Agashiye, a popular restaurant in Ahmedabad, only serves one thing: Gujarati thali. But the dish contains multitudes: curries, legumes, vegetables and sweets, as well as flatbreads, rice, salad, pickles, poppadums and more. His fans say that thali finds the perfect balance. But it depends on how it is consumed. Presented with a plate featuring leafy greens alongside fried delicacies and heavy, sweet cream, few diners choose to gorge on cabbage.
So does Gujarat’s oddly uneven development record. Governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party of Narendra Modi (BJP) since 1998, India’s westernmost state is a great achievement overall. It is the sixth richest state and accounts for 30% of exports. Its economy grew at an average annual rate of 11% between 2011 and 2021, the fastest in the country.
It was this record that Mr Modi, after 13 years at the helm of Gujarat, highlighted when he sought India’s top job in 2014. Just like the thali contains a balance of fibre, protein and carbohydrates, his “Gujarat model” was seen as a perfect blend of good education, jobs, higher income and a “better life”. After a decade of welfarism, state interference and corruption under the Congress party, many Indians were hungry for it.
Mr Modi’s critics have pointed to communal riots under his watch in 2002 that left more than 1,000 Gujaratis, most of them Muslims, dead. They also noted that the state was business-friendly long before he showed up. And that Gujarat’s social indicators, which track changes in the lives of the poor, were far from perfect – in fact much worse than its economic indicators. It seemed like a bad lookout for a country with more than twice as many very poor people as any other. Indeed, eight years and two landslide election victories later, hopes and fears about Mr. Modi’s economic management have largely come to fruition. He and his party adopted the Gujarat model all over India.
In the state of 62 million people, where the bjp won its seventh consecutive election this week, social indicators still lag behind economic indicators. On a development index that takes into account life expectancy, education and income, Gujarat ranks 21st out of 36 states and territories. It ranks in the bottom half of states for underage marriage, child stunting, infant mortality, and school enrollment and enrollment. Last year his gdp per capita matched that of Tamil Nadu, but its share of people living in poverty, at 14%, was almost four times higher (see Figure 1).
This reflects the priorities of Hindu nationalists. Gujarat’s social expenditure is the lowest of all Indian states. It also directs a smaller share of its total spending to rural development and a larger share to cities than the state average. As a result, many of its rural districts lack basics such as secondary schools. Meanwhile, its cities are thriving, as they like to illustrate with shiny new construction projects. When the national government solicited proposals for urban renewal plans in the early 2000s, most cities in Gujarat wanted funds for the flyovers, says Himani Baxi of Pandit Deendayal Energy University in Gandhinagar, the state capital. . Only one city offered to build an unattractive but necessary sewage treatment plant.
After a number of false starts, India’s economy is also booming. On December 6, the World Bank raised its growth forecast for this year from 6.5% to 6.9%. While not as fast as Gujarat tends to grow, it is faster than any other major economy. Mr Modi’s high-profile new mantra is “Together, for everyone’s growth, with everyone’s trust”. And ambitious infrastructure projects such as highways and digitalization are, as in Gujarat, an important part of his plan. Most major cities now have metro lines; more than 10,000 km of highways are added each year, double the rate managed by the previous Congress-led government. The infrastructure boost also benefits households. Many more now have access to bank accounts and clean fuel. Internet penetration is growing rapidly.
bjp The government was far less successful in improving the poor health and poor education of the Indians. Infant mortality rates are falling, but unevenly. More than a third of children under five are stunted, a rate higher than in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In 2018, about half of all fifth-grade rural children could not read until second-grade levels. And after two years of school closures during the pandemic, the situation is unlikely to have improved.
These failures, again, reflect the bjpchoices. He was more generous to India’s poor than his government in Gujarat; the percentage of spending on social protection schemes such as food and cooking fuel subsidies is in line with the long-term average. Yet the Modi government devotes a much smaller share of India’s windfall tax revenue to social spending, including health care and education, than its predecessor (see Chart 2). In 2018-2019, public health expenditure represented 3.2% of gdp, against 3.9% the year before he came to power. Education spending, at 3.1%, is well below its target of 6%.
It is the poorer parts of the country that are missed the most, largely because India’s growth is so unevenly distributed. According to official figures, unemployment in Gujarat is 2.9%; in Uttar Pradesh (at the top), a poor northern state of 240 million people, it is 7.1%. Yet the bjp suffered little or no backfire in such locations. This year it became the first party to win a second consecutive majority in at the top since 1985. Why?
A big part of the answer is his Hindu chauvinism. In Gujarat, at the top and elsewhere, the bjp successfully portrayed himself as a defender of high-caste Hindus, while appeasing the populous lower castes with hate speech against Muslims and just enough welfare. Yet, it also seems that Indians like his spending priorities far more than one might have imagined.
The abysmal state of public services for a long time – and the proliferation of private alternatives – have devalued Indians’ expectations of them. Less than a third depend on public health care. In an international survey in 2016, only 46% of Indians agreed that “the primary responsibility for providing school education lies with the government”, the lowest of any country surveyed. During this time, the bjpMr. Modi’s infrastructure projects and relentless efforts to affix Mr. Modi’s imprimatur to them have made the projects and the Prime Minister powerful symbols of national progress.
Like anyone who has tackled a thali knows, to eat is to choose. And that is the way to govern. Not all elements of Hindu-nationalist development policy are good for Indians. But it fuels their growth and keeps them coming back for more. Mr Modi’s approval rating, at around 77%, is perhaps the highest of any major world leader. His chances of winning a third parliamentary majority in 2024 look exceptionally strong.■