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Modi and Gujarati 'Asmita'

Narendra Modi won the elections so spectacularly because he convinced the electorate that he is the true bearer of the Gujarati identity. This is an identity that no longer acknowledges the values of Mahatma Gandhi, that believes ethics is negotiable, and that revels in Modi's hyper-masculine politics.

Modi and Gujarati ‘Asmita’ Tridip Suhrud the political parties to speak meaningfully of Gandhi signals a deeper failure. It signifies a failure of our capacity to hear. Gujarat today sees itself as the future of India. It is a future that is built upon the

Narendra Modi won the elections so spectacularly because he convinced the electorate that he is the true bearer of the Gujarati identity. This is an identity that no longer acknowledges the values of Mahatma Gandhi, that believes ethics is negotiable, and that revels in Modi’s hyper-masculine politics.

Tridip Suhrud ( is a social scientist based in Ahmedabad.

Economic & Political Weekly january 5, 2008

n his first speech after the stupendous victory in the Gujarat assembly elections Narendra Modi attributed his success to the people of Gujarat. This could be seen as formal, empty rhetoric; but if one were to take his statement seriously the reasons for his success become apparent. This was a victory attained against every possible impediment. His party was divided, the senior most leaders had rebelled, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) had openly aligned itself against him, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was at best indifferent and the Congress appeared resurgent. But he was confident that the Gujarati voter was with him, understood him and appreciated him. He claimed that he understands the mind of the Gujarati voter because he is a true representative of their psyche.

What then is this phenomenon called Modi and what is its relation to Gujarati ‘asmita’ (identity)? Understanding this requires us to recognise that it involves two acts: one is the loss of a certain kind of memory and the other is the loss of a certain kind of speech – created between amnesia and aphasia.

No Place for Gandhi

First, it is necessary to understand that Gujarat is not the land of Gandhi anymore. Gandhi left the Sabarmati Ashram on March 12, 1930 never to return. His existence in the Gujarati mind, society and economy has been minimal. Gandhi’s denial of private property and the personal family as the sole heir of legacy goes contrary to the ethos of Gujarati mercantile capitalism. His insistence on casteless existence perturbed the Gujarati middle class then as it does now. His conviction that one could be a sanatani Hindu only when one is simultaneously a good Christian, a devout Muslim and a faithful Parsi went against our narrow, sectarian way of being religious. Gujarat today does not wish to be reminded of either the possibilities of Gandhian politics or of his absence. The inabi lity of petrochemical and energy complexes that dominate the industry of Gujarat. The special economic zones (SEZs) are a part of our imagination of the future. The large coastline that we are so aggressively privatising is our commercial link to the rest of the world. Our speculative tendencies are very profitably employed in the bullish stock market. In this scheme the poor are forgotten. They are a source of cheap and hopefully perennial supply of migrant labour that would help us build the urban spaces that we dream of. Gandhi and his constructive programmes are not part of our economic imagination. We have grown weary of voluntary work and its modern incarnation, the non-governmental organisation (NGO). Our suspicion of the voluntary work, which has its basis in self-volition, runs so deep that Gujarat today has forgotten the long tradition of selfless service of the poor, the tribal, the dalit, the criminal tribes that was part of the lokseva done under Gandhi’s guidance. As a result, figures such as Ravishankar Maharaj – revered as one of the founders of the modern Gujarati state, Thakkar Bapa, Parikshitlal Majumdar and Jugatram Dave have been erased from our memory. We have forgotten the legitimacy of autonomous acts, acts which allow one to be moral. Do we understand the autonomy of Anasuya Sarabhai who fought for the mill-hands of Ahmedabad against her brother Ambalal? The last representative of that Gandhian tradition of voluntary work, Elabehn Bhatt and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) that she created are marginal to the imagination of the Gujarati middle class. Gandhi as a servant of ‘daridranarayan’ (god in the form of poor) and ‘satyanarayan’ (the truth that is in all of us) is not what we want. We would rather have him follow his ancestral profession of a bania.

Self-Belief or Self-Delusion?

The other phenomenon is the loss of a certain kind of speech. Gujarat has created unanimity of opinion around key issues


that is unprecedented in any society. Be it Narmada, be it what we call development, be it our capacity to turn against ourselves in frenzied violence with unnerving regularity, we have attained a unity in our self-perception that precludes speech of another kind. We have come to believe that all those who pose questions to our cherished beliefs are not just critics, but enemies of Gujarat and the Gujarati people. We castigate them as anti-Gujarati. This allows us to preserve the self-image that we have created. If we want to peel off the layers of this cultural self-image some things are apparent. First, we think of ourselves as pragmatic entrepreneurs. We are wealth creators. This pragmatism is a strange thing. It is forward looking, but in so doing it also prohibits a backward glance. Memory becomes a burden that we wish to shed. Be it Gandhi, be it violence, be it our culpability, we would rather look forward. Absence of such memory impedes self-reflection. Thus our pragmatism comes with the blunting of self-awareness. This entrepreneurial instinct allows us to reach out, to search for possibilities, to be outward moving. At the same time it allows us to believe that all things, including ethics, are negotiable.

The second layer of this self-belief tells us that we are peaceful and peace loving people. We speak with justifiable pride of how women in Gujarat can go out late at night unescorted, free from any fear. This is true, but this narrative does not allow us to look at the alarming slide in our sex-ratios. This allows us to forget that Gujarat has one of the highest rates of domestic violence and what are termed as “unnatural deaths” of women. This notion of a peace loving, vegetarian people also allows us to brush aside the regularity of communal and caste conflicts. We either see them as mere aberrations in the even flow of life or as just reprisals meted out to the Muslims and dalits.

