Gujarat is a small, relatively homogeneous state. Its people are entrepreneurial, focused on business and count their success in accumulated assets; not for them the glamour of a corporate career or the power of a government position. To them, government is somewhat ceremonial in the state and a complexity best avoided at the center. They want to just get on with it, providing for their families and future generations, with travel thrown in as a major diversion.
The Gujarati believes that governance with a light touch is best. For the first decade of its existence, the state government coasted along building assets: roads, power stations, factories, pleasant cities and not getting in the way of a thriving mercantile culture.
Things began to change with the decline of the textile industry, the backbone of Gujarat’s thriving economy. Politics began to dictate outcomes. The state was overwhelmed by civil disturbances including large-scale religious and caste riots. This set the stage for the populist Navnirman movement that gave way to the rabid bigotry of the BJP.
There are interesting coincidences surrounding the rise of the BJP in Gujarat and emigration from the state to the US. With the amendment of the US Immigration and Nationality Act in 1968 to allow relative petitions leading to permanent residence (green card) and citizenship, a veritable flood of middle-class people from Gujarat immigrated to the US through the 1970s. By the 1980s, they had established small businesses and begun to prosper.
Like most Gujaratis, the US cohort retained its insularity: not engaging with the host culture, refusing to blend in but especially remitting savings to families back home. Most of the money was transferred through informal channels. I can remember some people wanting to advertise in my India Tribune newspaper offering more rupees to the dollar and cash delivery to specified persons and addresses in Gujarat.
As the quantum of remittances in unreported cash grew, investible surpluses held by recipients also grew and were ploughed into real estate projects. An array of brokers and fixers emerged to facilitate such investments, usually by bending bylaws and circumventing other legal inconveniences. They became the forerunners of the BJP that came to dominate Gujarat politics, banishing the genteel idealists who served Gujarat since its formation. In their place arose a horde of scofflaws and bigots to grasp at political power.
From these murky swamps emerged a man of overwhelmingly modest intelligence but with remarkable amounts of cunning, Narendra Modi. Starting out with the Kutch earthquake in January 2001, he successfully undermined the incumbent BJP chief minister Keshubhai Patel. Modi used the earthquake to promote himself as a development icon. In reality, he merely coasted on a global disaster relief effort that was mounted in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Right at the outset though, his claims to have created an industrial and infrastructural miracle in Kutch were challenged by Edward Simpson, a highly-regarded anthropologist from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In his book, The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India, Simpson argued that not all the changes in Kutch following the earthquake were for the better, and that in the years following the quake, divisions between Hindus and Muslims in Kutch widened.
But with his headline management skills, Modi successfully staved off questions about his role in Kutch by focusing on the development story while stoking the communal fires. As he vaulted to the chief minister’s position after Patel’s ouster, Modi appeared to have crafted a winning election strategy in which the rhetoric was development but the actual organizational play was to polarize the electorate on an anti-Muslim platform.
The following year, 2002, he put it in play following the burning of the train in Godhra and asserted his dominance on Gujarat politics and on the BJP for the next 12 years without ever being challenged about outcomes and intent. Finally, it enabled him to vault to the Prime Minister’s office.
There was one crucial difference, however. As Gujarat chief minister Modi delivered both seats in the assembly and a large vote share. As Prime Minister, he chalked up the first single-party parliamentary majority in three decades but with just about 31 percent of votes. And that’s where the rub lies. Nearly 70 percent of the electorate did not vote for him. Consequently, the questions began to fly thick and fast from virtually the moment he became Prime Minister.
To avoid these questions, Modi took to what Ravish Kumar, the highly regarded anchor of NDTV India, called “eventocracy” facilitated by a “comedia.” Essentially, this meant remaining silent until the questions became persistent and shrill and then with the active collaboration of mainstream media, changing the subject to emotive issues like nationalism, patriotism, terrorism and Pakistan. Or else staging events like the BRICS summit, Madison Square Garden, Wembley or campaign rallies in which the melodrama quotient is insufferably high with quivering voice and tears in his eyes: “beat me first, I have taken on vested interests that will not rest until they have killed me, give me 50 days.” Also high in these rallies is abusive content and whataboutery in which he mocks, derides and rails at opponents.
Easily, the mother of all diversionary tactics was demonetization, his draconian assault on the monetary system. Everyone but the mainstream TV news channels could see the widespread pain it inflicted on the average person but especially the poor and rural populations. But Modi and his cohorts refused to acknowledge just how vindictive and arbitrary it was. They laughed at first, saying the people lined up in banks and at ATMs were black money hoarders. Then they changed the subject to digital payments, cashless economy, and surgical strikes on terror funding and counterfeit banknotes.
But the questions still persist. No amount of headline management and propaganda including suspect opinion polls and feel good stories in the media can change the facts about demonetization: it was a disastrous ploy that hurt virtually the entire population of India; it was an ill-conceived attempt to divert attentions from legitimate questions about the palpable lack of governance; it was a body blow to the economy that could take years to nurse back to health.
Clearly Modi has no answers about the black money cornered by his November 8 announcement; he has no idea of when a semblance of monetary stability will be restored. But he is campaigning for the upcoming state elections as though his life depends on it, cleverly bending the narrative to suggest he is leading a fight against black money, never mind that he has been accused of taking payoffs from a dubious business enterprise and is engaged in a Watergate-style cover up, using government agencies and arbitrary transfers of inconvenient officials.
By staging event after event, finessing the narrative propagated by the pliant and unquestioning media, he hopes to dodge accountability. Many believe though this time, the impact of his idiosyncratic manoeuvre is just too overwhelming. In Gujarat 2002, where his victims were, by and large, a minority; demonetization pits the wishes and hopes of more than a billion citizens against him. That’s why Modi is going to such lengths to convince selected audiences he has the support of the vast silent majority that has suffered because of the black economy.
Back in the real world, many economists are predicting a massive deflation led by huge drops in employment, in investment, in trade. The GDP is expected to plummet to the original Hindu rate of growth.
The countdown begins now; at stake is whether people will be swayed by his fantasies or hold him responsible for the massive damage demonetization has perpetrated on the nation. The way things are going, he could be a one-term prime minister. But there’s no telling what other knee-jerk options he could pull out of his bag of amoral cunning.
(An edited version of this post will appear in http://timesofindia.com, January 14, 2017.)