why do urban dwellers so strongly favour the ruling BJP in Gujarat? More, the urbanites’ voting share for the ruling party appears to have up after every electoral battle. While it may take some time for keen experts like Prof Ghanshyam Shah to analyze the data and identify a trend, even a cursory glance would show that in the last Gujarat assembly election, the saffron party won with great margins in 60-odd purely urban constituencies out of a total of 182. The victory margin ranged between over 1 lakh in Ghatlodia in Ahmedabad, where a Narendra Modi favourite won, to 17,000 in Porbandar, where a Congress stalwart was defeated. This was in complete contrast to rural Gujarat, where the two par…

Far from the madding crowd

It was Friday, December 14, one day before the campaign for the Gujarat state assembly polls was to end. I reached my office in Gandhinagar unusually early, at 8.00 am. As I was about to reach, I noticed some journalist colleagues from the local electronics media getting ready to go to a rally that was to be addressed by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi just about 20 km away, at Kalol town. They were busy prominently pasting “Media” in front of their car, so that the security wouldn’t bother them. One of them made a polite offer: “Come along, you will enjoy. We’ll return by the afternoon”. I refused, saying my intention was to go far from the madding crowd, away to a place where there wasn’t much of political noise.
“It’s generally sheer waste of time listening to a leader. They will all tell you all what you know about, nothing new”, I told them, as they looked at me suspiciously. I moved on to my office. After phoning up a couple of persons, I decided to go with a friend to Sabarkantha di…

Gujarat growth: the trickle down myth

Over the past few weeks, whenever I visited a senior state bureaucrat’s chamber in Gandhinagar Sachivalaya, I would invariably notice a coffee table book prominently displayed – “Gujarat: Governance for Growth and Development”, authored by Prof Bibek Debroy, an economist who shot into prominence after he was forced to move out of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation several years ago. It’s a common knowledge: He had “researched” in a study report that Gujarat was No 1 in economic freedom index. This was his only fault. One of the bureaucrats proudly gave me a copy of the book, but not before telling me how Debroy had prepared the book after moving around Gujarat – of course, with every possible official help. Based on facts and figures in the book, this bureaucrat, just ahead of his retirement in October-end, made a presentation on Gujarat’s model of development at an evening get-together for state IAS bureaucrats called by chief minister Narendra Modi to mark his own 4,000 days in office. Why…

Not so Vibrant Gujarat

In case Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi wins the forthcoming assembly polls – which he is likely to with a comfortable margin, if one goes by pollsters’ predictions – we will witness yet another biennial Modi show, the sixth Vibrant Gujarat global summit. Gujarat’s bureaucrats, sure of Modi victory, haven’t left any stone unturned to make preparations for the show, to take place at Mahatma Mandir, a convention centre not very far from Sachivalaya in Gandhinagar. Industrial Extension Bureau, propaganda wing of the state industries department, has printed thousands of folders “welcoming” investors at the “Vibrant Gujarat global business hub”, asking them: “Block your diary for January 11-13, 2013.” Partner countries have been declared – Japan and Canada; and partner organizations are Japan External Trade Organization, US-India Business Council and Australia-India Business Council. A folder, carrying a Modi photograph, quotes him to say: “Gujarat is emerging as a globally preferred …

FDI debate, globalization and Gujarat farmers

Globalization always excited me even when I was a student. I never supported it, though there was no particular reason to oppose it either. It was a hot topic especially among student wings of Left parties in Delhi University, with whom I was associated in early 1970s. "Anti-imperialism" was the buzzword among our Left "mentors", and globalization naturally was considered an evil, propped up by the multinational companies (MNCs). At Students' Federation of India (SFI) study circles, taken by those whom we thought were CPI(M)'s future theoreticians - Ved Gupta, Sunit Chopra, Rajendra Prasad, Sudhish Pachauri - we were told how India's "bourgeois-landlord government led by big bourgeoisie" was an ally of imperialism, and its "globalization efforts" undermined India's independence. We were persuaded to believe that India's independent in 1947 was just in namesake and that Indira Gandhi's anti-imperialist rhetoric during and …

Modi's spiritual potion to woo karmayogis

It was, vaguely, early November 2007. I sat in the chamber of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi's principal secretary, K Kailashnathan, in Block No 1 of Sachivalaya. A just-published book was lying on his table, "Karmayog", authored by Modi. It was actually a collection of Modi's what seemed to many a babu erudite lectures at the annual bureaucratic conclave called Chintan Shibir. I asked Kailashnathan, whom I have always found a very reluctant man, whether I could have the book. The top Modi aide looked at me suspiciously, smiled, and after some bit of hesitation, forwarded the book to me. "No mischief, Rajiv", he remarked. Apparently, he thought, there can't be anything in the book which could trigger controversy during the Gujarat state assembly polls, which were just about a month away. The newsman in me led me to scan it from page to page, trying to find out if there was anything newsworthy.
The book's 5,000 copies were printed, but it wasn&#…

A laborious decline

A few days back, I was talking with one of the senior-most bureaucrats of the Gujarat government. I wished to know the minimum wages in the state for such category of workers as peons and lift-men. I am not naming this bureaucrat as we were chatting informally, over a cup of tea, discussing out different things, including ongoing Gujarat state polls. The query took the bureaucrat by surprise, perhaps because he suspected what I was hinting at. “I don’t look after the matter directly, Rajiv. It’s the labour commissioner’s job. There are 450 different categories, and for each minimum wage is different. You can ask my junior (he named him); he has full list”, he told me, sounding evasive. The reason for being evasive was clear. In Gandhinagar Sachivalaya, which is the seat of power in Gujarat, there are in all 750 peons, half of whom are on fixed pay and “irregular”, while the rest are regular employees. If the irregular fixed pay peons get Rs 3,000 per month, which is far from the presc…

