Narendra Modi, the chief minister of India’s Gujarat state, has dominated India’s political conversations ever since he orchestrated his party’s reelection in Gujarat’s December 2012 vote. The effort earned him a fourth consecutive term in office and a steady influx of commentary about his character and credentials. As the official prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi will now lead India’s largest opposition party into national elections slated for spring 2014. While his candidacy offers the tantalizing possibility of a substantive debate about how India should be governed, the Modi discussion to date has frankly disappointed.

The rough contours of Modi’s candidacy are, by now, well-known. Many within the BJP’s rank and file ardently support Modi as the man who can save India’s opposition from its decade-long doldrums and the Indian economy from its own slumber. Others find ideological common cause with Modi thanks to his nearly lifelong dedication to the Hindu nationalist ideology of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.

To his detractors, Modi’s reputation is indelibly tarnished by the violence that surrounds his time in office, most obviously the gruesome communal rioting of 2002. In 2013, a former minister in Modi’s cabinet was convicted of orchestrating a notorious massacre from that period, and Modi’s former home minister is currently awaiting trial on separate allegations of extrajudicial killings from 2005.  

Yet, beyond the specter of 2002, Modi’s critics are also moved by what they claim are shortcomings related to more mundane matters of governance. They have raised three persistent doubts about his record: that he inherited, rather than built, a dynamic state economy; that he has failed to translate that growth into social welfare gains; and that he has championed a ruthless, authoritarian management style. 

In Focus

This criticism and the debate it can provoke offer India a unique opportunity to strengthen its democracy. For the first time in the country’s post-independence history, an Indian leader is staking a claim to the country’s top job on the basis of his merits as the chief executive of a state. Unfortunately, the debate over Modi’s governance record has been deeply disappointing. For those who revile him, as well as those who revere him, it has been far more convenient to speak about Modi’s record in black-and-white terms rather than dive into the messy details of a debate more appropriately colored in shades of gray. 

Economic Growth

Modi’s supporters have touted Gujarat’s rapid growth rates as an example of the remarkable gains the state’s economy has made under his watch. Armed with slogans such as “pro-people good governance” (“P2G2” in Modi-speak) and “minimal government, maximum governance,” Modi has championed a right-of-center, pro-business outlook in his home state, which has made it the darling of India’s largest business houses.

Critics counter that Gujarat’s rapid economic growth predates Modi’s ascent to power. Modi, they believe, merely jumped onto a moving train that was headed in the right direction—and at considerable speed. After all, owing to its inhabitants’ renowned entrepreneurial spirit and generous coastline, Gujarat has served as an integral trading hub for centuries. 

A closer examination of hard data reveals that Modi’s growth and investment record in Gujarat is impressive, in line with the boasts of his most ardent supporters, but it is also clear that it is not exceptional. 

Gujarat enjoyed the highest per capita income growth rate of any major Indian state in the decade immediately preceding Modi’s rise to power in October 2001. Between 1992 and 2001, per capita income in Gujarat grew at a rate of 5.5 percent, more than half a percentage point greater than Kerala, the next-fastest-growing state. When one looks at the decade from 2002 to 2011, when Modi was firmly entrenched as chief minister, Gujarat again ranked first among states in terms of per capita income growth (see figure 1). Indeed, Modi’s Gujarat improved its performance against the prior period by nearly 3 percentage points. 

The candidacy of Narendra Modi for prime minister offers India a unique opportunity to strengthen its democracy.

However, the 2000s were the boom years for India’s economy overall, and all states did better than they had in the 1990s. Thus, the growth gains in Gujarat during the 2000s compared to the prior decade are solid but hardly unheard of; several states posted larger improvements (including high-growth states like Maharashtra and Haryana as well as traditional laggards like Bihar and Odisha). If other state leaders have engineered greater improvements in their states’ growth rates, can Modi’s supporters really claim that he is exceptional? 

To Modi’s credit, between 2002 and 2011 Gujarat maintained its pole position in the growth rankings, and this is no small matter. Sustained growth rarely occurs on autopilot; it requires competent leadership at the top. West Bengal, for instance, grew at the fourth-fastest rate in the 1990s but underperformed relative to other states in the 2000s (when it ranked only thirteenth). And several states that improved their growth performance by a larger margin than Gujarat over the last decade began from a relatively low base. Bihar, for one, has experienced a dramatic economic turnaround, but it started from a base of negative average per capita growth during the 1990s.

