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Gujarat & India Same, Different But Same

A historically mercantile culture, a centre-right leaning and an irreverent nature, the Gujarati is truly a thepla in the mix

Gujarat & India Same, Different But Same
Mayur Bhatt
Gujarat & India Same, Different But Same

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.

So much so that even during Navaratri people dance to specially written sanedos mocking terrorism, Pakistan.

Another certitude is a low acceptability of corruption and an expectation of good governance. In a 2011 Outlook poll, 92.1 per cent residents of Ahmedabad were most concerned about corruption, the highest amongst Indian cities. According to columnist Aakar Patel, it was Baniyas (the mercantile class) that helped secure Calcutta for the British. They apparently liked the rule of law the British provided. If you extrapolate this further, this explains why Gujarat (with its mercantilist ethos,) votes for a government which provides these centre-right attributes i.e. economic growth and good governance. (Such centre-right and moral-absolutist certitudes are broadly less appreciated in the rest of India. According to A.K. Ramunajam, many parts of India are comparatively morally relativist. He asserts that the idea of Indian contextual morality perhaps stems from the fact that there is not just one clear edict on ethics or other areas in Hinduism.)

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.)

The reply: it was customary in Gujarat to address people by their first names, getting by with a ‘bhai’ at the end.

In small measure due to irreverence, Gujarati society is also a little derisive, partly again because it did not have much of a feudal past. Modi himself at times can be a trifle irreverent about himself and others. He once described himself as someone who worked liked a 24-hour house help. Once taking a dig at the media, he said “the media will say, look at this Modi, he gloats about his  security record but Gandhiji’s specs were stolen”. A receptionist in a hotel once scathingly told me, “These IAS officers are son-in-laws of the state,” because whilst they worked in Gandhinagar, they came to Ahmedabad (45 minutes away) everyday to the gymkhana in government cars wasting expensive fuel.  This would generally not be an issue in, say, UP, where they look up to authority because the idea that it’s citizens’ money that is being wasted and government can be questioned is rare.

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.)

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