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SEEMA MUSTAFA | 17 NOVEMBER, 2016

How Demonetisation Has Sharpened the Battle for Uttar Pradesh


NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes is being directly linked to the Uttar Pradesh polls by the Opposition.

What was a whisper in the first couple of days after his announcement is now in the open with several political leaders on record with the allegation that the move was directed at ‘denomentising’ the political parties in the fray in both UP and Punjab, but more specifically the former.

While it is too early to predict whether the current anger and frustration evident in the long queues before the banks will covert into an anti- vote, it is no secret that elections are funded by black money, and given the fact that the campaign had already begun in UP parties all the parties --Samajwadi party, Bahujan Samaj party, Congress and even the BJP---were piling their stocks as it were. A senior Left leader was categorical, “to wipe out this money for the others, the BJP demonetised what is 86% of the currency being used by the people putting the ordinary person to great hardship.” And escaped by allegedly alerting specific leaders about the move beforehand.

Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac has said in an interview, ‘I don’t think this demonetisation would bring in so much cash as to shore up our languishing banks. For that to happen, you need to go after the big sharks who owe the banks millions. We think that this measure was purely aimed at the opposition in Uttar Pradesh. The Bharatiya Janata Party took an advantage since they knew beforehand about this decision. I would say this is demonetisation of the opposition in Uttar Pradesh, for winning the election, for which the BJP will do anything.”

UP does have two strong non-BJP parties that have totally opposed the demonetisation, with the Samajwadi party and Bahujan Samaj party workers also out campaigning against the move. As BSP leader Mayawati indicated in the Rajya Sabha, her campaign is focusing on the hardship faced by the people, and the fact that BJP bigwigs are holding big weddings despite the PM’s promise to cleanse polity.

The BJP knows it as well as the others, that a great deal will depend on how soon the queues are managed, and the people return to normal living. The longer this continues the more the anger, that then will be more susceptible to the Opposition than the ruling party campaigns. And the facts and figures will start making more sense than these clearly do now. Measures are being taken by the government now to ease the situation, but this might be negated by the short supply of essential commodities and what economists insist will be a spiralling effect on the economy.

Despite the distress faced by the common person, the farmers, labourers, daily wage earners, small enterpreneurs and business persons--- all highlighted by the Opposition MPs in Parliament---no one can say for sure whether this is having an adverse impact on the BJP in UP. Or whether PM Modi’s ‘wait it out, give me just 50 days’ has worked to stil an early response. There is anger no doubt, but whether it will last till the vote is up for a wild guess, as a great deal will depend whether the electorate will be persuaded that the decision has not been thought through, And that it will not deal with the problem of black money and corruption, as it cannot for the reasons elaborate above.

Two narratives have already reached the voters in UP. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the BJP’s one man propaganda machine with the capacity to create perceptions that have carried him to victory in the past, and might do so in the near future yet again. So much so that despite the real questions that the Opposition has been raising with facts and figures across the board, it admits that it will need a strong campaign to puncture the perception created by the Prime Minister that the demonetisation will curb corruption, terror funding, black money and fake currency.

That indeed he has taken this step to cleanse the country, and the innocent persons will face some difficulty but at the end they will live in a better India.

The Opposition parties, all united, have started countering this propaganda with hard facts to prove that this demonetisation will not hit at black money as most of this is not in stock but in flow; fake notes as there is no guarantee that the new denomination will not feed into this industry sooner than later; terror funding as most of this across the world is electronic; and corruption as it is not the corrupt but the honest, hard working person who has been hit.

Prime Minister Modi countered this with a choked voice in Goa where he said that he had given up everything for this, that those who were hurt were not going to tolerate it, that his life was in danger, and that yet he was committed to his promises. A day later his 96 year old mother went to a bank to exchange money, a photograph that was of course taken and flashed across the country in a move to muster sentiment and hence support for her son, the Prime Minister. In between the emotional scenes, there was hard talk too with the PM threatening black money operators with action, and exulting over the bad men queueing outside banks.

The Prime Minister knows that the fight is not about facts, but of perception. BJP president Amit Shah who works closely with PM Modi to ensure that the propaganda reaches the districts and the villages has already started campaigning in UP with the word being spread that demonetisation has finished the terrorists, and the dishonest but saved the common person from ruin.

PM Modi has not moved back from the decision, and that he is still confident of reversing the initial disgruntlement was clear from the debate in Parliament where Minister Piyush Goyal initiated the debate for the BJP by giving all credit to PM Modi. It has become a personal issue for the Prime Minister who is leading the charge as it were still. The BJP as a party is relatively silent. The RSS has refused to speak till date on the issue, waiting for the reactions to settle in.

The UP voters will be asked to choose between the two clearly polarised sides. The one represented by the entire Opposition, and the other by the Prime Minister per se. The choice will be determined by the yet imponderables, such as the levels of distress as created by the demonetisation and hence the vulnerability to one or the other narrative. That it will be centre-stage is evident from the response of every single political party, pro or against, to the move with the voters response directly dependent on their own experiences in the field. And the perception that they ultimately go back home with.

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