In the alpha-male club of unabashed nationalists now ruling the world, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is said to be the cleverest. The cleverest politician that is (no prizes for guessing who’s the dumbest).
Vladimir Putin has never had to win a free and fair election, Recip Erdogan is fast losing his democratic credentials with his ruthless suppression of all critics while Donald Trump is still a work in progress. But Narendra Modi, despite his dubious track record, could sell himself, unlike his American fanboy, as a messiah of hope rather than a symbol of fear and hatred.
Suddenly, flattering words from the world’s richest man notwithstanding, Modi’s smarts are being called into question and all because of a “bold, decisive” declaration that is wholly in character with his intrepid, strong-man image. This is what he is admired for, this is what he was voted in for, this is how he is delivering.
Yet, even his most devout bhakts are finding it difficult to explain away the unravelling of the whole demonetisation exercise into a muddle of ill-thought-out, un-planned, amateurish incompetence that is calling into question not just the execution but even the justification for the shock therapy itself.
In sum, a looming political disaster. Not at all what was scripted. Politics underpinned the whole exercise from the word go. Black money could have been targeted by an administrative procedure too. Then there would have been no need for the Prime Minister to come on prime time television to make the announcement that midnight would turn 500- and 1000-rupee notes into pumpkins; a directive from the Reserve Bank of India Governor would have sufficed.
But Narendra Modi would not be the world’s canniest politician if he had left such a mega headline-grabber to a mere bureaucrat. A personal message from him not only drove home the enormity of the scheme but also highlighted his daring and his commitment to his promises.
Only, now it has left him, and him alone, holding the bag. For a party that cannot even express full-throated sympathy for the sufferings wrought by demonetisation until the Prime Minister returned from Japan and gave them the cue, this is calamity indeed.
So, some quick fixes are inevitable. Even essential. Here are five steps the Prime Minister may take to shore up his popularity among the waverers.
Find a scapegoat
The hunt for a scapegoat is already on. Or so it would appear, from the way some loyalists have been pointing fingers. Well, heads do roll after a fiasco (think Volkswagen currently). But in this case it’s not that easy.
Many, even the Opposition (save Mamata Banerjee and a few economists who will dutifully be dismissed as left-wing), concede that the fault is not so much in the policy of demonetisation itself as in its execution. And the litany of failures, from the shortage of 100-rupee notes to the delay in the printing of 500-rupee notes, the uselessness and ugliness of the brand new 2000-rupee note, the unpreparedness vis-à-vis ATMs, the chopping and changing of orders every second day, is quite mind-boggling.
Obviously, the Prime Minister is above all this. His is the big picture, but the devil is always in the details. And there are several who dealt with the details.
People are already looking askance at the Governor of the RBI as it is his brief to keep track of the country’s money supply, match the demand with the supply of notes, arrange for their printing, etc. It seems someone in his team made a huge miscalculation, the note count went all awry, the banks ran dry.
But how can Urjit Patel be the fall guy? Not after the way the government patted itself on the back for having found a low-profile, tongue-tied governor to replace the media-savvy, articulate Raghuram Rajan. That would be eating crow and this government has no taste for that.
Subramanian Swamy of course has wasted no time targeting his pet hate, his own party’s finance minister. It would, without doubt, be as big a bang as the project itself if Modi sacrificed the suave Arun Jaitley at the altar of public sentiment but Dr Swamy is sure to be disappointed again.
True, Arun Jaitley’s uncharacteristic reticence in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday did elicit quips from Opposition leaders. The finance minister had also floundered at press conferences, turning frequently to his minions for answers on, say, how many times a person could exchange old notes (“unlimited” – only to be superseded a couple of days later with the one-time inking decision).
Still, his emphatic denial of any possibility of a rollback and his insistence that the execution was flawless, “it couldn’t have been done better,” he told The Economic Times, dispels any notion that Jaitley is going anywhere from the South Block.
There are of course bureaucrats in his ministry, led by finance secretary Ashok Lavasa and revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia, who have been slaving away on this project for the last ten months at least but axing such faceless entities will serve no political purpose. Except, maybe, one. Namely, economic affairs secretary Shaktikanta Das, now a familiar face and a household name across the country.
On the 8th, explaining the modus operandi after the Prime Minister’s bombshell, Das had looked ebullient and enthusiastic. Today, after continuously contradicting his own earlier pronouncements day after day, he looks grey and hunted. February can’t come soon enough for him, when he is scheduled to retire. Unless... A scapegoat is vital for the greater good.
