POLITICS

Demonetisation: Can A Fractured Opposition Really Cause Trouble For Modi?

If the mood turns, Modi hopes the Opposition will still be running around like headless chickens

21/11/2016 1:47 PM IST | Updated 21/11/2016 1:47 PM IST
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Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal along with West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee during Jansamvad rally organised by Traders Association in New Delhi.

They say politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. In Bengal however any time is a good time for a bit of poetry. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has decided that her crusade against demonetisation needs another poem.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his rally in Agra, named no names but pointedly asked "Are you saying the people of this country don't know who patronised a chit fund racket? Who managed the money? Lakhs and crores of poor people deposited their hard collected savings in these chit funds that were blessed by certain politicians."

Mamata has responded in verse, again naming no names, but making her target clear.

Tumi Maharaj, bhugchhe janata

(You are the Emperor, the public suffers)

The Prime Minister has asked the public to bear the pain for 50 days for the good of the country. Some economists say that's optimistic. By the time the economy settles down and cash flows as normal, it's likely Mamata Banerjee will have enough poems to publish a new book.

Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal have emerged as the leaders of the anti-demonetisation brigade. But the anti-demonetisation movement, if we can call it that, suffers from a credibility problem and Modi knows it.

He has needled Mamata Banerjee with the Saradha chit fund jab. Saradha did not really cost her party at the polls as her opponents had hoped. But the shadow remains and while Mamata's populist credentials are strong, Modi can always dig up chit funds to imply her apoplectic anger about demonetisation is less about poor people in the cash economy as it is about her party's own stashed away money.

Modi has made jibe at Mayawati again without naming her saying "Some (leaders) have no scruples in looting others inconclusively. You seek a ticket for an MLA's elections? Okay, bring the notes."

Modi is trying to equate opposition to demonetisation with corruption. It's illogical. The corrupt can suffer. So can perfectly honest ordinary people. In fact, the latter can suffer much more because they do not know ways to beat the system that the corrupt do. Mamata was making that point when she tweeted:

Logically she has a point but who cares about logic in what is a battle of perceptions? Kejriwal, Didi's comrade-in-arms, certainly has certainly dispensed with logic. A BBC journalist asks Kejriwal how he could link the 55 reported deaths to the currency ban. That's a perfectly legitimate question but Kejriwal bristled instantly. "Yeh janta dekh rahi hai ke BBC waale kitne imaandar hain (The public can now see how honest BBC is)," said Kejriwal. "55 people died after the currency ban was announced and it is directly connected to it. And the BBC is saying we can't link this to demonetisation. This is their honest journalism."

Probably the funniest and most telling moment came in a joint rally with Kejriwal and Mamata where Kejriwal is seen trying to hold Didi's hand and raise it in a gesture of solidarity and she's seen yanking her hand down and opting for a Namaste instead. And then it happens again and you can see Didi telling him to do a Namaste as well. That little moment of hilarious awkwardness captured on video shows that the opposition to demonetisation has everyone fighting to seize the upper hand instead of holding hands together.

In the process the opposition just shows its own disunity over and over again. Mamata does not want to be holding Kejriwal's hand. Kejriwal does not want to march with Mamata to the Rashtrapati Bhavan if the Shiv Sena is involved. The CPI-M is going full tilt against demonetisation but it will never be seen on a common platform as its blood enemy, the Trinamool. The Congress, the only national party in the mix, is not ready to play second fiddle to Kejriwal and Mamata. Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav are hardly like to make public common cause on anything as UP readies for the polls. In a column in the Times of India, Sagarika Ghose writes the economic instability could have led to a "Jayaprakash Narayan moment for India's opposition" but there's no Jayaprakash Narayan 2.0 in sight. And the political leadership that's there is being painted by the BJP as the "coalition of the corrupt" who are up in arms because their own ill-gotten cash has been busted while the BJP has cleaned up its own house.

But the bigger problem is that even a "coalition of the corrupt" is being too kind. The opposition is too fractured and too wary of the optics of who-leads-who-follows to even warrant being called a coalition. Add to that confusion about ultimate goals. Some are opposed to demonetisation in principle, some are opposed not to demonetisation per se but its implementation. Issuing ultimatums demanding that demonetisation be rescinded within three days is mere political grandstanding. The implementation headaches, with new bank directives every other day, is where there can actually be more common ground. Even ardent supporters of demonetisation like N Chandrababu Naidu are getting nervous. "In my vast political life and experience, this is the first time I'm seeing a crisis remaining unresolved for such a long period," Naidu told a teleconference.

By wrapping the entire issue in patriotic colours, the government hopes it will ride out the storm by selling the mantra that this is shared pain for a greater good. "Perhaps demonetisation as a political strategy allows for the alienation of the very poor as long as a plurality of voters drawn from the ranks of the rest of society - the 'respectable' poor, the salaries, the aspirational lower middle classes, the middle classes - continue to see the currency recall as a virtuous campaign and have their reserves to ride out the turbulence that it has caused," writes Mukul Kesavan in The Telegraph. But if at some point, the public realise that the pain is not that shared after all and that those who gamed the system are still gaming it, the mood will turn. But Modi clearly hopes that even if it does, the Opposition will still be running around like headless chickens.

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