Demonetisation has been disastrous for the Indian economy, and has failed in its objective of extinguishing black money. That public sentiment has yet not turned against brand Modi despite such a disastrous policy, is a huge political achievement for the prime minister. In fact it should be said that demonetisation has been a roaring success.
A lot of people have been wondering why India hasn't revolted against the Modi government for the hardship that demonetisation has caused them. A lot of theories have been propounded.
We've been told, in a country of a million mutinies, we are a subservient caste society that doesn't rebel. We've been told people rebel silently at the polling booth, except the Bhartiya Janata Party has won several municipal polls since demonetisation. In a country that very recently saw mass agitations against sexual violence and corruption, we've been told that's not how Indians do it.
Every day since the eighth of November 2016, the opposition and the liberal intelligentsia have been waiting. People will rebel, just you wait, just you see. When public sentiment turns against a government, you don't need to see riots to get to know about it. No matter which bubble you live in, you will feel it.
We've been told it's the weak opposition that is unable to mobilise the public. But all politicians have railed against demonetisation, and found very little public anger. Not even in West Bengal, where Mamata Banerjee mobilised huge crowds, have we seen any real anger. And there should have been a lot of anger at a scheme that caused so much hardship that over a hundred people have died, in suicides and heart attacks and medical emergencies where hospitals wouldn't take old notes. People are losing jobs, returning home to villages, and we are told public sentiment needs an opposition to mobilise?
Modi asked for 50 days and had the political capital to get that grace period by the people. The schadenfreude of the poor at seeing the rich scamper around to exchange their old notes was short-lived. We saw how the rich just hired the poor and their Jan Dhan accounts. Since everyone can see this, how long could public sentiment remain in favour of demonetisation? We were told it will take time, just see what will happen after 30 December. When Modi's self-established deadline of 50 days ended, nothing happened. When cash crunch doesn't go away, when people realise demonetisation didn't destroy any black money, almost all of it returned as the rich found ways around it, just you see, in January, public sentiment will turn against the government.
There is no such palpable change in public sentiment. Come January and demonetisation has suddenly gone out of the discourse. It's a subject of ennui, it's so 2016. Now, some say we need to wait to April to see the full effect of an economic recession.
Managing The Headlines
Travelling in western Uttar Pradesh in December last week, this writer found even those unhappy with demonetisation were not blaming Modi. They were blaming banks and black money owners, but as for Modi, at least he has good intentions.
There was an incredible contrast between the very poor and the rural affluent. I met people who didn't even know why the government did notebandi, what for, and what it was achieving. Such people were totally against it and unhappy with the BJP about it. They were the rural poor, and didn't have access to any channels of mass communications. They had neither TV nor Twitter, they weren't on WhatsApp and didn't even read newspapers.
By contrast, those who had access to such forms of mass communication were hyper-aware of demonetisation and were ready with quick answers. Do you know any rich man who lost his wealth and rendered a pauper thanks to demonetisation, I asked. "Haven't you seen TV?" one replied. "There are tax raids across the country."
The Modi government has the awe-inspiring ability to create headlines every morning. Long before demonetisation, Arun Shourie memorably said the Modi government's management of the economy was primarily about managing the headlines.
If you read the front page of Dainik Jagran, India's largest circulated newspaper, you'd think demonetisation was doing very well, the Indian economy was growing by leaps and bounds, and the only problem left to solve was the forced conversion of Hindu women in Pakistan. If you see Hindi news channels, you'd know why the poor quality of official spokespersons doesn't affect the BJP.
Those who can see through propaganda make the mistake of thinking it's so self-evident, everyone will see through it. Yet the thing about propaganda is that it works.
It can't just be about news TV though, I thought. People seemed so hyper-aware of pro-demonetisation propaganda you could tell something else is going on.
May I See Your Smartphone Please?
In the village of Prahladpur in Kasganj district, voters were overwhelmingly with Modi and the BJP. They were mostly Lodh, and thanks to Lodh leader Kalyan Singh's re-entry into the BJP, and his elevation as Rajasthan governor, the Lodhs are solidly with the BJP. If you ask them what they like about the BJP, they say just one word, Modi.
Standing against a shopfront, a young man is pressing buttons on his shiny white Samsung smartphone. Smartphones in west UP villages are not a rare sight, but they still surprise you. The young man has a bunch of papers in the other hand. They are SIM card forms. He is sending SMSes to get the Idea SIMs activated, one after the other.
I ask him his political views. Modi, BJP, Kalyan Singh, bad Muslims, good demonetisation - the stock answers flow as though he's been studying them for an entrance test.
I asked him to show me what political content he gets on WhatsApp. He opens up not WhatsApp but the image gallery on his phone and shows me. A crowd of young boys gather around to look, too.