This forward looking pragmatism, which blunts our capacity for self-reflection also precludes certain moral possibilities. It does not allow us to be witnesses, we become mere spectators. If we had any memory of Mahadev Desai we would have understood the difference between a witness and a spectator. A witness has a duty. A witness is the bearer of truth, while a spectator merely watches something played out before his/her eyes, without any sense of obligation. A witness suffers remorse, does penance and speaks the truth, while the spectator has no such obligation.

Change in Semantics

The cultural self-image that we are forging is part fantastic and part grounded in our society. That it should be so is not surprising. We have borrowed the idea of Gujarati asmita from K M Munshi. Munshi in his trilogy – Gujarat No Nath, Rajadhiraj and Patan Ni Prabhuta – created a “fantastic history” of medieval valour. In our celebration of this asmita we have marginalised the imagination of Narmad and Jhaverchand Meghani. Narmad is remembered for his enduring poetic composition Jay Jay Garvi Gujarat. In the poem Narmad has invoked the cultural icons of Gujarat, which he hoped would provide a sense of belonging to his people. In a lesser known but equally significant work he had asked the question; “Who does Gujarat belong to?” In response Narmad listed various identities, of caste, community, religion, sect, but only to negate them, emphasising that Gujarat does not belong to any particular group. In the poem he says that Gujarat belongs to all those who speak Gujarati. Not satisfied with this he clarified further that Gujarat belongs also to the non-Hindu, specifically to the Parsis and Muslims and the non-savarna communities. Narmad had hoped that around such cultural imagination a people and a sense of belonging would be forged.

Meghani created a world of folk memory. In his world of love, valour and sacrifice his characters loved deeply, waited till the end of time and fought righteous battles unto death. Meghani celebrated virtuous action in everyday life as also in moments of deep crisis.

The asmita that we speak of is not rooted in either the Gujarati language or creative expression. Most Gujarati writers express dismay that we do not read serious literature, at least not in our language. Our wholehearted endorsement of English as a preferred medium of instruction even in semi-urban areas is held up as an example of the sorry state of the Gujarati publishing industry. The Gujarati film industry has died and so has Gujarati theatre, with the exception of some commercial theatre groups in Mumbai. Even the best apologist for Gujarat today would admit that studies/ writings about Gujarat in Gujarati in the field of social science are non-existent. We speak less and less about ourselves in our tongue. In this asmita the west as a source of consumption and opportunity plays a role. Ahmedabad is dotted with buildings that bear the name “New York”, and believe it or not we also have a very unaesthetic and stunted “Statue of Liberty” in the main shopping artery of Ahmedabad. And yet, we wish to create an identity that is aggressively exclusive and not inclusive. Instead of a dialogue with those who challenge us, we would prefer their annihilation.

The semantic universe of the Gujarati language has shrunk, it does not wish to hear certain kinds of voices. It has no desire to hear the pleas for compassion, pity, justice, love, remorse and reconciliation. A language that cannot hear of compassion and pity, of penance that cleanses and purifies cannot be the language of Gandhi. It is not a language of caring and nurturance but of machismo. We wish to purge all that we see as effeminate in us through our new-found hyper-masculinity. But in so doing we have also purged our language and our cultural selves of all that was feminine; we have shut the doors on other cultural and psychological possibilities that recognition of pain and suffering, of nurturance and healing could have given us. We foreclosed the possibility that some critics might have been moved by genuine love and desire that Gujarat recover aspects of its linguistic memory and cultural possibility.

Political Machismo

Narendra Modi has convinced us that he is the true bearer of this asmita. The mask that he gave us was not a carnivalesque masquerade. It said that there was something of Modi in each one of us and the mask was a mere manifestation of it. The people of Gujarat see Narendra Modi differently from the way many of his critics portray him. He is one public figure who is wholly and entirely public. Nothing of his private world, the world of his emotions, forms part of this public persona. He does not display his familial ties in public. The family remains entirely in the private realm. He is a householder who leads the sparse and chaste life of a RSS pracharak.

january 5, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


The only emotions that he displays in public are about his commitment to Gujarat and its people and his commitment to RSS. He uses metaphors of kinship to describe this commitment. The RSS and the party are maternal figures so are Gujarat and its land. He is the paterfamilias who could also be a brother and a son. He speaks of manliness as a virtue in politics, as a defender of land and its glory. His references to his “56 inch chest” are offered as a measure of his nationalism, his patriotic commitment. His virility is manifest only in defence of Gujarat and her people. In a culture that has been non-martial his hyper-masculine presence serves to ally deep-seated fears of cultural effeteness. In this the feminine is also pushed to the margins, almost equated with effeteness. Therefore, neither his demeanour nor his language suggests caring, affection, warmth, nurturance, healing or even chatty friendliness. He is one moderniser who stands outside of modernity. He is impatient with modern notions of plurality, polyphony, dissent and autonomy of action.

For him modernisation reads like an auditor’s report; figures of investment, of roads built, electrification, SEZs and such like. It was not an accident that he chose one of the finest auditing firms, Ernst and Young, to showcase Gujarat. In a society that specialises in making sense of figures he makes perfect sense.

Narendra Modi told us that he is honest, pragmatic, forward looking, proud of his asmita and totally dedicated to this shared vision of Gujarat. We have voted for him because we are convinced of his claim.

Economic & Political Weekly january 5, 2008

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