The setting of the sun does little to cool Ahmedabad, baked all day by the summer heat. Neither does the old-world pedestal fan hurling fine cooling droplets at our six participants, locked in animated conversation at the courtyard cafe of the heritage House of MG, in the Lal Darwaja area, the very heart of Ahmedabad, right opposite the iconic Sidi Sayeed mosque, with its rock tracery windows filtering light onto the devout. The House of MG, built in 1924 as the home of a wealthy textile mill owner, is now run as a heritage hotel and restaurant. The city was founded much earlier though: after the 11th century rule of Karandev of the Solanki dynasty in the region, and the taking of Gujarat by the Khiljis in the late 13th century, Ahmedabad was established on the banks of the Sabarmati in 1411 by Ahmed Shah.
As we wait for a quorum to fill, young business executive Shridhar Narayan poses a query: “What happened to the Karnavati saga?” The answer, from Rajiv Shah, who saunters in, is: “Gone with the wind!”
For decades, the BJP campaigned energetically for renaming Ahmedabad as Karnavati. A young Narendra Modi and the not-so-young L.K. Advani were both a part of this campaign. The NDA rule came and went. Vajpayee and Advani gave way to Narendra Modi in Gujarat and India, but the idea of renaming this city stays buried. Shah says this sums up the BJP approach: “One line for crusading, one for ruling.”
Narayan was born, brought up and educated in Gujarat; his professional pursuits took him to Tamil Nadu, but he has returned. Rajiv Shah is an Ahmedabad-born Gujarati who spent time elsewhere in India and abroad before returning to his city of birth in 1993 to retire recently as the political editor of a national daily. He has two decades of Modi-trailing to his credit, tracking proceedings from the state capital, Gandhinagar.
“The BJP approach to all issues has been like this: one line when it’s crusading, and another line when it is ruling.”
This question-answer sets the tone as others wade into the chai pe charcha. Says social scientist Ghanshyam Shah, “On the way to the top job, Narendrabhai raised expectations sky-high. The aggressive posturing with the Gujarat model as the backdrop raised popular expectations countrywide. An impatient people now want visible results. What was Nirmal Gujarat in the state became Swachh Bharat when he moved to Delhi. Neither did Gujarat become Nirmal, nor has Bharat become Swachh. Hype is fine but the reality is very different and the very middle class which opened its arms wide to the Modi phenomenon is now raising searching questions.”
“Patience,” counsels prominent right-wing thinker Vishnu Pandya, who feels that judgement in haste only adds to the confusion. “No wonder you have predictions falling on their head.” Pandya, who had stoutly opposed the Emergency with his searching writings, feels that Modi has done admirably well in the short time at his disposal. “We need to give him more time. His campaign style of politics is meant to engender hope to draw in the masses and prepare them for the transformation under way,” he says. “For ten years we had a mauni baba who did nothing while India’s image took a beating. Modi is now seeking to revive the Asian leadership concept. It is nothing new. Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army had received the support of 60 countries in the pre-independence era. Pandit Nehru tried the same thing with his non-aligned movement—Panchsheel. The Asian vision has been an intrinsic part of the RSS-BJP thought process. The Indo-Bangladesh border accord is a message to China that India is open to sorting out border issues. Modi deserves full credit for the arduous task he has taken on hand.”
Sukhdev Patel, an Aam Admi Party (AAP) leader who has been working in education, has a different take. He says, “We need to work on basics for our people back home before we start globe-trotting. The Gujarat chief minister, accompanying the prime minister to China, seeks neighbourly participation while we fritter away our own resources. Lack of a canal network and poor construction work is a problem that causes colossal waste of water. Modi has nothing new to offer—the same old hackneyed slogans touted under the Gujarat model that we have been hearing for over a decade have now found a national audience, bolstered by the government publicity machinery.”
“We need to give Modi more time. His campaign style of politics is meant to inspire hope, to draw in the masses, prepare them for change.”
The mood of the discussion swings from animation to anguish, from shrillness to insouciance. But everyone is agreed that the honeymoon between Modi and the masses is not over. At least not in Gujarat, which has a definite regard for him. Ghanshyam Shah, however, says, “From outright vocal support to listening and even questioning him—this is the subtle change that is visible in Gujarat.” Patel chimes in with, “And that’s saying quite a bit.” Rajiv Shah feels that the calibrated sensationalism mouthed by the Hindutva brigade will only bring down the Modi popularity graph and hasten disillusionment.
Narayan does not agree. “The educated youth is capable of discounting the religious hogwash. The young know how to cut through the garbage, hype and hoopla but if he fails to deliver, all the verbosity will recoil on Modi,” he says. Rajiv Shah is emphatic that Modi, while posturing as a great democrat, has an “inherent dislike for dissent”—he just cannot take adverse comments. His stand on civil society organisations stands out as a case in point. Every time anyone raised issues that were at odds with Modi, he was branded either anti-Gujarat or anti-development. The same line of thought has now been brought to Delhi. If you are not in agreement with Modi-thought, then you are branded anti-national or anti-development. He would have you believe that nothing moved in India until he came along, say some.
“Why does everybody keep talking about the Modi government? Why not the BJP government? Or the BJP-led NDA government? This is the saddest part. It has petered down to concentration of ruling power in one hand, be it the government, be it the party,” says Patel.
“Good,” says Shridhar, “for that makes the choosing easy. The government will be judged on the working of a single individual. The one who takes credit for success will also have to bear the brunt for failures.”