Monday, September 29, 2014

Facade

Narendra Modi's birthday was a couple weeks back. I knew this because it was also the week that the president of China, Xi Jinping, visited India for business/diplomacy. The plan was to celebrate with the China team in Ahmedabad, where Modi's team greeted and took them around the city.

To prepare, Ahmedabad was cleaned up in a big way. Hundreds of AMC workers in neon bibs showed up on the streets daily for a week up to the event, sweeping and cleaning. Way more AMC guys than I'd ever seen before, they just seemed to come out of the woodwork. It wasn't clear whether they were the regular AMC cleanup team that has never shown up for the job, or whether they had brought in extra dudes. Potholes got filled, driving and walking lanes got painted, plants lined the streets. Tons of fun and cheesy signs welcoming the President were put up everywhere, I loved the two hands where the one for Anandiben was clearly a man's hand:



The cleanup work only happened along the planned route that the China + India contingent would take during their visit. This is an old trick that Modi and now Anandiben uses: they drive around Ahmedabad, and wherever they go things get fixed as people opportunistically save their jobs. I always thought it would make sense to send fake CM vehicles around the city constantly.  It was clear that this was an effort to make a good impression on Xi and China, to show off Ahmedabad as an example of "India Shining". And in true India Shining fashion, a shiny veneer was sufficient.

I was going to just let this pass as an amusing event, but the day before the visit I noticed a new level to the "cleanup". AMC rolled out miles of a green tarp material along the roads, basically putting a curtain over any unseemly sights. This included the Tekra, the slum area next to my house:






I felt outraged by the tarp, it's why I decided to write this post. It's one thing to create a facade by cleaning up some pre-selected streets, but to delete people and their homes from the view? Isn't the Tekra the most real thing Xi could see about India? I felt upset about it mostly because of the psychological damage I supposed it would have on Tekra residents. If I were them, I would be pissed that Modi is embarrassed about the way I live and would rather pretend that I don't exist. Even the whole idea of strategic cleanup, what message does that subtly send to your people? Maybe Modi figured that since this is basically what China does with foreign visitors, they would expect the same treatment? I wasn't sure if locals were as upset as I was about this, maybe I was over-reacting?

On the day of the visit, I got stuck in Vadaj where they had blocked traffic for an hour to let the Modi and China teams pass through. This is a typical occurrence. Even when the CM drives through the Ahmedabad streets, they close everything off kilometers in all directions. In front of our apartment on Ashram Road, they had kids in their school uniforms standing at arms length apart alternating China and India flags. I thought it was pretty lame, and some of the kids were passing out standing in the heat for hours:





I wonder whether Modi chose to have the China team land in Ahmedabad rather than Delhi because it would be easier (or the only possible way) to have this level of control over the environment. In one sense, you can't blame him and it's what you'd want if you were an Indian citizen. But the whole thing felt inauthentic and contrived. Politics.

1 comment:

  1. Neil, have you heard of Potemkin villages? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potemkin_village It's a phrase to describe what happened in places like the former Soviet Union. Political leaders would visit a place and that city's infrastructure would be freshly painted/covered - at least, for the parts facing the pre-planned route. What you and other Abad friends described remind me of Potemkin villages.

    Capital cities generally serve the same purpose. It would actually have been easier for Xi to visit Delhi. If you notice, South Delhi (where all the government buildings are) is neatly manicured, orderly, and has good infrastructure. Similarly, Washington, DC, one of the most segregated cities in the US, has a beautiful NW quadrant (where all the government and monuments are), but the rest of its three quadrants are in shambles and have high crime. But no foreign visitor would see that. Ahmedabad isn't ready to be such a poser. Maybe that will be the role of GIFT city!

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