Political funding reforms: PM Narendra Modi shows why he remains a step ahead of rivals

Two conclusions leap at us from the BJP's two-day national executive meeting which came to a close at the NDMC Convention Centre in New Delhi on Saturday. One, Narendra Modi continues to stay a step ahead of his political rivals. Two, his authority over the party's power structure remains absolute. Interestingly, this command isn't borne out of fear as is the case in some of India's one-man or one-woman political outfits. Peers and party colleagues are genuinely in awe of the prime minister, a curious happenstance for a party like the BJP which is no stranger to internal power struggles.

To take the first point, however, rivals are more often than not being forced to react to the agenda set by Modi because when it comes to political messaging, he is peerless among his generation of leaders. Modi's moves are rarely driven by impulse or emotion, but a hard cost-benefit analysis with an eye on eventual electoral fallout. Like a chess grandmaster, he preempts the steps of his rivals and accordingly calibrates strategy. Above everything else lies his ability to connect with the masses and understand their impulse. Collectively, these strengths allow him precious time that is denied to his rivals. Let's see how.

Narendra Modi. File photo. PTI

Narendra Modi. File photo. PTI

Critics of demonetisation have alleged that the prime minister's risky manoeuvre has endangered a lot of lives for barely conceivable gains. Citing industrial output, bank credit growth and other such data, economists and media have slammed Modi for bringing to the heels world's sixth-largest and fastest-growing economy. The fact that nearly all of the outlawed currency has made its way into the system has been cited as a "proof" that demonetisation has failed to root out black money (though this claim is questionable). Modi's rivals have latched on to large-scale public inconveniences, job losses and tried to generate mass movements around it though these haven't been too successful.

The reason isn't too difficult to fathom. Even his most hard core critics agree that demonetisation has tapped into the narrative of "suffering for a good cause" in such a way that the more people suffer, the more they are convinced of the nobility of the cause. The poor, the marginalised and the downtrodden — the sectors hit hardest by the currency swap — still retain their trust in Modi which has enabled him to sell demonetisation as some sort of a Robin Hood story, using the resentment that the poor has towards the rich to great effect. This is a devastating political message, one that only Modi could have pulled off at a great initial risk to his political capital.

The Opposition knows this, which is why mass leaders like Mamata Banerjee have moved the heaven and earth to develop a counter message but has remained unsuccessful so far.

There was, however, one chink in this narrative. Modi was acutely aware that politicians are perceived in public opinion as intrinsically corrupt and as such, the fact that political funding remains an opaque exercise undercuts his message of transparency.

If the prime minister was really serious about cleansing the system, why doesn't he do something about the rule that allows political parties exemption from disclosure for all donations below the Rs 20,000 mark? Critics were quick to highlight this fallacy.

Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and one of the many commentators to have highlighted this anomaly, recently wrote in his article for The Indian Express that "the reluctance of the government to put forth a concrete plan of action (to tackle dirty money in politics) perpetuates the impression that there is one set of rules for the public and another set of rules for those who make the rules." Among many other suggestions, he advised the government to do away with the any donation threshold in the interest of "total transparency for every paisa of political giving."

Modi would have been aware of this lacunae. On Saturday, during his speech at the BJP national executive, the prime minister sent his strongest message yet for transparency in political funding. The speech, as most of his speeches, carried multiple messages but the one on finance reforms of parties' was direct and unambiguous.

"People have a right to know where our funds are coming from," said Modi while addressing party colleagues during the meeting. Exhorting the Opposition to come to a consensus over the reformative step, he said "a culture of transparency is emerging in the country and politicians should use their wisdom to bring in transparency in running their respective parties," according to The Times of India.

According to the report, Modi was apparently keen on an all-party meeting on political funding reforms and the government may bring a bill during the Budget session.

There were messages also on the need to accept criticism in the right spirit and a self-identification with poverty, when he said that the BJP doesn't look at the poor from a lens of vote-bank politics. But Modi knew where the gap lay in his message and he moved quickly to stem it. It is significant that none of the political leaders who have been criticising Modi and demonetisation has so far taken this up as an agenda for agitation.

The difference this creates in public opinion among Modi and the rest is deep. The prime minister emerges as a trend-setter and one truly intent on cleansing the system while the others as opportunists bent on exploiting a public inconvenience.

The other thing that's clear from the two-day meeting is that Modi towers over his party colleagues and peers. This also puts to rest clever manoeuvres from some political leaders who were keen on highlighting the fault lines within the BJP which they believe have been generated due to Modi's deeply disruptive drive. Some like Mamata had called for Modi's resignation and installation of senior patriarch LK Advani, hoping that this may fuel some sort of internal unrest among different camps in BJP.

But even if these differences do exist, there has been nothing but total endorsement of Modi's line during the national executive. Arun Jaitley, one of Mamata's "proposed candidates" who according to her should replace Modi at the helm, put forward the resolution which was unanimously adopted. "

"Party believes that this fight is important step in the re-making of an equitable and strong India. The step of the central government has reaffirmed the belief that patriotism isn't just a political talk but it is a political will to take strong and decisive steps to favor the last man," it read, according to another The Times of India report.

It remains to be seen what the Assembly elections throw up but right at this moment, national executive proceedings show Modi at the top of his game, drawing unmitigated allegiance from his party. Opposition must come up with a better strategy.

Published Date: Jan 08, 2017 17:48 PM | Updated Date: Jan 08, 2017 18:24 PM

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