Mystery is the imprimatur of any mass leader’s mystique. This theory was borne out when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made 85 per cent of his nation’s currency worthless in a single stroke—the first leader of any democratic country to do so. His administrative decision caused tremors both in the cosy bedrooms of palatial homes and the paved earth floors of jhuggis. Even after three weeks of the cash crisis, none of the know-all pundits, self -acclaimed Modi confidants and party functionaries are able to explain the logic or reason behind the PM’s big gamble when his authority and popularity were never in doubt. The reason lies in his enigmatic personality—Modi is a man in search of headlines and ideas. He realises that a mass leader has to stay on in big point size and survive with giant life size, with the mantra, “Hate my government, but don’t ignore me.”
No survey was needed to reassure Modi that he is India’s most popular PM. He has once again proved only he knows how to market Brand Modi using a new wrapper and tag line at frequent intervals. Modi is not just the PM. He is a Fast Moving Political Product (FMPP), which needs periodic reviews of marketing strategy; to not just retain his old base but also to expand it into new and unexplored markets. Modi is his own brand creator, manager and marketer. As multinational companies open more outlets in rural areas, the PM chose to target traditional supporters of other parties.
The BJP has always enjoyed the nationwide support of the middle class. Modi expanded the party’s base during the 2014 elections by shattering caste and regional coalitions. He turned corruption and nationalism into twin weapons to mobilise all of India and won a majority for his party. Since then, he has been taking his opponents by surprise with a series of effective ideas like Swachch Bharat, Digital India, Stand Up India, Make in India, Income Disclosure Scheme, Jan Dhan Yojna, the dismantling of Planning Commission etc., which made it impossible for his opponents to pin him down. Those who know Modi’s style are used to him thinking out of the box and come up with a grand gesture, which will make him the fulcrum around which, revolves not just India but the global narrative as well. Demonetisation shook awake many international institutions, think tanks and media houses to take note of the Indian PM as a leader who always walks the talk.
It was for the second time in a century that almost every Indian hit the streets for a cause. The leaders of the freedom struggle brought India on the streets to expel the British and wrest political freedom. Modi created a new freedom struggle—against black money. The move forced Indians to queue up at banks and ATMs to withdraw or deposit their money. The national conversation is now about Modi, even in the remote areas of the Northeast. The vital question is whether he can cleanse the Indian economy of tainted money. If the black money battle was simply to win the war of perception, Modi has won decisively. There is hardly a survey or an opinion poll that hasn’t given him the thumbs up for his surgical strike on black money. There is hardly any leader from any party who has questioned his intent. His admirers have found a new messiah—a modern Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to the poor. His detractors, however, consider him a leader lacking a long-term perspective and administrative skills.
Predictably, the national discourse is less on the economics of demonetisation and more about the politics of the PM. Hardly any speaker in Parliament questioned the government on demonitisation’s economic philosophy. All they wanted was for Modi to be present in both the Houses to be at the receiving end of vicious personal attacks. On the other hand, the Treasury benches converted the debate into nationalism vs. anti-nationalism. Those who were speaking against the pathetic implementation of the move were termed sponsors of terrorism and black marketers. In doing so, they themselves fell into the trap laid by the Opposition parties who wanted Modi and not the currency crackdown to become the subject of discussion and a target of bile.
Little doubt exists that all the institutions and individuals, from the Reserve Bank of India, Finance Ministry to other agencies, failed miserably to anticipate the problems rising from the unavailability of new currency. Since none of the esteemed personalities who are stewards of the financial establishment have ever felt the pulse of rural economy and customs, they believed the entire country would use technology and the medium of business to make demonetisation a success. None of them grasped the impact of the withdrawal of 85 per cent of the total currency on the poor and those who lack access to banking institutions. Even the 25 amendments issued later to make daily living easy have complicated the life of the common man, who depends more on hard cash than plastic money. In fact, it is the Finance Ministry, which has provided enough ammunition to the Opposition to paint the PM as a person who hardly ever consults his colleagues or is knowledgeable about practical economics. They are predicting that the economy, currently growing at over 7 per cent, will be hit badly. They argue that delay in disbursing cash to farmers for sowing will adversely affect foodgrain production and excessive interest-bearing deposits with banks will make them unprofitable in the long run.
But Modi has to be careful about the team, which is expected to assist him to market Brand Modi. On the face of it, most of them lack the knowledge and outreach tools to connect with the masses. Above all, Modi needs to engage with grassroots workers by way of personal interaction and not through apps. He should avoid those who are well-connected with the media but fare poorly with the people. Since he has completed half his term, Modi has to think of a much bigger idea than demonetisation to stay ahead of his detractors. Brand Modi is not a static label; expect more unexpected decisions in the run up to 2019. His philosophy of creating fear among the rich and hope in the poor will ensure handsome political dividends ahead only if it moves from the desks of file pushers and political schemers sitting in North Block and reaches We the People.
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