Will Modi Electrify India?

Washington, D.C., May 18, 2014 – India is well known for the limited scope and dodgy reliability of its electrical infrastructure. The largely-rural country is legendary for its flickering lights and unpredictable electric service.

An exception is the western state of Gujarat, where consumers enjoy electricity 24/7.

The electrification record in Gujarat played a significant role in this month’s landslide victory of Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s governor, to become India’s prime minister, demolishing the 60-year governing legacy of the Congress Party. Modi’s BJP party, which has a history of Hindu nationalism and religious intolerance, captured an outright majority in the Indian Parliament, the first time in 30 years that any party (including the dominant Congress Party) has enjoyed an outright partisan majority, with 274 seats, two more than necessary to command a majority.

Modi’s record in electrifying Gujarat was in the forefront of his campaign, which was based entirely on economic promises. The religious and cultural tensions among Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and others were not visible, according to Western observers. Modi promised to bring back India’s economic boom of the early 21st century with an emphasis on infrastructure, including electricity generation and distribution.

The Washington Post reported, “Early in his first term, Modi created a program to provide reliable power to nearly all of Gujarat’s 18,000 villages, leveraging available supply by separating domestic and agriculture feeder lines and cracking down on power thieves. Jyotigram, as it is called, is one of his signal achievements, and electrifying India is likely to be among his domestic priorities. A third of the country is still not connected to the national power grid.”

Yet there are skeptics of Modi’s performance in Gujarat and his ability to move the nation toward a more robust grid. LiveMint, an online Indian newspaper affiliated with the Hindustani Times, says Modi’s record in Gujarat was a case of taking credit for the work of others. The publication said, “Gujarat’s power surplus is seen as Narendra Modi’s finest achievement. His sending of electricity 24×7 to homes is the cornerstone of the Gujarat Model according to most of his admirers. The standard defence against allegations of communalism is to say that he has provided electricity to all homes, Hindu and Muslim, and electricity is not communal. Development does not discriminate.”

The electrification of Gujarat, says LiveMint, was a result of the electrification of the state’s large industries, particularly its petro-chemical manufacturers (including the world’s largest oil refinery), well before Modi came to power. The generating capacity and distribution infrastructure was already in place when Modi took control of Gujarat in 2001 and his contribution was to make the existing power supply and grid infrastructure widely available.

“All the work already done by Gujarat chief ministers before Modi, as the list of commissioned plants shows, and the talent of Gujarati entrepreneurs, will not be available to him across India when he becomes prime minister. In that sense his finest achievement is not a model,” said the article.

The Diplomat, a respected online magazine based in Tokyo that covers the Asia-Pacific region, wrote, “But Modi’s brand of corporatist capitalism – dubbed “Modinomics” – quickly frays under scrutiny. A lot, it seems, rests on the counterfactual: would Gujarat have performed as well as it has without Modi? The answer: Probably. Geographically the state enjoys several boons. Its extensive coastline has made it an export hub and vast tracts of arid land serve as ready sites for factories. Historically, however the statistics are cut, Gujarat’s growth rate has also long out-paced India’s national average. In 1990, when the national growth rate averaged 3.7 percent, Gujarat’s was 4.8 percent. Similarly, in 2000, when the national growth rate was 5.6 percent, Gujarat’s was 6.9 percent. Given this record, a more appropriate question might instead be: Why has Gujarat not performed better?”