What makes Gujaratis so successful?
How Narendra Modi can benefit from the Gujarati ethic

Zaveri Bazaar, Mumbai, is the mainstay of Gujarati jewellers. Photo: Saurabh Das/AP
What makes Gujaratis so successful? If we look at the Forbes list of billionaires in India, about half are originally of Gujarati and Rajasthani origin. At a literary festival a few years ago, I discussed this with Deepak Parekh of HDFC. He said the west of India was always oriented towards trade given its ports. And that the establishment of banking and money markets in Mumbai accelerated the process after the coming of the British. Gujaratis, who were around or had been brought in, thrived.
This is a good geographical explanation.
I would say there is another thing, and it is that Gujaratis have a mercantile ethic, like Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. A group of people with values coming to them from their culture and religion.
What are these values? The writer Achyut Yagnik and I were talking about it once, and he said something that I thought was quite profound. That the mercantile culture of Gujarat was essentially Jainic, not Hindu. The vegetarianism, the stress on non-violence were manifestations of this Jain influence.
Another important manifestation was the stress away from a literary culture. There was no proper book store in Surat when it was a city of four million. Yagnik has written in one of his works that Gujaratis use the word Sufiana as communicating something airy-fairy rather than sublime. Quite true.
His speculation was that because the Jain texts were essentially in Pali, there was no stress on Sanskrit in Gujarat. And because of that, not much on sanskriti (culture) either, and so little focus on literature. I thought that was a brilliant explanation.
An interesting story was reported in The Indian Express earlier this month. It read:
“Succumbing to political pressure from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST) began removing posters of the Gujarati newspaper Sandesh from its buses Friday.” This happened after Raj Thackeray’s party “had demanded authorities remove the posters which claim that the Gujarati community has solely contributed to the financial and intellectual development of Mumbai.
“The advertising line, Mumbai ni arthik pragatima, baudhik vikasma kon?Aapne Gujrati (Who has contributed to Mumbai’s economic progress and intellectual development? We Gujaratis), was splashed on 200 bus display panels and bus stops.”
I would like to know what intellectual contribution Gujaratis have made to Mumbai. Efficient at raising and managing capital, yes, but intellectual stuff? Let me say only that our best literary contributions have been towards writing saas-bahu dramas.
Anyway, the most important aspect of a mercantile culture is its spirit of compromise. This does not easily permeate and only the most sophisticated cultures have it. Compromise is the ability to see things from the other’s perspective, and without emotion. If one is only interested in one’s own side, if one cleaves unbendingly to principle, compromise is not possible.
This is the one great gift the Jain mercantile tradition gave Gujaratis.
There is a reason that of the four greatest leaders of the subcontinent at Partition, three were Gujaratis. Gandhi, Jinnah and Patel all had that ability to negotiate and compromise. That, more than anything else, forget what the historians tell you, explains their spectacular rise and success. When Jinnah let compromise go, being surrounded and influenced by non-Gujarati Muslims, he made his fatal error, damaging his community grievously. He acted heroically, as the Muslim is wont to do.
Heroism is uncompromising. Heroism cleaves to principle and honour. Its opposite is not cowardice, which is a judgement, but compromise.
Describing Narendra Modi’s character, I once wrote that he acted not as a trader but as a shopkeeper, which was the profession of his caste. The shopkeeper operates on fixed rates and doesn’t need to compromise.
When one is right, and Modi certainly thinks he is right, one has no need to look at the other side. Modi has inherited some aspects of Gujarati culture, the rigid vegetarianism and dislike of meat-eaters, and the lack of interestin literary things. When I finished translating his works, I realized that I could remember encountering only a single literary reference (Shakespeare’s line on a rose smelling the same by any other name) he makes. There is no other indication that Modi has read anything, an alarming thought.
The important, valuable aspects of Gujarati culture, Modi does not have. In large part, that accounts for his success.
The Gujarati male has always thought of himself as being soft and unable to stand up to the Muslim. His love of Modi comes from this aspect, this awe of a hero who has comprehensively reversed the equation.
The superb campaign he has run and the mood he has been voted in on is heroic. It promises quick and immense change that comes from his intervention. From the idea that only he can deliver.
But in Delhi, and I write this on the assumption that the exit polls are correct and that he has won, Modi will need to do something he has not needed to. He must break out of character and tap his latent, mercantile side. The Gujarati ethic.
It will mean having to appreciate the position of others, to be flexible, to sometimes go against principle. It will also mean discarding all the self-referencing (Moditva, Modinomics, NaMo, etc).
He has been the most successful politician of our generation in following the style that comes naturally to him. It will be quite something if he can also succeed in doing it the other way.
Read more here – http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/HEvnH7cvfIRSogUwXUSCEL/How-Narendra-Modi-can-benefit-from-the-Gujarati-ethic.html