For politicians, tunnel vision is a deadly handicap. Politics is often the art of making most of the opportunities but exclusive focus on present can erode the possibilities of the future.
There is a reason why Narendra Modi fashioned his ludicrously risky demonetisation program as a moral fight against corruption. By turning a purely economic exercise into some sort of a political movement, he was hedging against popular backlash. Also, while exhorting citizens to join him in the "war against black money", he was setting subtle moral traps for his detractors. And most of his rivals walked straight into it.
We are familiar with the notion that an idea is only as good as its implementation. Firstpost on Thursday wrote how the Prime Minister, in his zeal for initiating a radical change, seems to have underestimated India's intrinsic logistical shortcomings.
If his idea was a game changer, the implementation — allowing enough room for an operation on this scale and secrecy — has been shocking. Regulations were mended and amended along the way with a clear communication gap emerging between government's frequent changing of rules and the banks' ability to cope up with those. It made for an ugly spectacle as millions of marginalised and the poor were made to suffer loss of livelihood as they stood in endless queues. Mandis turned empty, small businesses were majorly hit while ATMs stayed out of service, cooperative banks fell silent, banks and post offices neared implosion as public appeared fast approaching the end of their mental tethers.
The Prime Minister asked for 50 days of hardship but economists say resuscitating the economy to normalcy will likely take several months. It would seem that a leader who has unleashed this amount of mayhem through one fiat, should get ready to pack his bags and take sanyas from politics.
And yet, despite these hardships, bone-crunching inconveniences whose effect may stretch well beyond 50 days, Modi may emerge as an even stronger leader and put more distance between him and the chasing pack.
That is because this is no ordinary inconvenience.
In India, the term "black money" comes with an entire set of cultural and moral connotations beyond the dry definition of "untaxed funds". It carries the baggage of a skewed social order where the rich and the well-connected, for decades, have sucked the poor dry. The licence-permit raj unleashed by the socialist politics of Congress created a whole bunch of entitled crony capitalists who ran an elaborate, rent-seeking parallel economy. It leeched away the blood of the poor, but also affected the middle class. Tired of coping up with a system that serves as an extortion racket every step of the way, the middle class trooped out of the country at first opportunity, robbing it of vital human capital.
If the poor as well as the salaried now stand solidly behind Modi, it is because they realise that the prime minister was batting for them, waging an audacious war against this decadal social injustice. Modi knew the power of that appeal.
His myopic rivals did not.
In their overwhelming focus on the immediate, most opposition parties have failed to understand the long game. Inconveniences that seem insurmountable now will slowly ease over time. Small business enterprises that have come to a screeching halt will eventually move again. ATMs will have their queues shortened and banks will, at some point in near future, see lesser footfalls. But in their haste to attack the Prime Minister and cash in on the finite discontent, his political rivals have willingly boxed themselves into the wrong side of a 'good vs evil' binary.
A time will come when the disorder will dissipate, but the opposition will find that in the "war against corruption", they tried to create hurdles in Modi's path. That would make for a gripping political narrative.
Normalcy is still some distance away and the lines are not shortening anytime soon but even at the height of discontent when cash was short and tempers were high, people never wavered from backing the drive. They were hit on the chin and bleeding but they wiped the blood and carried on, imposing full faith in the Prime Minister.
— ANI (@ANI_news) November 18, 2016
Polls conducted among 10,000 citizens from across 200 citizens of India since the demonitisation reveal public support for the Prime Minister's drive remains high.
Strange as it may seem to many, a report by news agency ANI finds that support for the government's demonetisation program has increased during the last week. According to the report, a portion of the citizens who were unsure and the ones who did not support the note ban are now coming out in support. The survey by LocalCircles found that in the week after Modi's announcement, 78 per cent citizens backed the demonetisation.
That was upwardly revised to 79 per cent in a follow-up poll after a week on 15 November, indicating that even as hardships increased, more and more people kept backing the PM.
A report in Business Standard mentions that the survey was also done separately online in 13 states. More than 80 percent citizens in states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Telangana offered unconditional support whereas over 25 per cent citizens in states like Uttarakhand, Goa and Odisha said that that they are supportive of the program despite pain and inconvenience.
A prescient politician is one who reads the game better than others. Post his Japan trip, Modi addressed three back-to-back rallies in different parts of the country and asked his cabinet colleagues and party workers not to worry about the political fallout of the move since "the people are with us".
The problem for the opposition was to find a way past the binary and ensure that BJP doesn't run away with the credit for launching war against corruption. Except Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his Odisha counterpart Naveen Patnaik, the others badly failed in the job.
While Kumar and Patnaik carefully avoided the trap by welcoming the move and waited patiently for the government to trip up, the pack of Congress, Left, TMC, RJD, SP, BSP and AAP tore into Modi. In a high-pitched campaign filled with shrill rhetoric they alleged that the Prime Minister has leaked information selectively to his "friends", insinuating that he is morally corrupted and called his currency ban program a "big scam".
The Left taunted him as "Modi Antoinette", Congress compared him to Muammar Gaddafi, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Ghulam Nabi Azad, the leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha, compared the stress-related deaths due to demonetisation program to Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attacks on Uri.
Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee have taken a more confrontational stance, demanding that Modi roll back the move "within three days or else face revolt and unrest." Their joint rally in Azadpur mandi in Delhi drew little public support but their defiant positioning has left little room for manouvre. That room will get squeezed more and more with the passing of time and restoration of normalcy.
Modi didn’t get to choose his opponents. If he is already winning the political battle despite messy handling of a brilliant idea, he should send Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee a hand-written 'thank you' note each.