Even more than the pace of growth, it is Modi’s investor-friendly reputation that has won him plaudits. From 2000 to July 2013, Gujarat alone received more than Rs 40,469 crore ($8.8 billion) in foreign direct investment (FDI). The state accounted for roughly 4 percent of all FDI flows into India during that period. While this represents an impressive haul, the state of Maharashtra received eight times and Delhi more than four times as much FDI. Gujarat also lagged behind the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and it just barely outpaced Andhra Pradesh. 

Beyond foreign investment, the picture is also not that clear-cut for all investment projects, regardless of investor class. Gujarat’s share of investment projects (in value terms) during Modi’s decadelong tenure has hovered just above 8 percent, which is impressive given that Gujarat accounts for less than 5 percent of India’s population but is roughly on par with Gujarat’s share of the overall economy. 

The share of investment projects under implementation in Gujarat between 2001 and 2011 almost perfectly mirrors the all-India trend; there is no clear indication that Gujarat deviated sharply from India as a whole. There has also been a large gap between lavish project announcements made at Modi’s biannual investor gathering, Vibrant Gujarat, and the projects that materialize. Indeed, when it comes to tallying projects that actually break ground, Gujarat is outshined by its neighbor to the south, Maharashtra (see figure 2).

The candidacy of Narendra Modi for prime minister offers India a unique opportunity to strengthen its democracy.

Social Development

However one calculates Modi’s contribution, even his critics concede that Gujarat made enviable economic strides under his leadership. But the critics lodge a second complaint: the growth Gujarat has experienced under Modi has failed to trickle down to ordinary citizens. One critic writes that “Gujarat has forgotten human development.” His backers, meanwhile, claim that Gujarat’s exceptional growth wave has lifted all boats. 

When Gujarat is compared to other states it becomes clear that Modi’s critics go astray when alleging there have been no development gains, but his supporters perhaps exaggerate the degree of developmental transformation. Consider the state’s record on two of the most widely cited indicators of social development: literacy and infant mortality. 

In 1991, Gujarat’s literacy rate stood at roughly 61 percent, 9 percentage points above the all-India average (see figure 3). By 2001—the year Modi came to power—the gap between Gujarat’s literacy rate and the national average had narrowed by half. With Modi at the helm, the literacy rate improved another 10 percentage points over the next decade, increasing the pace of its gains in line with the all-India trend.

The candidacy of Narendra Modi for prime minister offers India a unique opportunity to strengthen its democracy.

On infant mortality, Gujarat’s progress had largely flatlined in the years leading up to 2001. Despite this stagnation, in relative terms its infant mortality rate (60 deaths per 1,000 live births) still fared better than the all-India average (see figure 4). Between 2001 and 2011, Gujarat’s progress largely tracked that of India’s as a whole (the infant mortality rate declined substantially to 41 and 44 deaths per 1,000 live births, respectively).

The candidacy of Narendra Modi for prime minister offers India a unique opportunity to strengthen its democracy.

Overall, since 2001, the data demonstrate Modi’s Gujarat has made significant, though not exemplary, progress on social development, at least when considering literacy and infant mortality. This latter caveat is crucial since critics have argued that Modi’s Gujarat has not performed nearly as well using other metrics like child malnutrition (for which recent data is not available, so the trend cannot be fully evaluated over time).   

Gujarat’s progress on social development can also be analyzed by more directly measuring how well it has maximized the social development bang for the growth buck—in others words, looking at how a 1 percent gain in per capita income has affected literacy and mortality. 

Here, the relative shortcomings of the Gujarat model are more readily apparent: the state is situated toward the bottom of the pack when it comes to harnessing greater wealth for improved social welfare (see figures 5 and 6). Relative to how much growth it has enjoyed, Gujarat’s social development performance has not been particularly noteworthy. 

The candidacy of Narendra Modi for prime minister offers India a unique opportunity to strengthen its democracy.

The candidacy of Narendra Modi for prime minister offers India a unique opportunity to strengthen its democracy.

