At a time when a Gujarati politician is being closely watched and predictions are being made on how much of a mark he will leave on the national stage, it should be interesting to analyse the unique ethos that has been known to prevail in his home state.
A historically mercantile culture, widespread influence of Jainism, diluted casteism and an intrinsic irreverence makes society and polity in Gujarat different from other Indian states. Centre-right in their economic leaning, people here naturally gravitate towards leaner governments with high standards of governance. This means that while on the one hand the audience at a Gandhinagar rally is more appreciative of an irreverent political speech—irrespective of which side of the political divide it comes from—citizens here have a much lower threshold as regards terrorism compared to other states, especially in the country’s Hindi belt, where a more chalta hai attitude prevails.
To understand the Gujarati, we need to study in depth what is probably their most dominant influence: mercantilism. A parched land ravaged by severe water shortage and climatic fluctuations, agriculture has always been difficult in Gujarat. Blessed with an extensive natural coastline and an innate entrepreneurial instinct, Gujaratis make for natural businessmen. Profitable commerce necessarily requires an environment of economic growth and good governance and a centre-right political paradigm is the basis for profits and dhando (business). This is equally true today as it was in the 13th century when the first shipping lines are documented to have begun plying their trade.
Integrity of leadership, economic growth and development, and intolerance of terrorism have tremendous appeal in Gujarat. This is because Gujarat expects a moral-absolutist ethos from its leadership and has many certitudes, the first being centre-right economics. There is a saying in Gujarati folklore which, effectively repudiating Communism, goes: “Jeno raja vyapari eni praja bhikari” translated as if your king is a businessman, his subjects are beggars.
According to Amrita Patel, ex-chief of NDDB, the only cooperative in India whose chief is elected by its own board is Amul—other state cooperatives have government nominees to head them, thus making them susceptible to government interference. This suggests a centre-right (small government) ethos in Gujarat, as opposed to other states with big government mores. Another illustration is whilst Modi has just three people working for him at his residence in Gandhinagar, Race Course Road has 50, which again suggests the idea of efficiency in Gujarat.
Terrorism is another issue which the Gujarati feels strongly about. So much so that even during Navaratri (a non-political platform), people dance to specially written couplets (‘Sanedo’), mocking terrorism and Pakistan.
Also there’s the relativism in Indic ideas—consequently corruption, excessive red-tapism, terrible governance and poor economic growth have generally been acceptable in earlier elections. Contrast this with the West which generally functions within the centre-right paradigm, with high accountability and integrity. In the ’70s and ’80s, India had poor economic growth and governance. The BJP (1984) offered an alternative of ending the licence raj and good governance, despite that voters were not enthused. The BJP lost in 1989, 1996 and 2004 as well despite the centre-right platform. Meanwhile, the ’09 general elections proved that despite mediocre performances, governments could be voted back, more proof that suggests relativism in Indic thinking, as opposed to holding a government to an absolute standard).
The Jainism influence has also been a big enabler in this (Gujarat has a substantial Jain population). Jainism ensured many centuries back that in the absence of the rule of law and law courts, commercial contracts were respected. Suchitra Sheth and Achyut Yagnik in their book, The Shaping of Modern Gujarat, argue that centuries ago Jain monks spread the idea that citizens should respect commercial contracts and be honest with fellow citizens. This religion-based enforceability of business contracts cascaded into robust mercantilism, akin to that of Protestantism. In fact, Marco Polo said of the merchants of Lat (a town in Gujarat) that they were “the best merchants in the world, and the most truthful.” Jainism also had another influence. It precluded people from violence, taking life and warfare, thus most of the Jains instead opted for trading and commerce.
NSG commandos after the Akshardham terror attack was neutralised, 2002
Also, according to writer Shreekant Sambrani, Gujarat did not have much of a feudal or Islamic past. Absence of local rulers’ courts meant that trade-mercantile guilds ran affairs and administration. The kind of socio-cultural influence that pervaded the feudal kingdoms of Rajasthan etc was absent in Gujarat. The trade guilds were akin to the influential mercantile guilds of Belgium and the Netherlands, which contributed to making the Dutch world leaders in finance. In Gujarat, this cascaded into a strong entrepreneurial culture. As the English philosopher Bertrand Russell puts it, governments which consist of mercantilists tend to be more prudent in running the administration. This is evident in the fact that many psus returned to profitability in Gujarat. What political thinker Baron de Montesquieu said is eternally true for Gujarat too—commerce polishes ways and makes temperaments more win-win.
Historian Abraham Eraly says “Buddhism imposed absolute dharmic imperatives on human conduct...in contrast, Hinduism was undemanding, accepting of ethical pluralism. There were no gods in Buddhism to turn to for forgiveness. So also in Jainism.” Thus, comparatively, Jainism demanded ethical absolutes, which had a considerable influence on Gujarat (it’s a different matter that Jainism itself needs some reform today). Even the prevalent vegetarianism is attributed to Jain influence. The Gujarati king, Kumarpal (1143-73 AD), converted to Jainism, made a proclamation of ahimsa that called upon citizens to stop taking animal life, prohibited animal sacrifice and alcohol. (Another fallout of the vegetarian ethos that cascaded from Jainism to majority Gujarati Hindus meant that Muslims, who are predominantly non-vegetarian, found it difficult to integrate with the Hindus here.)
