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Saturday, December 3, 2016

Misinterpreting the mandate

Narendra Modi ran the 2014 election campaign, asking for a mandate in his name; the party was secondary. In the event, he helped the BJP secure 282 seats in Parliament, an absolute majority. The last time any party singly won so many seats was in 1984 when the Congress won 404. Modi seems to have interpreted the mandate as an irreversible affirmation of his popularity as a leader, right up there with the luminaries who won India its independence, then nurtured its democracy and diversity and finally transformed it into a dynamic new player on the world stage.

There are two ways to understand Modi’s unrealistic assessment of his own popularity. One, he single-handedly took the BJP’s tally of 18 percent in the 2009 election to 31 percent from 18 percent, its traditional share of the vote. Two, Modi may have been right in interpreting that he broke through beyond the Hindutva vote to new constituencies with his message of development and governance. Clearly, though, that is a temporary surge that can disappear very quickly as Rajiv Gandhi found in 1989.

A mature leader with greater experience in national politics would have looked beyond the absolute majority. In 2004, when the Congress-led the UPA coalition to an unexpected win, Sonia Gandhi and her colleagues took the sober view that it was a rejection of the BJP’s “India Shining” narrative tacked on to the party’s baseline Hindutva agenda. Accordingly, the Congress view was the party’s communal core remained intact but new adherents, who had, by and large, voted the BJP for change, pulled out, disappointed in the lackluster performance of the Vajpayee government.

Likewise, had Modi been a more contemplative leader, he would have recognized that 69 percent of the electorate spurned both his Hindutva appeal and his promise of development and governance. Looking at a glass that is one-third full as a huge improvement over less than the traditional fifth, Modi thought he could do just about anything and get away with it. He was used to that in Gujarat, where his writ ran because the number of seats in the assembly matched the vote on the ground.

For a while it appeared as though the absolute majority in Parliament was a Teflon coating: Lalitgate, VyapamFTII, a series of faux pas in India and overseas, the loss in Bihar, the botched-up attempts to dislodge Congress governments in Arunachal and Uttarakhand, rank communalism and beef politics, JNU, Hyderabad, Pathankot, Kashmir, Uri…nothing seemed to stick. This emboldened him to swear and sneer at opponents, favour cronies and generally stride about the landscape like some colossus batting off scam and scandal, fraud and failure.

Until the demonetization, that is. On November 8, Modi’s megalomania finally went haywire. In one fell swoop, he knocked the bottom out of the nation’s money supply; with a dramatic announcement, he invalidated all 500 and 1000 rupee notes, a full 87 percent of the currency in circulation, valued at over 200 billion USD. The speech, as always cunning, contained a cadence of dog whistles that seemed to suggest that in his 30 months as prime minister, the Indian economy has become one of the bright spots in the world and in single-handedly achieving this, he had the support of 125 crore Indians.

His televised address will go down as the biggest display of chutzpah since George W Bush’s announcement of the “shock and awe” campaign against Iraq in 2003. Unlike Bush, who seemed to have become a neocons mascot and pretty much went along with the program, Modi conveyed the decision was his and his alone.

As the magnitude of the disruption became clear, Modi backtracked. A narrativewas issued suggesting the following: demonetization was devised by “concerned officials who wished to shield those in high positions in banks across the country from the consequences of the crony-oriented lending that they had been doing especially since 2006, the year when Narasimha Rao’s liberalization policy was fully substituted by the UPA into a faux Nehruvian economic policy that combined Fabian socialism with Wall Street ways.”

In other words, holdovers from the corrupt UPA are responsible. “Prime Minister Modi was presented with the issue in such a way that turning down the scheme was out of the question,” the narrative quoted “senior officials” as saying. It goes on to add that Modi “raised several queries, especially on the impact on the common man and only when it was conveyed to him that steps were being taken to minimize hardship did he agree to the measure.”

So there you have it. It’s all the doing of the corrupt UPA that still has its talons hooked into the bureaucracy. It’s not clear from this story if the Modi government plans to prosecute former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former Finance Minister P Chidambaram and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi for promulgating this draconian edict.

As the shock and awe receded to reveal huge lines at banks and ATMs, millions of harassed citizens and dozens of deaths, it became apparent the demonetization was flawed. Certainly, the implementation was disastrous; increasingly, however, the intent has come into question. Modi needs to answer for this cynical, ill-conceived and mean-minded “masterstroke.” What are the reasons for it: to end the black money menace? To deal with counterfeit currency? To spike terrorist funding? To speed transition to a cashless economy?

If we accept Modi’s assertion that the demonetization was aimed at bringing black money into the system, there are questions of his government’s track record. With his photo writ large over advertisements, Modi has claimed that in two-and-a-half years, his government has brought black money worth 1.25 lakh crore rupees “out in the open.” This is braggadocio considering that in its last two years, the UPA government netted 1.31 lakh crore. This is just the kind of statistical fact checkthat people have started to make. It’s clear that other than his core supporters, no one is taking Modi’s assertions at face value anymore.

He may have the support of 282 MPs but has just 31 percent of the vote. Shouldn’t he have had wide consultation? Shouldn’t he have taken the opposition into confidence? After all, everyone is on the same side as Indians first and the Opposition would have supported any move that is in the larger national interest. The reason he didn’t, leads to questions about intent. Such a massive disruption should have been planned better. That it wasn’t, leads to questions about competence.

Just 31 percent vote share, dubious intent and evident ineptness are reasons for the nationwide protest that was reported all over the world as a massive uprising against demonetization. Most credible analysts believe that such a huge blow to the economy, to citizens will cripple India for years.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com, December 3, 2016.)