The poor translation of growth into development improvements is likely related to the Modi government’s belated emphasis on social development. Bibek Debroy, the author of a recent book on Gujarat’s development, has said that Gujarat’s focus on health and education did not begin in earnest until 2007. Where the state has truly focused its efforts, for instance on reducing neonatal deaths by encouraging deliveries in hospitals or other institutions, it has generated positive results. But this recalibration in priorities has come relatively late in Modi’s tenure as chief minister. 

Authoritarian Tendencies

Moving beyond the numbers, critics allege that Modi’s administrative ethos has qualitative blemishes. They argue that the downside to his “CEO-style” governance, which his supporters laud, is the tendency to govern autocratically. Modi has few political rivals in Gujarat, and he is often accused of underinvesting in (if not purposely weakening) the second-tier leadership within his own party. His detractors argue that many elite Gujaratis in the civil service, judiciary, police, private industry, and media are cowed by him; over time, this has led to a severe imbalance of power titled toward one man. To understand the unequal playing field, one needs to look no further than Modi’s dogged attempts to undermine the establishment of an independent ombudsman (lokayukta) in his state. 

However, Modi’s governing ethos mostly mirrors the widespread trend across Indian states toward an overconcentration of power in the hands of the chief minister. As an oft-repeated saying in India goes, the country is governed by a parliamentary system, but its states are strictly presidential. 

This is in part because India’s party system has become more regionalized—with regional parties often resembling little more than family fiefdoms or pet projects of strong-willed leaders. Even the two major national parties have become more decentralized, with state leaders operating with greater autonomy in their capitals. This is particularly true of the BJP because it lacks a dominant leadership, in contrast to the Congress Party, which has long relied on the centripetal pull of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty. Together with the progressive weakening of the state assemblies and the deterioration of public institutions, this regionalization of parties has led to a vacuum of authority that has been filled in many state capitals by charismatic strongmen (or women).

Modi may be this trend’s most prominent exemplar, but he is by no means alone. Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar and Modi’s bête noire, has demonstrated autocratic tendencies as well. He has developed a worrying reputation for leveraging his state government’s hefty advertising budget to punish media outlets who dare publish negative stories about his administration. Mayawati, who served as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh from 2007 until 2012, was famously pilloried in a U.S. government diplomatic cable (released by Wikileaks) as a “virtual paranoid dictator replete with food tasters and a security entourage to rival a head of state.” The former chief minister was fond of erecting parks and monuments to commemorate her, her party, and prominent Dalit leaders (Mayawati herself hails from that low-caste group) at a cost of hundreds of millions to the taxpayers in one of India’s poorest states. Similar stories could be told about West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee or Tamil Nadu’s Jayalithaa. 

Despite the similarities, prominent leaders like Kumar have criticized Modi’s temperament and ability to lead the country. Kumar recently ended his party’s alliance with the BJP over his displeasure with its selection of Modi as its prime ministerial candidate and has remarked that “to govern a country like India, you have to take everyone along.” What perhaps separates Modi from the pack, then, is that he has never proven he can play nice with potential allies. When contemplating a Modi transition from Gujarat to the national stage, his critics believe that his strongman tendencies cast doubts on his ability to govern a fractious polity, not to mention juggle an unwieldy set of coalition partners. Modi has never engaged in coalition politics—indeed, because of the BJP’s repeated majorities in Gujarat, he has frankly never had to.

Modi is also distinguished from his peers by his imposing (and relentless) public relations operation. India’s state-level leaders are hardly shrinking violets, but Modi’s slick packaging is second to none: while campaigning for reelection last December, Modi beamed a holographic image of himself to 52 rallies occurring simultaneously across the state. 

A Welcome Change

Barring early elections, there are more than six months to go until Indian voters head to the polls to decide Narendra Modi’s fate. While his proponents and opponents raucously debate the BJP leader’s decade-plus tenure in Gujarat, Modi’s record should properly be debated as a nuanced one; it is simply not as black and white as either side’s arguments would suggest. But because Modi polarizes public opinion more than any other politician in India today, the resulting debate about his qualifications to lead this diverse democracy of 1.2 billion people often sheds more heat than light. 

Given the tendency for the inane to crowd out the important in Indian elections, a substantive debate on Modi’s actual record—rather than the caricatures his friends and foes are fond of painting—could be the Gujarat leader’s greatest contribution to this electoral season. But will India’s polity step up?

The author thanks Reedy Swanson and Danielle Smogard for excellent research assistance.