Courage is often a misunderstanding of suicide or gamble. It appears that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose faithful are celebrating his bold decision of delegitimising large bills, has in fact made a calculated gamble. And it is turning out to be an excellent move. He has already gotten away with it, only the extent of his rewards is unclear. Even though people have suffered greatly, and many have lost portions of their hard-earned illicit money, it is hard to dispute that the government has performed a moral act. Surprisingly, the government has been able to communicate the reasonable message widely and deeply. It is rare for people to have an accommodating view of a sudden policy that only has long-term benefits, especially one that has hurt them. But there is observable evidence that the general public is with Modi on this.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi may hope to ride out the demonetisation storm because his opponents lack credibility at the national level, apart from being divided, and because of the extraordinary patience of ordinary people in accepting their inconvenience.
Furthermore, the fact that the people have retained their faith in the Prime Minister – till now – is evident from the series of election victories scored up by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the municipal polls in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Chandigarh.
True, the Trinamool Congress, which is perhaps Modi’s most incisive critic, has also won several elections in its own political arena, showing how the areas of influence of the various parties have become firmly demarcated. But Modi’s political clout is undoubtedly spread over a larger area.
Modi’s real test, however, will be in the Uttar Pradesh elections in March. More than the polls in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Manipur, the outcome in Uttar Pradesh will demonstrate how the BJP’s vikas purush (man of development) is faring half-way through his tenure.
If BJP retrieved some momentum back in its favour in 2016 with a major assembly election win in Assam, the top question that was on the minds of the leaders of the party was whether PM Modi’s demonetisation gamble will pay dividends in the new year in a series of assembly elections especially in Uttar Pradesh. Party supremo Amit Shah might be pleased with the gone by year as it has given him some rewarding wins and shored up his authority which was on a dwindling side after the back-to-back defeats in Delhi and Bihar.
The test is all the more important because demonetisation is a part of the kinds of economic reforms Modi wants to introduce. Since his “sabka saath, sabka vikas” project of development for all hasn’t quite taken off, at least where employment generation is concerned, he is depending on his ability to curb the parallel economy and introduce a cashless system to help him cross the Rubicon of the next general election.
In this respect, Uttar Pradesh has always played a major part in indicating the popular mood if only because it is a heartland state. Having lost Bihar, which is also in the Hindi-speaking “cow belt”, Modi cannot afford to lose Uttar Pradesh as well.
Even if he cannot replicate his excellent performance of 2014 when the BJP won 71 of the 80 parliamentary seats in the state, and its partner, the Apna Dal won two, the two allies have to remain well ahead of its two major competitors – the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the state.
Polls suggest that the BJP will do well in most of the upcoming elections. The party could move from a distant third to either second or first position in Uttar Pradesh, an India Today-Axis poll published on 4th of January shows. Meanwhile, a CSDS poll suggests the BJP could win 27 per cent of the vote, just behind the ruling Samajwadi Party, which is now riven by infighting. Several other polls showed the BJP placing first in Uttar Pradesh.
If the trends are to be believed then the BJP is likely to do well in four of the five states. Modi’s party will form governments in Uttarakhand and Goa, and will likely retain power in Punjab with its senior coalition partner. The India Today-Axis poll suggests the BJP may also unseat the ruling Congress government in Manipur, a remote northeastern state.
In the last two months when the demonetisation was announced, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi launched a sustained campaign against the government. In election rallies in Uttar Pradesh and press conferences, an aggressive Rahul Gandhi tried to corner the government on how the demonetisation scheme was announced and implemented. He took an aggressive avataar against the Prime Minister at the Congress party’s national convention held in Delhi recently. His speech was laced with humour and sarcasm as he took on the government over demonetisation.
Gandhi lashed out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP and the RSS at the convention over a myriad number of issues including demonetisation, MGNREGA and economic slowdown. He called Baba Ramdev as the BJP’s chief economist and criticised PM Modi’s decision to continue with MGNREGA after ‘terming it one of the biggest failures of the Congress government’. He also raised the issue of drop in manufacturing sector after demonetisation, notably in automobile sales alleging that demonetisation has taken the manufacturing sector to a position it was 16 years ago.
Rahul seems to be taking charge of his party slowly. His attempt to reinvent himself is showing clearly and he will want to take that image to the poll bound states instead of giving a chance to the PM to ridicule him again.
The BJP is still faced with several risks in the state. The party is relying on Modi’s national reputation in Uttar Pradesh, rather than appointing a state chief ministerial candidate, like other parties. In late 2015, the BJP tried this strategy in Bihar and lost the election.
And with results not due until 11 March, the feeling that corrupt elites were hit harder than the poor could still shift swift and fierce. A further threat to Modi’s chances could emerge if the cash ban-related contraction deepens further.
There is widespread support for the anti-corruption intent of the currency move, but there is frustration with how it has been rolled out. Administrative capability was supposed to be the BJP government’s calling card, and the opposition smells weakness there.
The BJP’s disadvantage is that it doesn’t have an ally apart from the tiny Apna Dal. Nor does it have a chief ministerial candidate. Its only asset is Modi, but he is no longer what he was in 2014. To make the BJP’s presence felt in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, his demonetisation gambit has to take off. But if the queues remain long, Modi will have a major challenge on his hands. As it is, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has said that he will review his pro-Modi position after the 50-day deadline is over. Lalu Prasad has already said that he will side with Modi’s opponents even before the end of December. That will leave only Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Modi’s side.
There is little doubt that where the aspirational younger generation is concerned, Modi has greater traction than either the two Bihar stalwarts or Mamata Banerjee because of the continuing belief in the Prime Minister’s ability to boost the economy.
If 2014 was the year of milestone in BJP’s history, as it emerged stronger than ever before, 2015 exposed it to the dangers of banking solely on Modi’s charm. 2016 again gave some happiness to the party with winning in Assam and putting up a good show both in Kerala and West Bengal. The demonetisation decision of Modi is a gamble, which will set up the tune not only for upcoming year but also for 2019 general elections. It will be this litmus test which can provide the strongest signal yet of whether Modi’s hope of a repeat of 2014 landslide in the next Lok Sabha polls will ride on firm foundations or not.
by Nilabh Krishna