As the year draws to a close, one cannot help but think of what’s in store for the political class in 2017 when, in May, the Narendra Modi government would complete three years in office.
By then, elections will be over to assemblies in Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Uttar Pradesh. The outcome in these states would have a significant bearing on the governance ambience and equations within and between major political parties.
In more ways than one, UP will decide whether the Prime Minister’s demonetisation gamble has worked. In seeking to present the fight against black money as one against the rich and for the poor, he has sought to trigger a class duel. Many within his party have come to read in his audacious November 8 move an effort to “create a constituency of his own beyond the omnibus Sangh parivar”.
The Congress’ focus on shoddy implementation of notebandi and personal allegations against the PM are indicative of a similar thinking. The narrative the principal Opposition and parties such as the AAP have devised, presents Modi as a beneficiary of the parallel economy who’s aiding his benefactors in the garb of fighting graft.
The big question is: whose pitch will appeal to the electorate in UP and Punjab, where anti-incumbency against the Akali-BJP combine is a major factor. Has demonetisation struck a sustainable chord with those in the lower economic stratum? Can class revenge overwhelm caste, religious and parochial identities?
More importantly, will Modi, who single-handedly led the BJP to its record 2014 victory, be able to repeat the feat in UP without the core RSS base of traders, big and small, who aren’t mighty happy with the scrapping of 86% of the currency in circulation?
There’s no denying the fact that in the initial phases, demonetisation found traction among the economically weaker sections. Of them, a big number still believes in the PM’s promise of an equitable economic order eked out of the ill-gotten wealth of the affluent. But their patience is running out with lay-offs and resultant reverse migration to villages.
Tangible benefits will have to accrue for them to deliver electoral dividends to Modi. The urgency of such sops and schemes will only rise in the aftermath of his self-imposed December 30 deadline for sorting out the currency mess. Merely renaming demonetisation as re-monetisation wouldn’t help. It could irritate rather than placate people if jobs and cash are hard to get.
At another level, official overtures to mollycoddle the poor could further alienate the BJP-RSS’s plinth-base — what with the PM accusing them (albeit rightly) of using their employees as mules to launder currency through their Jan Dhan and savings accounts. “The unkindest cut,” fumed an RSS hand, “were his exhortations that the poor need not return the money they were made to put in their accounts…”
Such complaints are morally indefensible. But Modi’s tryst with economic nationalism — as a replacement for the relatively less appealing religious-military nationalism that won him the 2014 round — will have meaning if the rich are really divested of their expendable incomes. And the dispossessed get their deserved share in the country’s wealth.
The transformation won’t happen with the turn of calendar. A lot will depend on cash in banks and jobs in the market.
Vinod Sharma is political editor, Hindustan Times