The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will observe 8 November as "anti-black money day", to mark the first anniversary of the demonetisation exercise. Doing so is an attempt to revive the political and social narratives which worked for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and yielded electoral dividends for the party in Assembly polls held earlier this year in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley made the announcement on Wednesday, and said the commemorative festivities will begin with public awareness programmes. It also sets up a head-on confrontation with the Opposition parties, which had said the day would be marked as "black day" and would feature nationwide protests.
These two counter-narratives will clearly be the focal point over the next fortnight.
Jaitley declared that party leaders at all levels, from central ministers and office bearers to leaders at the state and sub-regional levels, would fan out to various parts of the country and hold public meetings and other programmes. He declared that this campaign will persist even after the anniversary, as "it is part of the party's larger campaign".
This indicates that despite criticism of the government's handling of demonetisation and its perceived hardship on people, the BJP is intent on arguing that it was a necessary step, which though resulted in difficulties in the short-term, will eventually yield long-term gains.
To drive home this point, Jaitley brought up another argument used by the BJP in the past — the move was opposed only by those parties which accepted the inevitability of coexistence with black-money. He also claimed that "people are cleverer that we or you think, and this has been expressed with repeated support for BJP in elections".
This declaration is a part of the BJP's strategy to ensure the Opposition does not set the agenda for 8 November, an occasion that's bound to have a high recall value. The party is aware that the media and social action groups are planning to mark the occasion in a variety of ways. The media, especially television channels, can be expected to recapitulate the trials and tribulations of the people impacted by the decision, and run these visuals throughout the day.
BJP is now aiming to counter the narrative, and tell people that the Centre's decision to demonetise high-value currency notes was the most disruptive policy step ever taken by an Indian government.
On Tuesday, while announcing that 18 political parties will jointly observe the first anniversary of demonetisation as 'Black Day', JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav said, "This is the first time that a decision announced by the Prime Minister had to be changed 135 times. It just shows how ill-conceived it was."
Given that the anniversary falls just a day before Himachal Pradesh goes to polls and campaigning in Gujarat begins picking up, it's fairly certain that the BJP is going to build its case on the line that demonetisation, despite all the sufferings, has been for the good of the people. This will be to counter the Congress' argument in poll-bound Gujarat: Demonetisation, along with GST, has hurt the people, especially traders and small businesses.
Central to the BJP campaign to claim that objectives of demonetisation have been achieved, party leaders will undoubtedly assert that there has been considerable success in decreasing use of cash, digitising commercial transactions, and expanding the tax base.
On Thursday, Modi, while addressing an international conference on consumer protection in New Delhi, declared that post GST roll-out, "Various indirect and hidden taxes have ceased to exist and the biggest beneficiaries will be consumers and middle-classes."
It may be recalled that Modi, as part of his efforts to justify demonetisation, was the first prime minister to link poverty with corruption. He contended and canvassed among people last year that they remained poor because the corrupt siphoned funds allocated to them. Modi had also presented his steps as a morally correct crusade and sought support of the people on that basis. And despite all the woes that people faced, they extended their support to his programme, evident in Assembly polls earlier this year.
Modi had, in fact, made an audacious attempt to recast BJP's core constituency — from trader-dominated to a more proletarian or mass-based nature. As Uttar Pradesh demonstrated, this turned out to be the biggest game-changer so far in the Modi regime, but the moot point is whether this can be sustained, especially since the negative impact of demonetisation was followed by troubles due to GST.
The BJP's effort, by going ballistic on 8 November, is to neutralise post-GST negativity by reviving memories of people when they backed scraping of high-value currency notes. He had last year leveraged the nascent dislike of people for those who were above them in the economic ladder.
Modi last year chose to set the political agenda for the second half of his tenure, but this has become uncertain due to other creeping troubles. With this campaign, however, the BJP is attempting to change the narrative once again in its favour. The verdict — mainly in Gujarat, but also in Himachal to some extent — will demonstrate if the strategy succeeded or not.
Given the high stakes involved, it can be expected that both BJP and the Opposition will try securing greater support for their campaigns. Either way, 8 November has emerged as an indelible 'Day' in the Indian political calendar, and will be observed contrastingly for years to come — like 6 December, when the Babri Masjid was demolished, which is still marked as 'Shaurya Diwas' or 'Valour Day' by the Sangh Parivar and as 'Black Day' by its opponents.
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Updated Date: Oct 26, 2017 15:45:43 IST