Demonetisation politics: How parties are coping with Modi government's 'war on graft'

To her credit, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee was an exception, training her guns early and demanding that Narendra Modi withdraw the 'draconian decision'.

Sreemoy Talukdar November 15, 2016 14:52:47 IST
Demonetisation politics: How parties are coping with Modi government's 'war on graft'

The opposition in India is currently suffering from an ailment best described as the Currency Withdrawal Syndrome (CWS). It severely impacts rational thinking and the affected are known to suffer from violent fits of recurring rage followed by the habit of calling for frequent news conferences. No new information is disseminated from the exercise but regular rhetorical fulminations before the media help alleviate some of the pain.

There are several stages to the CWS disorder. When the prime minister dropped a nuclear warhead on the shadow economy on 8 November by outlawing higher denomination banknotes, the opposition went into a temporary shock. From Congress party to Aam Admi Party, from Bahujan Samaj Party to Trinamool Congress, from Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janada Dal to Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, the entire spectrum of political opposition withdrew into a shell. Their spokespersons suddenly developed an acute allergy towards all microphones, cameras and TV studios. Ever irrepressible, even Arvind Kejriwal gave his vocal chords a rest.

To her credit, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee was an exception, training her guns early and demanding that Narendra Modi withdraw the "draconian decision". But most of the BJP's rivals were silent for the first couple of days. The move was part strategic, part borne out of fear.

Demonetisation politics How parties are coping with Modi governments war on graft

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AP

The parties, at this stage, faced a dilemma. Beyond the mouthing of anodyne statements on the need to tackle black economy, they kept quiet because their mood calculators were still furiously busy gauging public opinion and economic fallout. What kind of impact would such a sweeping step have on people in medium to long term? Would chaos ensue? Or will people wholeheartedly back the strategy all through the way? What would this drastic step mean for the economy? In absence of a reference point, and as long as they were unsure of the direction of the wind, discretion remained the better part of valour. This was the very first stage of CWS.

The silence was also a result of fear. A fallout of the Prime Minister's high-profile war on graft has been the emergence of moral fault lines around black money. Quite apart from the economics, his rivals could sense that the immediate political fallout of this decision would be positive. Since corruption is an issue intrinsic to our body politic and a key figure in Modi's mandate, the initial euphoria was easily explained. It would have been political suicide for the politicians at this stage to criticise the Prime Minister and risk getting pushed beyond the moral boundary. Despite sensing a steep rise in Modi's popularity graph, his rivals were therefore loathe to take him on.

Silence, however, couldn't have remained a long-term strategy. It was evident that the Prime Minister's image as a non-nonsense administrator who is tough on terror and corruption was getting enhanced. With crucial Assembly polls lined up from early next year, letting such a narrative build was never an option.

Their angst at being squeezed to a corner of the political space and BJP running away with the positive PR triggered by the Modi's move eventually forced the splintered opposition to reach out to one another and present a united front. This was as much a matter of survival as a pressing need to check BJP's attempts to portray itself as knights of shining armour against corruption.

As a report in Tuesday's edition of The Telegraph points out, opposition leaders who had assembled for a meeting at Congress's behest felt that "the attempt to portray all non-BJP parties as corrupt and hoarders of black money was unacceptable."

"This false propaganda will not go unchallenged… Corruption is fought by institutional mechanisms, not by theatrics," Anand Sharma was quoted, as saying by the newspaper.

Somebody should have reminded the senior Congress leader that had it not been for the systemic abuse of India's institutions under their watch, endemic corruption wouldn't have eaten away the fibre of our body politic and kept India languishing among the laggard nations in global corruption index.

Politics, however, has its own compulsions. With the public increasingly getting restive with a system that cannot possibly replace the 86 percent of outlawed currency notes in a matter of days, parties sensed a chance to come out of the self-imposed barrier and target the prime minister for inconveniencing the "common man" who turned into a favourites spiel as one by one leaders, on his behalf, took up the guns to target the prime minister.

With the Winter Session ahoy, battle lines have been drawn. The parties enjoy little popular support with the electorate still firmly behind the prime minister but this situation may quickly change. If normalcy stays elusive, people's patience will wear thin and forbearance will be tested. The calculation now is to stay united and wait for the opportune time to strike.

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