We just completed a month of demonetisation. Weeks back, one would have argued that Narendra Modi’s move would leave behind deep, irreversible fissures not only in the Indian economy, but also in the public’s perception of the Prime Minister. But even as he and the rest of the country gauge full ramifications of the move, Modi remains popular. In fact, he continues to be revered. His image seems bigger than ever before.
Recently, my domestic help candidly informed me how demonetisation has plummeted her further into poverty. She was scrounging for money and was taking leave to return to her village, where marriages had been broken, jobs had been lost and people had died. When I asked her whether this would stop her from voting for Modi in the next elections, she said it would not. “This move of his is a strong step which will really remove black money,” she told me with uncanny confidence. She really believed in Modi. It’s this inexplicable faith in the man — this strong belief that Modi is here to uplift the underprivileged, that makes her want to vote for the Lotus again. “It’s a bold step,” she told me.
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Words like ‘bold’ and ‘radical’, with the occasional ‘surgical strike’, have begun dominating the lexicon of the central government. This is in addition to the alarming, overwhelming rise in nationalism, a binding sentiment that’s concurrent with strong antipathy for anyone who opposes demonetisation.
While demonetisation has had repercussions of catastrophic proportions, Modi has not faced intense, angered protests – yet. Of course, the Opposition has been attacking him from the first day, but Modi seems to be unaffected. Weeks after the note ban announcement, the Opposition staged a nationwide protest. But that too failed to make much of an impact. Crowds across the country gathered on the streets, but led by independent parties, they lacked a unified voice and spirit. Despite the heightened chaos therefore, Modi remained unscathed.
What is it about Narendra Modi then, that comfortably places him in favour of the public? How has a man who was once embroiled in the 2002 Gujarat riots and paired with words like “mass-murderer” and “fascist”, been able to rebrand himself as the messiah who would take India forward?
In the years that followed the riots, Modi resurrected himself, presenting himself as a charismatic, flamboyant orator with impressive business expertise. During the elections in 2014, he posed himself as a beacon of hope who would pull a collapsing economy back on its feet. That was a strong narrative he had built throughout the election campaign, punctuated with promises of economic progress and obliteration of corruption. His party provided Gujarat as a case study of the magnified development Modi had made in that state as a chief minister. The people believed, and Modi won.
Two years into office, with the Opposition repeatedly questioning his inability to mitigate unemployment or eradicate corruption, Modi seems to have decided to take on all accusations with one sweeping move that would leave the opposition, and the country, speechless. Despite the chaos of the note ban announced on November 8, Modi asked for a 50-day window, conveying confidently that things would be better after that.
En route to work today, I began a conversation with my cab driver, Pawan Kumar, on demonetisation. “How are you dealing with this?” I asked. A seemingly pensive man, Kumar narrated the difficulties he was facing and how his family was suffering. “If there is no cash in my hands, how will a poor person like me work or buy vegetables? The banks have no money to give, no matter what time of the day you stand in the queue. People cannot access their own money. A man may take a genuine wedding card to show that his daughter is getting married, but there are numerous formalities – eventually he is denied the amount he wants.” Immediately, I interjected, “Would you still vote for Modi in the next elections then?” Kumar responded with a vociferous, “Yes”.
While Kumar claimed to be a Congress supporter all his life, of late he’s begun developing trust in Modi. “If people are suffering, why would you vote for him?” I asked, dumbfounded. “Madam,” he began, “I feel that in a few days, Rs 2 lakh will be credited to my account. It will be given by the government. When there is so much black money returning to them, where do you think all that money would go? Modi is bound to give it to people like us. He is going to be the next Jayalalithaa. What Amma did for her people, Modi will do for us.”
There is a strong belief that Modi, a “transparent Prime Minister” of impeccable integrity, is going to expunge black money. Interestingly, this belief is predominantly deep-seated in the minds of those who are affected by domonetisation the most – the lower economic class. They are guided by the belief that finally, the elite (the inexplicably rich and therefore, corrupt) will suffer and in return, the lower class will gain.