The "P" factor in Gujarat polls

Early this week, I was talking with a senior government official, who happens to belong to one of Gujarat’s economically powerful and influential communities, Patels. I decided to chat with him because he knew its cross section better than many, and had an in-depth first hand information about the community. We were chatting informally, one reason why I’m constrained to keep his name anonymous. Though his pro-Patel soliloquy appeared somewhat jarring, the insight he gave me into his community impressed me. He talked straight, without mincing words, basing on his extremely wide-ranging contacts with politicians of all hues. What struck me most was his following statement, which he made in the context of the Gujarat state assembly polls, to take place in December: “We as a community will vote for the BJP again. The Congress doesn’t seem to want us, though we are ready to be it.”
As for the newly-formed Gujarat Parivartan Party, led by ex-chief minister Keshubhai Patel, this is what he to…

A raw GIFT, handle with care

Finally, after considerable endeavour in Gandhinagar Sachivalaya, I was able to lay my hands on what is being regarded as "feasibility study" of chief minister Narendra Modi's dream project, Gujarat International Finance Tec-city. It's called "Building a World-class Finance Centre in India: GIFT". It was handed over to me by a senior state bureaucrat, who told me it is a "rare document, not meant for circulation", hence I should return it after going through it.
Prepared by topnotch international consultants, McKinsey & Company, I tried to get it from several sources, including bureaucrats in the state urban development department, which is supposed to be responsible for the project. All of them promised that they would give me a copy, even directed those handling the special purpose vehicle, GIFT Company Ltd, set up for building the finance city, to "do the needful". I got a few phone calls from GIFT Company Ltd executives promising …

The Salman Khurshid legacy

Tipu. That’s how we used to call Salman Khurshid, currently in the midst of storm for the alleged misappropriation of funds of an NGO in the name of his illustrious grandfather, Dr Zakir Hussain, a Gandhian educationist who later became President of India. Tipu then lived just about 100 yards away in a sprawling bungalow from the place I lived. It was situated next to the huge campus of what was then called Teachers’ Training College of Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. Back from school, quite often, about 10 of us – apart from Tipu and me, we were Munna, Shobhi, Pappu, Gudda, Aslam and Gajinder – would play cricket on the huge college ground. I didn’t know much of cricket, hence Tipu would either ask me to bowl or field, which I would sheepishly do, as I was afraid of the cricket ball hitting me. My turn to bat would be the shortest, as I would be out in no time. At that time I studied in Sardar Patel Vidyalaya and Tipu was in Delhi Public School. Most of us looked upon Tipu as a future c…

Gujarat tourism: Riding the Bachchan bandwagon?

I got an SMS from a senior IAS bureaucrat of Gujarat government a few days back, frantically wanting me to publicize the invitation he had received for Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s 70th birthday on October 10. The SMS read, “I happen to be the only person from the state to be invited for Bachchan’s biggest birthday bash…” I received another SMS from a PR consultant a day later which said about the same thing. This wasn’t the first time this bureaucrat had tried to show off his “closeness” to Bachchan. During informal talks, he would tell me rather quite often how Bachchan, during his visit to Gujarat for tourism advertisements, would invariably dine with his family at his residence in Ahmedabad, and how when controversy broke out about Bachchan’s involvement with chief minister Narendra Modi over tourism ads, he saved the situation. “Amitabh had almost walked out. But, through my Bollywood connections, I brought him back”, he told me. The names he dropped included were of hi…

Mahatma and the ritualistic ism

This is what happened one-and-a-half decades ago. I was asked to perform tervi in the memory of my paternal uncle, who had just passed away after living a quiet life in Porbandar. The pujari, who was asked to perform the ceremony for me, was an old man. He asked me pointblank, which took me by complete surprise: “Mahatma Gandhi never believed in these rituals. Why are you performing this ritual?” The pujari told me that his great grandfather used to perform puja for the Gandhi family in Porbandar. He was called in because my aunt, Vinuben, who had passed away a few years earlier, belonged to Porbandar’s Gandhi family.
My aunt was younger sister of Manuben Gandhi, who was with Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948, when the Mahatma was shot by a Hindu terrorist. Grand niece of Mahatma Gandhi, my aunt was in charge of the Kirti Mandir till she passed away. Thereafter, my uncle, who always clad khadi and Gandhi topi as a ritual, was forced to move out of Kirti Mandir. He wanted to live on th…

Smell of suspicion

Last week, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi hosted a sumptuous dinner for the state’s top officialdom based in Gandhinagar. I knew in advance that, ahead of the dinner, there was going to be some speechifying – at least two senior-most officials, Gujarat chief secretary AK Joti, and his No 2, additional chief secretary, planning, Varun Maira, were to be fielded to speak on the Modi miracle, on why other states should “replicate” Gujarat model. Modi was jittery. Officials say, the dinner was in retaliation of 2,025 Sachivalaya babus’ pre-assembly poll signature campaign demanding pay hike, warning him, they are not alone, they are backed by five in the family, and their “support” can multiply. As would happen with any newsperson, I curiously tried to phone up and dig out what exactly had happened at the dinner, which Modi termed Vikas Ni Suhas, or Fragrance of Development. Late in the evening, I got return phone call from one of the participants. “Good food, but speeches were borin…