Definitely. Modiji did it,” the MP from Panchmahals says when asked if his constituency has 24-hour electricity. The BJP’s Prabhatsinh Chauhan is speaking to a group of maize farmers here, selling the Modi model as part of his re-election bid. He credits improvements in roads, handpumps, and power in this village to just one man. Bharadwaj, a young farmer, waits for the parade of SUVs to leave before providing a reality check. “We all have a connection, but for four hours a day power doesn’t come.” Bharadwaj will still “vote for Narendra Modi” on Wednesday. “[At least] he talks about it… The Congress did nothing for us. Now we are getting something.”
The Panchmahals district in Gujarat has some of the state’s worst development indicators, and has been designated “backward” by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj. In 2001, only 33 per cent of houses here used electricity as their primary source of lighting. But the district is failing to live up to that reputation. The Indian Census records that by 2011, 89 per cent of all houses had access to electricity, the biggest jump in any district of Gujarat and probably India. The Modi-led state government claims that the district now enjoys “24-hour, three-phase electricity”, like the rest of the state. As Modi touts this “Gujarat model” throughout his campaign, The Panchmahals is a good place to test the Modi model of development.
Asked how the power situation has improved so, Manisha Chandra, the district collector, explains: “I have never once encountered political interference. Funds are not an issue. The only issue is our ability to use.” Her eye is on the wall ahead. Mounted there is a large video terminal on which the training of district election officials is being beamed live from various locations. This terminal is used for the chief minister’s virtual meetings with district officials. “MLAs and MPs can’t walk into our office to demand cuts for their contractors. Modiji does not allow that,” adds a bureaucrat in charge of public works.
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MP Chauhan explains The Panchmahal’s success with: “We are a tribal district, so we focused on giving electricity to tribals, and got money from schemes [for tribals].” He also credits the state scheme Jyotirgram Yojana and “Modiji’s idea” of two separate electricity feeder lines in villages — one for households with paid 24-hour electricity, the other for farmers with subsidised intermittent power.
The Aam Aadmi Party’s Piyush Parmar contests the 24-hour claim. “Come to Godhra on Tuesday,” he says, “and you will see a power cut”. He adds: “Last week I was at a meeting 90 km from here [Godhra city]. the current went out”.
Collector Manisha Chandra puts these stray power cuts down to “transmission loss.. since we have [enough] power in the state.” To solve that, Chandra says “in the last two years, we have given land to 12 sub-stations costing Rs 5 crore each”. Sub-stations reduce tripping and transmission loss. One of these is near Godhra, a swatch of galvanised vertical iron poles wrapped in brown rings of china clay. In the afternoon heat the grey lines turn to shimmering silver. Power from the generating plant comes here and is then transferred to the consumer. An engineer says there is “political pressure from the top that electricity should never go off”.
While near-24-hour electricity is something Modi can claim credit for, providing nearly every household with a connection is not a Modi accomplishment. This reporter asked an engineer with the Gujarat State Electricity Corporation who, in his opinion, deserved credit for this. “Ninety per cent of the funds come from central schemes. Our state policies have led to more regular power, but rural connections were because of the [central] Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana.” An IAS officer who works in Gandhinagar explains Modi’s marketing thus: “Every year, we organise [Garib Kalyan] melas to give money from schemes directly to the poor. These melas have helped Modiji’s image… He gives the money himself often… But I realised that every scheme was a central one. That’s where the money is coming from. But he is taking credit”.
The way to Dhamai village is through a spotless four-lane highway that branches into a snaky one-laner. The villagers are asked who is responsible for the road, and they reply: “Modiji built it for us”. But the signs by the road say it is financed by the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, a Rs 21,700-crore-a-year central scheme.
At a campaign talk with villagers in Dhamai village, the BJP’s Chauhan sits below a saffron wedding shamiana, framed by a bouquet of fake pink roses. He is in celebratory mode. He talks about how Modi has brought them development, and promises steady water to this parched district. He also provides history lessons on how Jawaharlal Nehru nixed the chances of Gujarat lion Sardar Patel becoming “badaa pradhan”. A vote for Modi will correct this historical insult. His speeches are marked by their absence of communalism. An aide explains, “Saab has given instructions. religion should not be an issue”.
The AAP’s Piyush Parmar lacks the muscle to take on the Modi machine. “We have just 30 full-time workers,” he says, but “money is coming to us.” He promises to “talk to industrialists” to get jobs to this backward region, and prevent privatisation of schools. He will not consciously target the Muslim vote. “We are not highlighting only one community.”
The Congress candidate makes no such claim. Muslims make up more than 40 per cent of Godhra and Ramsingh Parmar goes on a roadshow through these areas, promising “development, jobs, schools”. His open-top jeep has a visible smattering of white skullcaps. It is followed by a white SUV in which sits the local MLA, C K Raulji. Asked whether the “ghanchi” Muslims who voted for him will also vote for Parmar, he smiles broadly and nods. A Congress minion puts it crudely: “This is Pakistan. they will vote for the hand”. BJP workers this reporter spoke to gave that very reason for why their candidate would not bother asking for votes in this part of Godhra.
This contempt has a sordid past. It was just a kilometre from here that a mob torched the Sabarmati Express in February 2002, killing 59 Hindus. The anti-Muslim riots that followed define Modi as much as his development pitches. It also left a gaping hole among the Muslims of Godhra. Maulana Hussain Umarji, a respected community leader, was thrown in jail for nine years for being the chief conspirator in the train burning. Acquitted in 2011 for lack of evidence, he died soon after, a broken man.
His son Saeed Umarji, a timber merchant, exudes preternatural calm. Asked about the Gujarat model, Umarji accepts it is real, but “it is the Gujarati model. One man is not responsible”. “We want equal justice,” he adds, “it angers me that we are treated differently.” A Muslim leader speaks of how separate power transformers were installed for Hindu and Muslim areas. Muslims would face severe power cuts, while Hindu areas got 24-hour electricity. “This stopped after we complained to the high court. Now we get full electricity. like Hindu areas.”
As Panchmahal goes to polls, the embers of burnt coaches and torn lives are being wiped away to reveal cautious hope. Even Saeed Umarji, whose family suffered for a decade, says: “Show me one person who has not improved in the last 10 years. In our locality, the SSA [the centrally-sponsored primary education scheme] has built new buildings.”
It is that improvement, those aspirations, that Modi has made his own. The progress is true, Modi taking sole credit is not. The state has an entrepreneurial culture, central funds have poured in, and Modi’s PR is prone to 24-hour exaggeration. But Modi alone is being seen as Mr Development. For long before others, he grasped that vikas does not of itself lead to votes. It needs to be branded, marketed. It needs to be sold.