There is an anecdote involving B.K. Nehru, one of Gujarat’s first governors, who was astonished that when he arrived he was addressed by his first name. As he hailed from the north where it was customary to be deferential and add a “ji” at the end while addressing seniors, the informality perplexed him. So he asked his aide why this was so. The reply: it was customary in Gujarat to address people by their first names, getting by with a “bhai” at the end. There was respect but not much deference in Gujarat.
A contemptuous ethos means government is questioned vigorously which ensures public accountability. Somewhat like the British insolence towards authority which partly ensures transparency and integrity within their government. Gujarat has some small measure of this Brit impertinence. Also, Gujarat is the biggest market for comedy (source: SAB TV), which suggests that they take life a little easy with a less aggrieved mindset. Journalist Madhu Kishwar says, “In Gujarat, at government events such as kisan panchayats—even when thousands are participating, farmers are given the same food and served in the same style as vips”, which suggests less deference to the powers that be.
Now, coming to the caste factor which is also less marked in Gujarat. Indeed, Modi himself has never used his OBC status to garner votes in the state. Examples abound that prove this theory. In the 1980s, prominent politician Atmaram Patel (from the Patel community) was fighting Lok Sabha elections from Mehsana, which had a three lakh-strong Patel population. Despite that he lost to a Brahmin candidate whose population was just one lakh.
Lastly, Gujarat’s fairly distinct social behaviour stems from hard-nosed thinking. In Gujarat, history, be it of the Mughal invasion or Sardar Patel, is written in ways which would perhaps seem politically incorrect. Gujarat certainly does not take the liberal establishment line. It’s somewhat like the Allied powers that mark ww-ii every year and shame Germany because of its appalling role in it, rather than overlook it for the sake of amicability. For example, the Somnath temple was rebuilt in Gujarat as a reminder of history and a symbol of Indian civilisation which highlights the invasion of India. There is the politically incorrect idea that history must be kept alive to remind future generations of the distressing past. This is converse to the left-liberal establishment in Delhi, which waters down politically inconvenient histories of invasions and makes it more palatable to citizens.
(The author is an academic working on how a social, cultural and religious ethos influences society and governance.)
It’s such a pleasure reading Outlook these days. I am referring to Roma Shah’s Gujarat & India: Same, Different But Same (June 2). Now that Narendra Modi’s origins have been analysed to everyone’s prurient satisfaction, I’d like the team of stenographers at Outlook to focus their observant gaze on Modi’s sartorial taste, chic khaki trousers, personal grooming etc next. Indeed, your columnist is a true academic producing truly independent ideas unshackled by the pull of rationality.
Pankaj Vaishnavi, London
Gujarat didn’t have much of an Islamic past? What is that supposed to mean?
An exclusive issue for Gujaratis? Manmohan Singh was PM for a decade but you never had a Punjabi or Sikh special. And terrorism unheard of in Gujarat? Have you forgotten the attack on Akshardham?
V.N.K. Murti, Pattambi
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
I hope the PM from Gujarat is more open minded than the party he belongs to, and opens up trade. But with noises already being made against FDI in retail, will he go the way of the UP folks who have made a mess of this country?
Words worth every square-inch of the highly absorbent paper they are written on.
Roma Shah is a true academic, with a mind completely empty of any material clutter and capable of producing truly independent, space-bound, ideas unshackled by the pull of rationality.
It is such a pleasure to read Outlook these days. Now that Modi's origins in Gujarat have been analysed to everyone's satisfaction, I would like the team of stenographers at Outlook to focus their observant gaze on Modi's sartorial taste in chic khaki knickers and personal grooming next. More about that exquisitely trimmed beard and how it plays a role in Modi's no-nonsense decision-making is what we've really wanted to know for so long.
BTW, the photo with the article shows the "bus lane" in the center. I saw this in Ahmedabad. Don't know if original or borrowed but what an idea Sirji. It truly works well.
If so, dear Ms. Authoress, let Gujjuism prevail. Let the Bhais and the Bens run riot and fix us (Anyways they along with the Bengalis are the largest contingent of tourists around India - the difference of course one has wealth to spread - the other needs the pie to be always re-distributed). We do need a strong foundation of vypaar and economics as part of our nation building (and not confuse and equate equitable/inclusive as meaning re-distribution).
Of course in today's kalyug desh with national integration and all, I am not so sure that the Gujju vyapaari or a Gujju with unbridled discretionary power (our governing class) is any more honest than the rest of their desi counterparts. (Recall Casablanca - "Captain Renault: Ricky, I'm going to miss you. Apparently you're the only one in Casablanca with less scruples than I.")
In the meantime, in any case, let us all enjoy our "snacks (famously pronounced as "snakes" you know where). As the famous movie dialog goes let us name our missiles with Gujju "snakes" names. May be Sharif will be less threatened, like it too and change their weaponary names to Persian/Uzbek sweets. Could be the start of a beautiful relationship in the memorable words of Casablanca.
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