Will Modi’s popularity save him when the votes are counted?
A month into the demonetisation drive, there cannot but be a sense of worry in government circles about the unchanging ground realities with no sign of the long queues before banks and ATMs shortening any time soon.
A more effective opposition would have had a field day in pillorying Narendra Modi. But, first, it is divided with two important Chief Ministers, Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik, backing the Prime Minister.
Secondly, the opposition appears more interested in stalling parliament than in a reasoned debate probably because there is no unanimity in its ranks about the course of action.
While Mamata Banerjee wants a complete roll-back, others favour a Joint Parliamentary Committee to examine the matter.
Even if there is no certainty about how long the hardship of the ordinary people will continue, or whether their patience is inexhaustible, the nomination of Modi as Time magazine’s Person of the Year in an online poll will be a morale-booster for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
It shows, if anything, that there are a large number of people who have retained their faith in him and expect him to ride out the present storm.
True, the online poll does not carry the prestige of the choice made by the magazine’s editors. Evidently, the views of the denizens of ivory towers have greater value than of the unwashed hoi polloi.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that this is the second time that Modi has come out on top in the online exercise for whatever it is worth. He won it for the first time in 2014 when he received 16 per cent of the five million votes which were cast.
This time he received 18 per cent, well ahead of Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Julian Assange, all of whom got seven per cent although Trump finally ended up the winner.
On the online poll, the magazine said that the Indian Prime Minister’s handling of his country’s economy was the “most positive story” of the “emerging markets”.
Evidently, the present contretemps over demonetisation had no effect on the popular assessment.
What Modi’s selection shows, however, is how far India — and Modi personally — have come from the days when the country was seen as a basket case and Modi was persona non grata in the US in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots.
In 1930, Time chose “saint” Gandhi as the Person of the Year as the “British Empire was still wondering fearfully” about 30,000 of his followers who had been jailed along with the “little half-naked brown man whose 1930 mark on world history will undoubtedly loom largest of all”.
Nearly nine decades later, it is a completely different world which has seen India’s, and Modi’s, rise. The central point of this transformation is the economic development which is Modi’s trump card.
Although there is not much to write home at present about the growth trajectory — Manmohan Singh’s government did better in the early years of his tenure — what makes Modi stand out is his commitment to the cause.
While his predecessor faltered in the last few years of his stint because of the shift in the government’s priority from growth to populism at Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s behest, what is noteworthy about Modi is his focus on the market-oriented capitalist path.
Although demonetisation has caused concern about a fall in the growth rate — the latest figure is 7.1, down from 7.6 — few expect Modi to slow down.
The reason is that he seems to know what he is doing, unlike earlier governments which were unwilling either to follow the capitalist path lest they be labelled anti-poor, or to crack down on black money because of the banking secrecy regulations and the fear of causing a flutter in the dovecotes of tainted politicians and bureaucrats.
Modi, in contrast, has confronted the scourge of a parallel economy head-on notwithstanding the “monumental mismanagement” of the economy of which he has been accused by Manmohan Singh.
Or of being despotic, as Amartya Sen has said.
However, both the distinguished economists have failed to note that, by and large, the ordinary people have been willing to undergo the severe inconvenience of standing in long queues because they believe that instead of mere promises as in the past, a firm step against black money is at last being taken.
Nor is there an acceptance of the charge about the futility of the step considering that only six per cent of the black money is kept in cash. The reason is the belief that the latest measure will tell the hoarders of hidden wealth that Modi is serious about bringing them to book.
It is this largely uncomplaining acceptance of the travails of demonetisation which made the Left Front chairman of West Bengal, Biman Bose, concede that the bandh called by the communists failed in the state because the people believe in the efficacy of Modi’s initiative.
Modi, therefore, can said to be in the process of passing the most arduous test of all by expecting the people to ignore their present difficulties because of their faith in him.
There is little doubt that demonetisation has been a risky gamble for Modi where he has taken on a section of the opposition in the hope that his popularity will save him when the votes are counted.
The unexpected support which he has received from the Time’s readers is a sign that his intention to industrialise India and turn it into a regional super power is widely appreciated.
If he can pull it off, he may well be the choice of the magazine’s editors for the Person of the Year in 2017.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)