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Demonetisation Is A Political Gambit Modi Is Sure To Lose

23/11/2016 11:17 PM IST | Updated 24/11/2016 7:25 AM IST
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Members of trade unions set up a mock waste-paper sale counter for the exchange of 500 and 1000 rupee notes during a protest against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the withdrawal of high-value banknotes from circulation in Chennai on November 18, 2016. ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images

India is living a dystopian nightmare. Like one of those dark, depressing futuristic science fiction films where a once-civilised populace has been driven to macabre doings, facing as they are, an existential crisis. Where a drop of water seems like an endless mirage. Where the sun scorches the dry-skin in a maddening fury as the night disappears. It all began with PM Narendra Modi's obsession with prime-time presence. Nothing explains his unprecedented announcement at 8 pm on 8 November 2016 (when most were ruminating about the US Presidential elections) across all television screens that a surgical strike (the BJP's meticulously planted sound-byte to capitalise on army heroics) had been ordered against black money. His grandiloquence was unmistakable.

Within 4 hours, 86% of Indian currency in denominations of ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes would become a liability. A flabbergasted nation gasped. Long lines formed outside petrol pumps. Reportedly, wealthy housewives hit Louis Vuitton stores with Gucci suitcases carrying green-bucks.

Demonetisation, as the brouhaha settles, is a colossal disaster. So just why and how did the apparently sagacious grandmaster of the political chessboard end up checkmating himself?

The unsuspecting heralded Modi as having good intentions. On social media, right-wing trolls began predicting a political windfall in 2019 elections. Pusillanimous TV editors eschewed little restraint as they all kept repeating "masterstroke" like obedient schoolboys. BJP spokespersons were of course gleefully trashing each dismissive voice who said that the demonetisation was unalloyed populism, as an "anti-national". By midnight, Modi had restored his fast-dissipating image as India's rock-star politician, going for the unpredictable (remember his unwise "jhappi diplomacy" with Nawaz Sharif at Lahore on Christmas day?). The script had been played to painstaking perfection. I assume Modi slept well that night, unaware that his pronouncement was actually his kamikaze moment.

At last count, about 60 innocent Indians are dead post Modi's premature celebrations of a killer application to obliterate illegal assets. They include infants who were refused treatment in private hospitals, retired people standing for hours in queues to withdraw their superannuation savings, bank personnel stressed out over endless hours at work. It is a pathetic tale of Modi's currency fiat that has boomeranged. The informal sector that relies extensively on cash transactions has seen business stalled, payments deferred and workers unemployed.

Demonetisation, as the brouhaha settles, is a colossal disaster. So just why and how did the apparently sagacious grandmaster of the political chessboard end up checkmating himself?

The answer is actually not that uncomplicated.

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A vendor counts rupee banknotes at a vegetable wholesale market in Mumbai, India, on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Forget the usual hosannas from Modi acolytes and the standard spin for the moment; what really has Modi done in the last two-and-a-half years? Practically nothing. The economy is not just flat, but is slowing; joblessness has peaked, foreign policy is in shambles, over 100 cross-border violations have happened following the surgical strikes, farmer woes remain unresolved and private investment stagnates despite lower interest rates. We are in a state of luminous paralysis.

Modi knows that corruption or black money strikes an emotional chord with the average citizen. Remember the India Against Corruption agitation? It effectively dismantled the second United Progressive Alliance in 2011 itself. The media relentlessly covered it 24x7. Once it was substantially milked, no one had the ethical wherewithal to ask: Where is the Lok Pal? The anti-corruption legislation was passed by the UPA in 2013. It lies in cold storage.

Forget the usual hosannas from Modi acolytes and the standard spin for the moment; what really has Modi done in the last two-and-a-half years? Practically nothing.

With several state elections due (like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, etc.) and Modi halfway through his tenure, the panic buttons are setting in. Modi lives 24x7 by the "political narrative", every decision dictated by electoral objectives and media-based perception. He truly believes that orchestrated propaganda that follows a scientific model of predictive voter behaviour, exploiting human vulnerabilities, works. It did for him in 2002. It did for him in 2014. But this time he knows he has done nothing. And governance of a complex country like India cannot be a continuous food chain of collateral voter gains. Even the "big bang" GST was a Congress brainchild and the world knows it. The world also knows that he calculatedly snubbed GST for many years to deny Congress a well-deserved bouquet.

Modi's hyper–electoral rhetoric stands bludgeoned by fact-checks. The promised ₹15 lakhs per citizen was a huge hoax. And the truth is that Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi's #SuitBootKiSarkar jibe is a perennial wound, given Modi's proclivities to pleasing Big Business. Modi has used demonetisation more as a publicity stunt to divert debate from mounting failures and to use black money to do image-enhancement. But this time, his innate hubris, political immaturity and pathological megalomania have done him in. He is a centralised authority; at best he works with a close cabal. Nothing happens without his categorical imprimatur. The operational failure of demonetisation is deplorable, but the disingenuous intent behind it is worse.

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An Indian woman has her finger inked with indelible ink after exchanging old denomination 500 and 1000 currency notes at a head post office in Hyderabad on November 18, 2016. NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images

The real big sharks have kept their stolen treasures abroad — Modi does not say a single word on Panama Papers. The spectacular surge in PSU bank deposits during July-September 2016 smacks of a heads-up given to dubious operators of black money. It could be the biggest scam post-1947 and needs judicial intervention and forensic investigation. Delhi is animatedly circulating stories about shady dealings in Essar Tapes, Sahara bribery and Birla pay-offs. Mainstream media, under the spell of a top-down intimidation, plays a compliant cheerleader. But social media, foreign press and online news portals have changed the discourse. As has the common man, wanting his own hard-earned money back, who is being humiliated and labelled a black money hoarder.

For Modi, the chickens are coming home to roost. And they don't need to stand in a queue.

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