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Will Modi’s high-risk gambit pay dividends?

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right.
Published : Nov 18, 2016, 12:29 am IST
Updated : Nov 18, 2016, 7:29 am IST

The verdict in UP will reveal if Mr Modi has read the mind of the electorate correctly or not.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI)

That is my principal objection to life, I think: It’s too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes.
— Kurt Vonnegut

The government’s frequent adjustment of withdrawal limits and deadlines for using the scrapped Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 banknotes at select utilities is attestation that the great Indian idea of jugaad, considered passé in recent times, is flourishing and with government backing. Amendments made to specifics announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his inexpungible address to the nation puts paid to the claim that the plan was in preparation for several months. What we are witnessing are not minor hiccups but a major stumble and testimony to the fact that similar to the past, Mr Modi this time too has chosen to prioritise optics of the shock therapy he has prescribed for the economy. He has one again presented a dazzling idea in a blaze of publicity, ensuring that every other issue that the nation was preoccupied with in the weeks prior to November 8 is pushed to the background. On numerous occasions in the past, Mr Modi has come across as a first-rate implementer with capacity to energise existing schemes and an ideas man. Simultaneously, however, his working as Prime Minister has exposed his inadequacy at planning and working out the fundamentals of new programmes. The plan to overnight scrap two banknotes, of which one at least cannot be considered high value given the current worth of the Indian rupee, has once again established that Mr Modi is poor in architecture and structural engineering of new initiatives that he launches.

At almost the precise mid-point of Mr Modi’s tenure few can escape the realisation that not a single initiative over the past two and a half years holds the capacity of being a vote spinner in the next parliamentary polls. For a PM who was expected to herald major reforms in India’s economy, Mr Modi’s first two years were unexpectedly tepid and the pressure for big-bang reforms was mounting. Two major steps that Mr Modi has taken in recent weeks are indicative of the comprehension that he had reached the now-or-never moment. It was not for nothing that party publicists termed demonetisation as another “surgical strike” within hours of the stunning announcement. There was need to saturate the Indian polity at this stage once again with the fantasy of a decisive leader who has no pursuit but the country’s. The message being broadcast is evident: the Prime Minister is launching an offensive against cross-border terrorists and their backers while concurrently targeting those who are hollowing out the economy. Ultra-nationalists always present a sanctimonious facade and Mr Modi is no different, no effort is spared to project that he is the sole guardian of the national interest. This tactic puts the Opposition in a spot, as it is tricky to demolish the claim completely. Criticism of the government’s action per se makes them open to charges of anti-nationalism, clearly the favourite invective of this regime for its adversaries.

Besides leaving an indelible mark on history, at par with some of his predecessors, Mr Modi was guided by the necessity to widen his party’s electoral base and shed its image of being a trader-centric party. True that in 2014, the Modi wave assumed proportions of a tsunami in several northern states because of support from social groups that had previously not supported the Bharatiya Janata Party. But this backing was transitory, neo-supporters flocked because the BJP’s electoral plank was erected on a combination of social polarisation, utopian future and most importantly strong anti-incumbent sentiment. Yet the BJP’s voteshare stayed restricted at 31 per cent and to go beyond this, the class support of the BJP must expand. In speeches after abolishing 86 per cent of India’s currency, Mr Modi stressed his policy was guided by the objective of removing disparities between rich and poor. This is not possible unless altering the fundamentals of the economic system, but there is no stopping Mr Modi from paying lip service. The effort is to provide an illusion to the poor by publicising claims that the decision has been aimed at stripping the rich of their ill-gotten wealth. Support from the middle classes is being garnered by marketing the belief that the economic strata above them will suffer more. After all, no one is willing to accept being cogs in the wheel of an unscrupulous economic order. Piety cannot be monopoly of a leader or party.

There is no certainty that the ploy will work, that those below the middle-middle classes will become the primary electoral base of the BJP. There is no certainty that with these initiatives Mr Modi has made identity politics irrelevant. Time will determine whether dalits in Uttar Pradesh will ignore repeated instances of humiliation from the government and vote for Mr Modi’s party because he initiated steps that have economically weakened (if for a moment we believe that they indeed will be impacted) the village bania, thakur or their urban tormentors. Steps taken with the proclaimed objective of flushing out black money have primarily a political purpose, specially with polls in key states looming ahead. Like all political campaigns of Mr Modi, there is a majoritarian lining to the fabric displayed. When the “successes” of the government are listed by the BJP during the campaign, there will be further attempts to milk this sentiment. Cultural motifs used to secure support for demonetisation evoke religious imagination by terming it mahayajna and drawing parallels with the pre-Diwali housecleaning ritual.

The verdict in UP will reveal if Mr Modi has read the mind of the electorate correctly or not. The outcome of the demonetisation drive will at best marginally cleanse the Indian economy. The positives will not offset losses from the economic slump expected to set in for several months. Ironically, the swiftest way to recovery would be through a clear BJP majority as Mr Modi’s political ascendancy will again shore up investments and economy. Not for the first time, the Prime Minister has linked his political fortunes with the well-being of the country. Another way to look at this formulation is that he has risked India’s economic well-being at the altar of his political dominance.

Tags: narendra modi, demonetisation