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The morality of binaries

By: G. SAMPATH | November 18, 2016 (Ref: thehindu.com)

Narendra Modi’s political opponents stand no chance against him unless they can script a powerful counter-narrative that resonates with the masses and isn’t about him.

Demonetisation has been done many times before, without it disrupting the lives of ordinary Indians. Not this time though. Could it have been done in a less disruptive manner? Yes. Then why wasn’t it?

While there is no answer to this question from the government, some have blamed it on lack of adequate planning, and others on the necessity of secrecy. But the real answer may lie in the political rather than the economic or logistical realm. One could debate the merits and demerits of demonetisation as the best strategy to curb the black economy. One could also debate the merits and demerits of a ‘fast’ demonetisation versus ‘slow’ or gradual demonetisation. One could debate the manner of execution, in view of the known incompatibility between the newly printed notes and the ATM machines that could not dispense them without recalibration. One could debate the impact of this demonetisation — the instant elimination of Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 notes, which constituted 86 per cent of the currency in circulation — on ordinary people’s lives.



I, me, myself

All these aspects have indeed been widely debated. And it was eagerly anticipated that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was away on a visit to Japan, would address these issues on his return. Some were even hoping that he might roll back the move to ease the pain, at least until the logistics are in place.

Instead, the rhetorical turn in his speeches the day after his return took everyone by surprise. Addressing public functions in Goa, Belgavi and Pune on Sunday, he sought to turn the entire narrative about demonetisation into one about himself, his political career, and the unfairness of being persecuted by powerful enemies. “I know what kind of forces and what kind of people are against me now… They will not leave me alive. They will destroy me,” he said. In other words, the one who truly deserves sympathy in the present scenario is not the mass of daily wagers, street vendors, and farmers whose already precarious livelihoods have been disrupted, but Mr. Modi.

His rhetoric not only painted a sinister picture of anyone who dared to question his government’s moves, in one stroke, it rendered all criticism suspect. Anyone familiar with the tropes of Mr. Modi’s speeches would recognise his invocation of “those who looted the country for 70 years”. In this populist narrative that he has constructed and strengthened through hundreds of speeches over the years, the Congress equals the corrupt equals the black money hoarders equals the elites equals the liberals equals the Modi-critics equals the anti-nationals equals the bad people who want to destroy India. At the same time, the good people equals the true nationalists equals Modi equals Modi supporters equals the Congress-haters equals the proud Hindus.
Neither of these concatenations is fixed — they are liable to be extended to include new categories or shrunk to focus on a select few. But as encapsulated in Mr. Modi’s teary-eyed appeal, the significant aspects are three: the moralisation of politics, the infusion of emotion into policy debates, and the reduction of all debate into a single question, are you in support of Mr. Modi or not? If yes, support him. If no, then it’s hardly surprising that you are criticising what he has done.

Sacrifice for the nation

While this may be a crude summary of the dynamic at play, there is no denying that it is working for Mr. Modi. Anyone who has been out in the past few days queuing up outside ATMs could not have failed to come across people from every strata, but especially the lower middle classes, who, while acknowledging the hardship they are going through, nonetheless believe that Mr. Modi has taken a bold step for the good of the country.

When he says, “I promise you I will give you the India which you desired… I am doing what I was asked to do by the people of this country”, not only do a large number of Indians believe him, their words supply meaning to their hardship by wrapping it in a narrative that connects them to a larger cause, and makes them feel good about themselves. One would have to be really small-minded to complain about 50 days of hardship if this hardship could help make India a great nation by cleansing it of black money, no? But Mr. Modi’s narrative doesn’t stop at seeking the people’s support for demonetisation or for fighting black money. He wants them to save the country by saving him — from his enemies. And speaking of his “enemies”, Mr. Modi said, “They thought if they pull my hair, I will stop and do nothing. I will not be cowed down. I will not stop doing these things, even if you burn me alive.” These are the words of a person who holds the most powerful post in the country, of a person who is supremely in command of a party that enjoys a brute majority in Parliament.

Cult of the leader

Could there possibly be an objective basis for such utterances? One may recall his response when cow vigilantes were on the rampage. “Shoot me if you want, but not Dalits,” he had said. In a democracy, why must anyone shoot anyone else? Was it not possible for him to simply condemn the attacks on Dalits? But had he done so, he would have ended up acknowledging anti-Dalit atrocities as an authentic issue during his regime. By asking people to shoot him instead of attacking Dalits, he flipped the narrative of Dalit atrocity into one about Narendra Modi.

His response to the ongoing currency note crisis follows the same pattern. The demonetisation is the first bold, decisive step — one with immediate, nationwide impact — that Mr. Modi has taken since becoming Prime Minister. He did it in the most dramatic fashion. Days after the move, the nation is reeling under the impact.

What used to be financial arcana has become a televised national spectacle. Above all, it has underlined in no uncertain terms his power as a leader, as someone extraordinary, and who towers above every other luminary in the national political landscape.

This brings us to the reason why he does not engage in a dialogue on equal terms with anyone — be it from politics or the media — on any of his moves. It’s because it runs the danger of diminishing his stature. It also carries the risk of elevating the status of those he parlays with as an equal — which is another way of diminishing him in relative terms. Hence the importance of frequent foreign trips. It is as if the only individuals he can be seen to interact with on equal terms are leaders of other countries, especially countries that command a bigger say than India on the international stage. Hence the bear hug of Barack Obama, Francois Hollande, Tony Abbott, and their ilk, extendable to other larger-than-life members of the global power elite such as Mark Zuckerberg or Hugh Jackman. The only modes of interaction open to ordinary interlocutors in India are supplication, obedience, and unquestioning acceptance.

Dominating the discourse

For Indian democracy to remain healthy, it needs political leaders who can challenge the Prime Minister as an equal. Right now there seem to be none. Hence his manoeuvre — which has now become standard operating procedure — of addressing his response from a podium, directly to the people of India, every time he is challenged on any of his policies.

Ever since he became the Prime Minister, Mr. Modi has been firmly in control of the national political narrative, with not a little help from the media. The way his demonetisation drive has unfolded reveals his willingness to leverage this control to evacuate all possible alternatives to his helmsmanship of the country’s destiny. He will continue to do so as long as the narrative that conflates national interest with Mr. Modi’s interest remains unchallenged.

His political opponents have been quick to talk about the businessmen who bankrolled his election campaign and are thus invested in his success. But there doesn’t seem to be adequate recognition of the fact that a large number of ordinary, lower-middle-class Indians are emotionally invested in Mr. Modi’s political fortunes. It is they who appear ready to undergo any hardship if it promises positive outcomes for their leader — not unlike a battalion of soldiers ready to sacrifice their lives for their general.

Going forward, we can expect more from this playbook of turning every issue into one about Mr. Modi. What should concern those who cherish democratic values is the absolute lack of imagination or ideas among what passes for the Opposition in the country. His opponents stand no chance against him in the 2019 elections unless they can rise to the challenge of scripting a powerful counter-narrative that would resonate with the masses, and also, most critically — would not be about Mr. Modi.

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