Unnecessary attempt to understand Narendra Modi through his Gujarati roots

With the rise of Narendra Modi, a Gujarati, the Outlook magazine has done a special issue about Gujarat in its efforts to understand what lies behind the fluffed up Dhokla. The tagline that the magazine uses is ‘Inside the Gujarati Mind’, which, I am happy to report, is not as empty as a finely fermented cake of Dhokla might suggest.

It is futile to look for one defining characteristic of a people. However, if one must, then I would say it is the Gujarati presumption that the world is Gujarati until proven otherwise. Indians generally are comfortable in their skin but among them the Gujaratis are infuriatingly so. The average Gujarati has that self-assurance that eventually the world will bend to their predilections. Irrespective of the cause they espouse, there is an unshakable belief that the others will eventually see its merit. That has been the Gujarati way. That significantly explains Modi’s success. I do not have to agree with what he stands for at all to recognize that he stands for it with such single-mindedness. Gandhi had that single-mindedness as did Sardar Patel or Mohammad Ali Jinnah or Vikram Sarabhai or Dhirubhai Ambani or any number of Gujaratis who have left a significant mark on India’s history. It is the quality of single-mindedness that I am talking about and not the quality of the cause its possessors have pushed. That is a separate debate.

Indians generally tend to be self-reliant but among them the Gujaratis are perhaps the most assertively so. They have never been known to wait for state intervention in any walk of life. Rarely have I found a helpless Gujarati in the face of hardship, be it financial, emotional, political, cultural or natural. DIY (Do it yourself) is in the Gujarati DNA.

One always runs the risk of overstating attributes of a community while looking at them through the prism of one of its members’ epic success. Modi’s rise may not be the best time to evaluate the Gujarati strengths and weaknesses because it (the rise) will necessarily color and accentuate that judgment. That said, there are distinguishing qualities to all communities and the Gujaratis are no exceptions. I do not remember the media trying to get a handle on the past prime ministers by putting them in the larger cultural and communal context of the region they come from. It is an interesting way to understand a public figure who goes on to capture or compel the national imagination the way Modi has obviously done.

Yet another so-called Gujarati trait that will be on display under the Modi dispensation is efficient pragmatism. There is an innate aversion to postpone tasks. “Patao”, meaning finish it or get it done or wrap it up, is one of the most frequently used words in Gujarati. As a rule, perfect is not allowed to be the enemy of good. It is that attitude that explains why Modi wants to get on with the task of engaging Pakistan on day one of his administration.

While the invitations to heads of the eight South Asian states to attend his inauguration on May 26 are in keeping with his rather imaginative way of doing things, the one to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is also in keeping with the attitude of not postponing tasks. Reports say that Modi and Sharif will have a bilateral meeting on May 27, Day One of his tenure. This is unprecedented in India’s history, particularly as it relates to Pakistan. No Indian prime minister before Modi has jumped into the thick of things with Pakistan with such urgency. Of curse, the outcome of such an engagement is a matter for a different discussion but in so much as it underscores a narrow cultural trait, I think it speaks of the very Gujarati attitude to get it done. (I would not go into how the same Modi and his party would have reacted with derisive rejection had a Congress Party prime minister done the same thing).

I have said it for a long time—and some of my friends think controversially so—that nuance is not a strong point in my home state. In December, 2012 when Modi won his third state elections I had said this, “Nuance is sold by the kilo across my home state. In Ahmedabad, its biggest city where I was born and raised, if you buy a kilo of nuance you get two kilos free. Sometimes driving past a fafda-jalebi shop you may see a sign that says, ‘Nuance is bad for your health.’ My point is, as it has always been, mercantile community anywhere does not go for nuance, especially the one in Gujarat where its cultural roots are mercantile.”

As I conclude this brief insight into the Gujarati mind to coincide with Modi’s ascension, I might as well quote a popular Gujarati saying, “Kharab lagey to bey rotli vadhare khai lejo. (Eat some more if what I say offends you).”


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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