Modi feats, not DeMo, will decide ’19 results

The ongoing battle over demonetisation appears to be waged more in the social media and between politicians than in the public imagination. The real test over the public benefits or otherwise of this two-year-old move may never happen since elections are invariably fought over a basket of issues. The only occasion demonetisation was a substantial electoral concern was during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election in early-2017, and the outcome was a resounding thumbs-up for Narendra Modi. Since then much has happened. For nearly 18 months after the UP election the Opposition revised its initial assessment that Modi had shot himself in the foot by causing a great public inconvenience. However, ever since the idea of a grand alliance to defeat the BJP in 2019 has excited the anti-Modi brigade, demonetisation as a talking point has made a minor comeback. As usual, in such matters, the ‘intellectuals’ have taken the lead and the Opposition has merely joined in the hunt, blending demonetisation with other issues such as the spat in the CBI, the strains between the Reserve Bank Governor and his Board of Directors, the oil price hike and the decline in the value of the Rupee vis-a-vis the US Dollar. It does not require profound political punditry to gauge the fact that none of these issues are ‘mass’ issues. Whether the Government is at odds with professional economists over monetary policy and whether a large measure of cash is imperative in a country such as India are interesting debating issues. But they are not, strictly speaking, livelihood issues. Prices and inflation are, as are perceptions over whether or not the future looks bright or gloomy. However, these issues are settled on the strength of individual or community experiences and not propaganda. Effective political messaging merely nudges people into being consciously aware of what they already feel. Only in the rarest of rare cases can messaging transform contrived issues into popular priorities. That demonetisation has and will continue to have many enemies is undeniable. The black economy nurtured a large number of people — some out of necessity and circumstances and others because it was always more profitable to either avoid or evade taxes. The significant political connections of the black economy also meant that all attempts to ensure better compliance through a combination of incentives and threats inevitably failed to achieve the desired results. Till Modi bit the bullet, the discourse always favoured a show of political will and there was always a lament that this would never be forthcoming. The ‘we are like this only’ fatalism that greeted everything from dirty public spaces and potholed roads to mountains of unaccounted cash was a feature of Indian politics. The most significant feature of Prime Minister Modi — and it is always prudent to distinguish among Modi the Prime Minister, Modi the populist and Modi the indefatigable campaigner — is that he has never shied away from long-term issues, even while addressing immediate concerns bound in politics and electoral politics. The Swachchh Bharat campaign is an example of a much-needed initiative — built along the lines of Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘constructive programmes’ — that will never fetch instant political returns. Yet, it does two things. First, it addresses a national problem that touches the life of every citizen. Secondly, it is an important input in the totality of impressions that will finally settle the direction of the vote in 2019. There is an impression, particularly among the educated middle classes, that the Modi Government is beleaguered. The intelligentsia — orphaned after the Congress lost power in 2014 — is particularly agitated over its loss of political importance in the Modi Government. The problem with Modi and his chief lieutenant Amit Shah, they feel, is not merely that the BJP appears ‘anti-intellectual’ but that the Government is in no hurry to broker a peace with the so-called liberals. This feisty conduct has had two visible consequences. First, the attacks on the Prime Minister, the Government and the BJP have become more strident and even unparliamentary, as have the responses to the attacks by a valiant clutch of die-hard Modi supporters. Secondly, the small distance that the intelligentsia maintained from the Congress, even while being a party of its ecosystem, has all but disappeared. Rahul Gandhi is still considered either an amateur or a non-serious player by large chunks of the anti-Modi brigade. Yet, I will hazard the guess that nearly every one of the beautiful people that take their inspiration from the jehad against President Trump will come round to endorsing the Congress president for the 2019 election, despite knowing that he is not fit for purpose. The larger question is whether the rest of the electorate, especially those that harbour no grave misgivings over demonetisation, will think accordingly. My own feeling is that the final decision will rest on two simple but important questions: Was the five years of Modi good for the country? Is he effecting changes that need another five years of stability? The details are not so significant in this larger perception. Sunday, 11 November 2018 | Swapan Dasgupta | in Usual Suspects–

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