Narendra Modi's reputation as a master strategist preceded his stint as Prime Minister, but since 8 November, we have been witness to his acumen in greater detail. A consummate communicator and deft tactician, Modi has worked the system in such a way so as to completely outmanouvre his political rivals and stay a couple of steps ahead of his detractors.
Considering the magnitude of the decision to demonetise, the complexities involved and the secrecy under which it was planned and executed, it would have been natural for the Prime Minister to land with an egg on face. The myriad shortcomings on the implementation side which has inconvenienced 1.25 billion citizens and the deflationary cycle that has kicked in would have sunk a lesser politician by now.
Not only has he withstood the initial crisis (it still remains to be seen how he deals with the medium to long term aftershocks), the PM has managed to emerge unscathed and even gotten stronger by some measure. And he has been able to do it because he had an interesting strategy in place.
The surgical strikes on Pakistan and the move to demonetise should tell us by now that Modi is not a status quoist. He hates to procrastinate. But his moves are never without a hard cost-benefit analysis.
As Firstpost has written on earlier occasions, Modi first fashioned his stunningly risky move as morality play, thereby cushioning it against public anger. But that's not all. He also made the battle intensely personal, creating a 'Me vs Corrupt' binary to completely blindside his political rivals. This requires supreme self-confidence almost bordering on cockiness. By owning the move, in one stroke, Modi took upon himself all responsibilities of failure but conversely, the rewards also became greater.
To understand why he did that and why his strategy has paid off, we need to take a look at three related but apparently disconnected events — opposition's move to stall House proceedings, launching of a questionnaire on black money in Narendra Modi app and multiple surveys on the effects of demonetisation on the common man.
The first one is the combined outrage of his political rivals. From Congress to the Left, Aam Aadmi Party to Trinamool Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party to Samajwadi Party, a united opposition has shaken off its inertia to launch a bitter attack against the Prime Minister. Politicians usually show unity under two conditions: opportunity and threat. The opposition unity on display, in this case, appears to be rooted in a threat perception that Modi's political gains from demonetisation may far outstrip his perceived setbacks from shoddy implementation.
His rivals, therefore feel an urgent need to counter the Prime Minister's strategy. But in doing so, they must also be careful not to fall in the trap of appearing on the wrong side of corruption battle. They can't be seen protesting against a drive to eradicate black money. In reality, therefore, the opposition has been squeezed into a corner where they have only three real options — one, highlight the inconvenience faced by people and demand partial or full rollback. Two, shower random attacks on the PM to bring him down from the pedestal. Three, stall Parliamentary proceedings till he gives in to their demand and addresses their questions on the floor of the House.
Modi understands this. This is where the second development comes in — inviting citizens to respond to a questionnaire on black money. Through this exercise, where any citizen may download the Narendra Modi app and proceed to answer a set of 10 questions on the efficacy of the drive against black money, the Prime Minister is seeking a sort of direct referendum of his actions instead of routing it through the machinations of representative democracy.
This dovetails beautifully with his effort to personalise the battle against corruption because rating the app is essentially rating the Prime Minister on his decision. Crucially, it takes the opposition completely out of the picture who has been left fuming at this manouvre. In the game of perception, opposition's vehement protestations 'in favour of the people' have suddenly been reduced to 'petty politicking for personal gains'. Launching of the survey also creates a personal connect between a leader and his electorate — a situation where Modi is most at ease.
Not only has he withstood the initial crisis, the PM has managed to emerge unscathed and even gotten stronger by some measure
If the PM feels he has the pulse of the nation in launching the appraisal, recent surveys seem to be bearing out his belief. In a survey conducted on 21 November by CVoter across 252 parliamentary areas for Huffington Post India and Businessworld, it appears that citizens are thoroughly backing Modi. According to the findings, nearly 87 percent of respondents felt the move was hurting those with black money, and 85 percent felt the inconvenience was worth the effort of fighting black money. The sample size included 1,212 respondents across urban, semi-urban and rural areas.
In another survey conducted 11 days into demonetisation by citizen engagement platform LocalCircles involving 9,000 people across 200 cities, a whopping 97 percent participants were found supporting the PM's move while implementation, which has come under much fire, also received the backing of 51 percent respondents.
It is this that forms the backbone of Modi's self-confidence. He has also appeared in four rallies since announcing the move and reckons that people are "with him". Recent bypoll results, where the BJP retained its seats and increased vote share in north east by huge margin, would further reinforce the impression.
This considerably muddies the waters for the opposition. They are seething in rage while their rhetoric has remained inversely proportional to the merit of their arguments. Their strategy, too, lacks coherence. While Congress started by cautiously backing the move, it has now called demonetisation "illegal". They say the PM is "scared of facing the opposition and taking part in a debate" and yet when Modi attended Lok Sabha on Wednesday, they created ruckus and forced an adjournment. Often their tactics has reduced to just vituperative attacks against the PM.
While Mamata Banerjee has sat on a dharna against Modi, Arvind Kejriwal has called for his resignation. Rahul Gandhi has termed demonetisation a "big scam" while Sitaram Yechury has threatened to move a contempt notice against Modi because "PM is violating the very foundation of the Constitution" by not speaking.
All of this works to Modi's advantage. Even as the attacks on PM become more and more personal, the 'Modi vs Corrupt' binary is further reinforced, creating a self-fulfilling cycle. Little wonder that the government has so far done little else besides letting the opposition implode.