However, it’s not just the belief nurtured by the poor that their bank accounts will see an unexpected hike. What also governs their mood is their unwavering faith in their Prime Minister. Kumar’s comparison of Modi to the late J Jayalalithaa, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu who despite having countless corruption accusations sustained a god-like authority over her people, shows Modi’s propensity to rise to that stature. Maybe he already has.
It’s that intelligently crafted image projected by Modi that makes him tick. His image that is built on hyperbole – the “Vikaas Purush” (Development Man) with a “56-inch chest” – commands respect, authority and trust. He projects himself as a stern, no-nonsense leader with a sharp business/development acumen who has a firm hold over his country. But when the going gets tough, that image conveniently melts to reveal a sacrificing, vulnerable side of the Prime Minister. “I know that forces are up against me,” he said days after the note ban announcement. “They may not let me live, they may ruin me, because their loot of 70 years is in trouble, but I am prepared!” That day, he struck the strongest chord he could with the janta – an emotional one. In response, the crowd broke into a resounding applause.
Modi has worked hard on building this glorified image. He works even harder to maintain it. He skillfully maneuvers the narrative that revolves around him and revels in it. He chooses his battles and he chooses his interviews. In comparison to his predecessor Manmohan Singh, who gave many interviews while holding office, Modi has given only three public interviews to the Indian media as he crosses the halfway mark in office. Interestingly, throughout the 2014 elections, Modi had attacked Manmohan Singh as a quiet leader, calling him a “Maunmohan Singh”. However, Modi himself has often taken the safe route, by choosing to remain silent or rarely saying much, when severe issues have plagued the country. Seeing this as a grave shortcoming, even Manmohan Singh commented: “The public in our country expects the prime minister to take the lead in managing public opinion. But he has never spoken; whether it is on the beef problem or whether it is what happened in Muzaffarnagar or elsewhere, he has kept quiet… He is the prime minister of all the people of India and he must give every Indian the confidence that in him we have a prime minister who cares for our well-being.”
Modi is a masterful orator, not a discussant. He often steers clear of interviews that have national broadcasts – interviews that would pick his brain and put him in a spot. Addressing the masses in Mann ki Baat, speaking to a young crowd gathered to attend a Coldplay concert via live-streaming, however, all ensure a one-way narrative. It’s where he highlights his achievements, draws out a blueprint of what he intends to do, or pleads for support. It’s a one-way streaming of information given to the public, where there is no one to question him or ask him to explain things further. And that helps him to retain control of his narrative. It’s the same narrative that has been pushed and extended to the realm of demonetisation. In India today, the popular perception is that those who are for demonetisation are “honest”, while the naysayers are “anti-national”. The dissenters are potential hoarders of black money, a coterie of people he intends to dismantle.
However, regardless of the debilitating circumstances demonetisation has birthed: the lack of circulation of new notes, the snaking bank lines, the ensuing unemployment, the losses faced by small-sectors and the agricultural sector, families being unable to afford weddings, the deaths – despite all this, the move seems exceptionally popular. And Modi knew its popularity all along. If there was one thing that united people, particularly the lower class, it was their disgust for corruption. Their disgust for the wealthy with their fat bank accounts; the corrupt government officials who demanded extra money to get a job done; the sly cops who’d ask for underhanded bribes. Modi had seen it himself when the Aam Aadmi Party (that poses itself as an anti-corruption machinery), won the Delhi elections in 2015. Taking cue from the pulse of the crowd, Modi decided to pluck the chord of national resonance, by plucking out 86 per cent of the Indian currency. It was a risk he took, but it was one bound to win support. That was his foresight.
Perhaps it is because of this anti-corruption drive that many, despite the inconvenience, are standing behind Modi by standing in lines. They are led to believe that it will bring a better future. It is for this better future, that my cab driver said, “bali dena zaroori hai” (sacrifice is important). And that’s another chord Modi has managed to strike – the chord of sacrifice. By ‘sacrificing’, many Indians feel they are a part of this great, ‘historic’ movement. That, their sacrifice will be a contribution to India’s advancement, which in their ordinary, uneventful lives, makes them feel important, entitled.