Just as his government was hitting the halfway mark, Narendra Modi told the BJP Parliamentary Party that demonetisation was not the end but the beginning of a “long, deep and constant” battle against black money and corruption. Even as the desk-thumping members passed a unanimous resolution endorsing his “great crusade”, the prime minister reiterated that the note-ban was no sudden move. “Hum apne patte dheere-dheere kholte hain (we open our cards gradually),” he told them on November 22. This one sentence was an indication that the bold move was part of a larger plan and “bigger changes” were in the offing.
Outlook spoke to several people in the government and the party, including ministers, MPs and bureaucrats, and got a sense that the November 8 note-ban was a calculated risk that was as much needed politically as it was to fight unethical officialdom and a parallel economy.
This halftime move has brought the government to a cusp of change from which there is no turning back. More reforms are expected in the months to come. Government circles are abuzz with talks of a “bumper budget” for 2017-18, I-T reforms, increased tax exemption limit to Rs 4 lakh and benefits for small traders and farmers. A debate is on already on the need for poll reforms to curb the use of black money.
Minister of state for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore told Outlook that the government had “just played the first ball”, and there will be further decisions to curb the shadow economy and corruption. The government “is keen to go in for simultaneous elections” that will bring about the much-needed reforms in the electoral system.
“With elections scheduled in some state or another, political parties are always on a poll mode. Unaccounted money is used for elections; this must change. We require a consensus of political parties on this,” says the minister. The PM is “committed” to change the country and “not bothered” about political expediencies, he insists.
“Modi has given India a fresh agenda one after another. He keeps the Opposition guessing without side-stepping important issues.”
Muralidhar Rao, BJP general secretary
In the last two-and-a-half years, the emphasis of the government had been ‘Antyodaya’—to take the benefits of development to the last man. Rathore says the PM is also keen about connecting with the masses. In addition to social media presence where one can write to them with their problems, he also wants ministers and MPs to travel and hold motorbike rallies, where people can see them and connect with them. As the MPs were encouraged to travel, the PM had earlier asked them to get the feedback of people on their expectations from the 2016-17 budget. This time, he has sought feedback from the ground on demonetisation and also wants the MPs to encourage people to adopt digital methods of payment and go cashless.
Communication in-charge for Congress Randeep Surjewala alleges that Modi’s half-tenure has been about empty vessels making much noise. “Rhetoric without reality check, rehashed half-implemented schemes, re-fixing goalposts constantly without tangible delivery and retribution against every dissenting voice have become the hallmarks of Modi administration,” he says. “There is growing disappointment and dejection among people of India with a PM who sells new dreams everyday that are turning into dreadful reality.”
Surjewala promises an “all-new” Rahul Gandhi to take on Modi. “Our vice-president is playing on the front foot. He has rattled the PM. This will continue,” he says, indicating a compelling second half.
Modi’s relationship with the Opposition has always been uneasy as they accused him of being autocratic, divisive and indulging in double-speak. In the wake of the November 8 demonetisation, it has become even more acrimonious: the Opposition had united to stall the winter session of Parliament that ended without conducting much business.
The head of a think-tank, working closely with the government, says a lot of thought had gone into demonetisation. “While it is expected to bring in economic benefits in the long run, the move can catapult the PM to being a pan-national leader, cutting across caste and religion,” he explains.
Crunching complicated numbers of community and religion, they found the BJP had just about 18 per cent of the national vote-base. The only way to expand it was to go beyond these considerations. “As demonetisation is projected as a crusade against the corrupt, Modi has attempted to make the underprivileged the soldiers in this fight,” the think-tank head says. “Since they are all stakeholders, they may be willing to take the hardships in their stride.”
This may just prove to be a game-changer in the country’s electoral landscape. With polls round the corner in five states, demonetisation and its fallout have overtaken the usual issues of caste and community.
While it may have changed the political discourse for the time being, it is still tough to say if it will yield electoral dividend for the BJP. According to the party’s national vice-president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, it is a huge risk the PM has taken. “But then, risk-takers are always rewarded. Modiji firmly believes that there can be no change without taking risks. He likes to catch the bull by its horns,” the MP adds.
A Cabinet minister told Outlook that Modi he has been “impatient for change” ever since he took over as the PM in May 2014. “Change in the way the capital’s entrenched bureaucracy functions, change in the way the government at the centre functions, change in its relationship with the states and most important, change in the way the office of Prime Minister is perceived,” says the minister. “His oft-repeated refrain has been that status quo is not an option.”
Vijay Chauthaiwale, who handles the foreign affairs cell of the BJP, endorses the view that PM Modi likes to lead from the front. “Do you think if the RBI governor or even the finance minister had announced demonetisation, it would have been the same or got the same support from the people? It is how the PM communicates. That makes all the difference,” he says.
BJP national general secretary Muralidhar Rao also speaks of an “intense association” Modi has with the masses. “We never saw this kind of a dialogue process between the leader and people. He communicates with them over issues of development and good governance. In the next two-and-half years, he is ready to face the judgement of the people on the same issues,” he told Outlook. This, and Modi’s unpredictability in giving the country a fresh agenda with regularity has stumped the Opposition, making them wary. “This has been the hallmark of the first half of Modi ji’s government,” says Rao.
A BJP leader says the PM’s style of functioning sometimes gives the impression that he is autocratic and riding roughshod over colleagues and Opposition. “No doubt the government is driven by the PMO, but the ministers and bureaucrats are in no way being stifled. In fact, the PM encourages them to think out-of-the-box and come forward with innovative ideas. There is better inter-ministerial coordination as he did away with the high powered committees that were the norm during UPA tenure,” the BJP leader says.
“The PM is keen about connecting with the masses. Other than social media presence, he wants ministers to hold motorbike rallies.”
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Union minister
However, Modi did have to contend with interference from the RSS and its affiliates. So, while initiatives like Make in India, Digital India, Start Up India and Swachh Bharat were rolled out by the government, fringe-driven movements like beef ban and ghar wapsi threatened to overshadow them. Dealing with these elements certainly posed a challenge to Modi, admits a senior BJP leader.
“The Sangh had been waiting for a BJP-led government for a long time. When Modi took over—that too with such a huge majority—many of these elements felt a sense of entitlement,” says the BJP leader, believed to be close to the RSS. They thought they could have a say in the government and its policies. And they probably succeeded for some time.”
It was a delicate balance for Modi to achieve. Sources claim that while the PM appeared to condone the doings and utterances of the so-called fringe elements, he actually made it a point to put them down in private. “Now, the Modi government and the Sangh have attained a working relationship. While most of the elements have been reined in, the PM has allowed them a tacit role in one or two ministries of their interest,” the BJP leader adds.