Ever since he became prime minister, Narendra Modi has demonstrated a predilection for hosting international leaders in Ahmedabad. In 2014, it was the Chinese President Xi Jinping, in 2017 the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and in 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu. But it was the arrival of the US President Donald Trump and the gargantuan show mounted on Monday in Modi’s old stomping ground as chief minister of Gujarat that has given rise to a belated suspicion that what we are witnessing might be a new style of politics. And that it may have something to do with the city.
Before I take this idea further, a little history: Ahmedabad was founded in 1411 as the capital of an independent Gujarat Sultanate but fell to Delhi under Akbar. It was an important trading and manufacturing hub and local merchants were a major source of finance for the Mughals in their expensive wars. Given this background, one can suggest that putting Ahmedabad before Delhi on Trump’s itinerary symbolises a reversing of priorities with money and entrepreneurship taking precedence over politics and conquest.
Another way of looking at it is a levelling of the local and the national. And yet another related facet is the substantial population of Gujarati NRIs in the US, an important constituency for Trump in an election year. Take all these factors together and you have a city that is simultaneously local, national and global, a fluid entity connected both to the hinterland and yet on its own in the world.
In 2001, when Modi took over as CM, Ahmedabad had a provincial reputation at the lower end of the country’s 10 most populous cities. Today, it has climbed the list to the fifth place, mainly as a result of its doubled size. A spanking new 76-kilometre highway runs around the expanded city limits, 11-kilometre concrete banks run down the riverfront, an existing hospital is being turned into “Asia’s largest” health tourism hub, a Gujarat International Finance Tech-City has been built to specifications that are “twice the size of Paris’ La Defense and eight times more built up than the London docklands”. A giant conference centre sits out on the baked ground in Gandhinagar and nearby Surat is building the world’s largest diamond bourse.
Ahmedabad’s makeover was not unconnected with the programme of accelerated urbanisation adopted by India post 1991 with the launch of programmes like the Rs 50,000 crore Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and indeed many projects had been started before Modi’s chief ministership. But the speed, the emphasis on scale and the aesthetic sensibility driving the enterprise seemed to emanate directly from Modi.
As prime minister he has further demonstrated his interest in prestige projects such as the bullet train, a similar aesthetic style for public places (flat tiled ground in muted tones with no cover or distinguishing or wild natural feature). And there is a consistent and determined emphasis on scale. It is there in the 182 metre “Statue of Unity” of Sardar Patel and it was in his closing speech at the Namaste Trump event.
Even while the crowd was getting restive, he determinedly spoke about the “biggest sanitation programme” underway in India and the “biggest solar power programme” and linked these to the satellite programme, the deletion of old laws and passing of new laws with regard to maternity and transgenders. The intention to project an image of progressive modernity and immensity was clear: It was there in the reference to gigantic infrastructure projects and in the masses of people or pin heads visible on television screens, all gathered in the world’s ‘largest cricket stadium’ (but of course!).
It is easy to dismiss these various features as indications of megalomania but it would be a mistake. In fact, in a world driven by a neoliberal agenda with its stress on privatisation, market-driven economic growth and competition, nations compete to attract transnational funds through their cities. Over the last half century, cities across the world have adopted various strategies to stand out to tourists and corporate investors, the spectacle (in the form of events or architecture) being one of them. The London Eye, or the Millennium Wheel, billed as Europe’s “tallest cantilevered observation wheel” was launched in 2000 and attracts 3.75 million visitors annually. Following the lead of the developed West, three decades ago, Asian cities too transformed their cityscapes through the construction of mega projects.”
What is noteworthy is the particular way in which the provincial, the national and the global are repeatedly combined in Modi’s messaging. Let me describe this by mentioning a few elements of style picked out from publicity brochures for Ahmedabad’s urban beautification projects and at events mounted for international visitors. There is an aerial view of coloured lights ringing the renovated Kankaria Lake. There are many pictures of sailboats and deck chairs so much so that water is brought from the Narmada over a distance of 200 kilometres to feed the dry Sabarmati River. Embroidered umbrellas and swirling multi-hued skirts from Kutch have been in evidence at visits by international guests. At the Trump event, a line of camels was in place and at least one of the mounts was seen repeatedly mimicking a salaam like a dancing doll. So far, one has noticed a deliberate design in Modi’s moves. What is not clear is who exactly is this elaborate spectacle designed for?
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 26, 2020 under the title “Spectacle and the city”. Shah is the author of Ahmedabad: A City in the World.
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