More whizz and bang
The security guard in my building was grinning from ear to ear. Why? He had already exchanged his big notes, I knew. Then? Well, there’s this private nursing home owned by a doctor near his house on the outskirts of the city. They’d raided the doc two days ago and found a crore of rupees under his bed. The doctor, the guard informed me gleefully, was now a patient in his own hospital.
It doesn’t take much to appease the masses. Raid some big guns, name and shame them, hold them up as examples of the government’s implacable resolve to level the playing field and the deaths and privations and standing in endless queues will be distant memories.
Of course, it has to be really big guns, at least a few of those said to be close to the powers that be have to be caught in the dragnet. Whether they are as expendable to the Prime Minister as the BJP’s core constituency of small traders we shall soon find out. But hope is eternal.
The Prime Minister has already promised (or threatened) that demonetisation was only the beginning, more fireworks are on the cards. Well, they’d better not be limited to tame measures like tax reforms, interest rate reduction, making PAN cards mandatory for jewellery and real estate purchases and suchlike, not if he wants to really light a fire under his people.
Of course, schadenfreude is hardly the basis for a well-adjusted society but no one can accuse Narendra Modi of caring overmuch for brotherly love and goodwill between communities.
Everything is what you make of it, even yourself
Joseph Goebbels had also said, “Today there seems to be only one absolute thing: relativism.”
However much we elites may cringe at Modi mobilising his 96-year-old mother in the service of his pet project, or “the greater good” as the bhakts would have it, it only underlines the huge gap that separates people like us from Modi’s support base. Modi knows what he is about. He has, they say, an unerring finger on the pulse of the masses and his recent speeches seem to reflect just that.
His hyperbole knows no bounds when the situation calls for it. Remember his, kill me before you lay a hand on my dalit brothers speech to gau rakshaks after letting them run riot for months. Now he warns his flock that his very life may be imperilled by his cleansing mission.
Irony is dead, so he had no inhibition in declaring he was completing Nehru’s unfinished task with his drive against black money. Sarcasm, the lowest form of wit, is in so he could gloat there was a wedding in the family but only 4000 rupees in hand or that “Those involved in corruption had to stand in line for Rs 4,000.”
The people roared in approval. But difficult days lie ahead. As people in rural areas realise what has hit them, as businesses, especially small businesses even in urban areas, plummet, as savings are lost and lives ruined, people may begin to question and turn.
That is when the floodgates to more emotional speeches will be opened. With elections round the corner there’ll be occasion enough. And the masses may truly end up forgetting the birthpangs of a corruption-free India, as Modi’s men are repeating ad infinitum.
It’s not just that the public’s memory is proverbially short. People want to believe the Prime Minister. The initial reaction to his announcement on November 8 night had been truly electric. Economists may quibble about its benefits but to ordinary people it was a great equaliser. The rich couldn’t buy their way out of this one, they snickered.
Even the fact that there hasn’t been any rioting on the streets or major unrest is seen by government apologists as a sign of the public’s widespread support for the Prime Minister’s grand scheme.
Of course, achhe din will have to materialise soon for people to keep their faith. Else, hell hath no fury as a public betrayed.
Woo back his core constituency
“What we are witnessing is something quite fascinating – the ability of an elected leader to use his mandate to look beyond sectional interests and address the national interest,” gushed Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta in the Times of India for the Prime Minister cutting loose the BJP’s traditional support base of small traders and businessmen who deal mainly in cash.
But can Modi really be so cavalier towards such loyal supporters? Especially when GST is poised to hurt them even more.
Some say this’ll help him widen his support base but that comes with a big if. No, Modi will not dump his faithfuls so cruelly. What he has taken away with one hand he’ll make up with another. Silent, below the radar operations that’ll be noticed by only the pink papers.
Wage a war, literally
If the Prime Minister hasn’t seen the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, now is the time to download it. Not as a break from the unrelenting demonetisation demon that’s darkening his days, but for educational purposes. Anupam Kher could surely help him here.
He needn’t even resort to a fake war as they did in the film to save an American President from public wrath and win him a second term.
As one of its lead characters put it, “You can’t have a war without an enemy… You could have one, but it would be a very dull war…” Our leader has an enemy right at hand.
Just as the Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhar and direct benefit transfers, incentives for e-payments, etc. are said to have laid the groundwork for demonetisation, the foundations for a war with Pakistan are already in place. The soldiers are readied, the populace is primed, the defence minister eager to retract India’s self-imposed ‘no first use of atomic bombs’ dictum. A “fan of the Hindu” will soon be moving into the White House.
One can only hope the first four steps will make the fifth redundant.