Like an action movie, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has introduced a twist in the script just ahead of the interval. A messiah of the poor is what the PM is positioning himself to be. Seems like an old Salim-Javed script. The packaging, though, is on a different scale and so is the unorthodox approach to drilling the message.
People are scratching their heads to make sense of the sudden twist in the plot following the demonetisation announcement. Looks like it’s advantage Modi, at least politically, despite the unexpected misery to scores of people.
War Against Money Laundering
What is Modi's game plan? For most governments, even if they perform well, they run the risk of hitting the wall of anti-incumbency. Modi has to blunt that and ensure an even bigger victory for himself in the next Lok Sabha elections. He has decided to become an angry rebel himself. Despite ruling for five years and being the establishment, he wants to convince voters that the rich and the corrupt have failed him. He, therefore, wants to wage a war against “looterey” by becoming the general of the army of the poor. Makes sense?
Anti-Rich, Pro-Poor Plank
There are three key variables of electoral battles in the country. Religion happens to be one. Its appeal has an element of seasonality though. Modi has skilfully replaced this narrative with nationalism and patriotism. But his nationalism is exclusive and limited, and in that sense, takes the religious narrative forward.
The other key variable, perhaps the most important one, is that of caste. Modi is seemingly on a weak wicket on this issue, with limited appeal of his party among the lower-castes and Dalits. Recent incidents involving Dalits – the Rohith Vemula case, for instance – may have alienated a section of numerically significant caste groups. How do you neutralise this seemingly huge disadvantage? Choose a totally secular plank of anti-rich and pro-poor. His demonetisation project is aimed at that.
Badly Executed Move
BJP leaders believe that the politics of grievance and victimhood works well for them. They have sensed an opportunity following the global change of mood – from Turkey, France, the UK and now in the US. The new wave of conservative, inward-looking politics based on victimhood and “I-am-wronged syndrome” has gained ground everywhere. The idea is to touch the basic instinct and present an enemy. Demonetisation was perhaps attempted with that objective in mind.
The prevailing view now is that it may have been a good idea but badly executed. Many believe that Modi has made a mistake as it has serious consequences for the economy. That it won't stop a generation of fresh black money and lower-level corruption will command a premium going forward.
Modi relies on all kinds of feedback and is quick to change course and the narrative.
Apprehending possible negative fallout, Modi might have already planned his next ten moves. This is what can be expected from him now:
1) After 30 December, tell the nation that the scheme was successful. Shower praises and gratitude on the poor for their tapasya, tyag and hardship.
2) Announce a quick cash transfer to the poorest through Jan Dhan accounts. He will come up with a context. In the run-up to UP polls, he may give relief to farmers who are in debt. He won't stress the bank balance sheet and still pump money. With Rs 1 lakh crore, 20 crore accounts can get Rs 5,000 each. If only 10 crore accounts are chosen, then Rs 10,000 can flow.
3) And this will be just a beginning. He may promise many more such transfers and schemes to give relief to the poor. He is not confident of real job creation (5 cr hopefuls/aspirants, way too risky not to do something for them) so he won’t take any risk. Go for well-crafted welfare schemes no one can criticise.
4) He may go for a brand new concept of universal basic income scheme that some western countries have experimented with.
How to Lure Voters?
Since finding money for these ambitious schemes may be a challenge, he might be looking for an outcome where he can say the following – I got Rs 3 lakh crore which will now be used to give credit. Banks will get recapitalised and liquidity will be good. Interest rates will fall. Some gains will be distributed and some used to improve infrastructure. He may add another Rs 1 lakh gain from the Income Disclosure Scheme and other actions by the Income Tax department. He will say this is just a beginning and he will continue his fight against corruption and black money till the end.
Traditional BJP voters, traders and middle class may get upset for a while. He knows it. So expect some tax relief for them.
In any case, Modi’s strategy is to get 5 new voters against the possible loss of one traditional BJP voter. Announcing big schemes, launching new projects, holding internationally important events in various parts of the country and spending nights in rural India are some of the items on his agenda.
Omnipresent Modi has done enough to show that he is governing well. From his flagship schemes like Jan Dhan, Swachh Bharat, Digital India and Ujwala to GST, bankruptcy code, benami property act, he has shown that he is in command. The tough stand against Pakistan has pleased many.
On the economic front, things had just started looking up before the demonetisation announcement. The general refrain was: the government is on the right path, we must show patience and give some time to the government. It was more of a defensive approach. Expect aggression now.
Risks That Lie Ahead
As it is, Modi is forever in campaign mode. His goals are not ordinary ones, like just remaining in power. He is literally writing the first draft of history, page by page, as to how he wants to be seen, remembered and revered. After Gandhi, Nehru and Indira, India hasn't seen a mass leader and a “strongman” with a huge personal following. Modi is the first since Indira. He has taken many leaves out of her book. Modi’s drive and motivations are mind-numbing. And he does have time, bandwidth, speed and flexibility.
Look at the other agenda he is pushing – simultaneous polls. The objective is clear: Win states too on Modi's popularity. Different calendars may not help the BJP. He is ready to test the constitutional limits and push the institutional boundaries.
With demonetisation, he has sought to test to what extent he can fiddle with individual rights and liberties. He has purposely chosen this hard process (of cash switch) to test how much public behaviour he can change without losing votes. A simple and easy vanilla process would not have amplified his message. His idea is to get into the minds of 130 crore people.
It is a very big gamble and extremely risky. But when it comes to scaling the game up, breaking old records, including his own, and proving others wrong, Modi enjoys all of this.
In fact, critics should be ready to be ridiculed when he speaks on the issue after 30 December.
Be ready for some big data he is going to reel out to prove that poor Indians have created history and the entire world is in awe! At the interval, Modi has just begun a bigger game.
The only problem is – if the new twist takes a heavy toll on the economy, leading to a loss of jobs, he runs the risk of losing the plot altogether.
(Sanjay Pugalia is the Editorial Director of Quintillion Media and can be reached @sanjaypugalia.)