He swipes from right to left to show me image after image. Three-fourths of what he had were political images, the rest were profile pictures of women he had downloaded from Facebook. He kept swiping until I asked him to stop.
The political images are usually a photo with some text, and the photo is usually of, you guessed it, Narendra Modi.
"Are you with me?" Brand Modi, built around the 2014 campaign, is sought to be retained with such images. There was one image, unprintably obscene, which said Modi had found Sonam Gupta, the mysterious subject of a recent meme. The 2014-like myth-making around Modi continues. All of India has been looking for the unfaithful Sonam Gupta, and only superhuman Modi could have found her. It's as if Modi is the new Salman Khan, the man through whom the young Indian male attains his desires.
"People didn't change, so notes had to be changed. If only a handful of people had not been dishonest, crores of people would not have been distressed today." Smartly, this one avoids any mention of Modi. It doesn't say Modi had to change the notes, but in passive voice, that notes had to be changed. The distress of demonetisation is being blamed not on bad policy or poor implementation, but on black money owners.
To deflect from Modi's failures you will often hear the "60 years" argument. Congress ruled India for 60 years, what did it do? But the image above extends the time to 1,060 years. It reads: "The Mughals looted India for 800 years and there was silence. The British looted India for 200 years and there was silence. Gandhiwaadis looted India for 60 years and there was silence. After 1,060 years, one man has come to save the country from these thieves and in just one year people have begun shouting, 'Modi ji has done nothing."
It's noteworthy that the image, clearly first created in 2015 when Modi completed his first year in power, is still in circulation. A great advantage WhatsApp has over Facebook and Twitter is that these image and video memes get downloaded to the phone's media gallery, and can stay there infinitely. Facebook and Twitter and running feeds that go away with time into an archive that's not easy to access.
While most political propaganda on his phone was about retaining brand Modi, there was some Hindutva propaganda too. This one shows Arvind Kejriwal as the leader of the secular politicians even though Kejriwal and his party don't make daily noise about secularism. That tells you something: in the attention economy, Arvind Kejriwal, half a chief minister of a city-state, is seen as making more impact against Modi and the BJP than other opposition leaders. The text reads: "All India Secular Brigade. Loudspeakers in mosques are legitimate but temple bells should be removed. Destroy the temple to build the road but let it be if it's a mosque. Hindus should be taxed but Muslims should be forgiven their loans. The Haj subsidy should stay but Amarnath Yatra should be taxed. Muslims have the right to eat cow meat, cow slaughter will not be banned. We are all secular, we will drink away the blood of Hindus."
I asked him what he and the people around him thought of Muslims. "They are bad," he said. Why? "They spread terrorism."
Who Sends You This Stuff?
I asked him where he gets these memes from, and that's when he opened his WhatsApp. He gets them from groups with names like 'Searu dada' or 'I love my India'. Does he know who added them to these groups? No. Does he know who runs them? No.
Seemingly organic, these groups and their content don't come across as Modi or BJP propaganda to him. It appears to him, and most such recipients of WhatsApp literature, that this content is produced by people like himself, ordinary fans of the prime minister, his party and its ideology.
Perhaps that is the case for some of the content he gets, but it is well known that political parties these days hire private companies which run graphics design sweatshops. Any member of the social media cell of any party will tell you today that WhatsApp is 95% of their social media strategy, Facebook 4% and Twitter 1%.
That he gets added to these groups by random strangers is not strange at all. It's happening to people across India. WhatsApp has 160 million users in India. Political parties are using both softwares and party workers to use phone number databases to add people to groups. One WhatsApp group can have 250 members.
Three Pillars Of Brand Modi
There are three pillars of brand Modi. A pliant media, the inept leadership of Rahul Gandhi, and WhatsApp.
Indians are so addicted to WhatsApp that it holds unimaginable sway in the minds of people. And here, Modi is its undisputed king.
The prime minister has himself acknowledged the power of WhatsApp in political communication. He announced demonetisation on 8 November last year and flew to Japan soon thereafter. Addressing the Indian community in Japan on 11 November, Modi said, "You must have seen it, you must get it on WhatsApp. Nobody ever put a 25 paisa coin in the Ganga, these days (demonetised) notes are found floating." (See 16:10 to 16:35 in this video.)
That was a reference to Rs 1,000 notes, cut in half, found floating in the Ganga in Mirzapur, eastern Uttar Pradesh, immediately after demonetisation was announced. Since most such notes have returned to the banks, it would not be far fetched to wonder if these notes in the Ganga were thrown only to create a few WhatsApp memes.
It is not surprising the young man in Prahladpur does not get added to random groups where he would get the propaganda of the Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party, the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party. Not a single one of them, he confirmed.
Narendra Modi is so far ahead of everybody in mass communication, he not only knows India's pulse, he can also shape it.
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