I have always believed that in India, Murphy’s Law acts with a vengeance. If something can go wrong, it will. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in office long enough to know that. Was he prepared for the messy implementation of a Himalayan programme? He ought to have been. In the end, the success of the demonetisation exercise will depend on how well it is executed, after all the initial glitches. Will people grant the PM the 50 days he has sought for restoring normalcy? If they do, he’ll have the last laugh.
More than a good monetary and economic exercise and much more than a clever political ploy, the decision of Prime Minister Modi to replace and flush out 500- and 1,000-rupee notes may go down as an interesting social initiative. Political journalist Nistula Hebbar of The Hindu quotes a BJP source comparing the PM’s campaign around demonetisation to Lal Bahadur Shastri’s call for giving up one meal a week to save India from the food crisis of the mid-1960s. Shastri used both the drought of 1965-66 and the war with Pakistan to mobilise the entire country to national effort.
No gain without pain, the PM said in Goa. The question is, can a national sentiment be generated around the current exercise that makes the citizen accept personal pain for national gain?
By focusing the energy of millions of Indians on the simple act of securing cash for daily needs and linking this to a campaign against corruption and black money, Modi has challenged Indians to think of the nation first. Do not complain about your hardship, support me in my fight against anti-social elements. That has been Modi’s simple message. If he succeeds in this endeavour, he would have generated a sense of national purpose not seen in an increasingly divided nation in a long time.
India has long lacked such a sense of national purpose. We have had several examples of exemplary social work during earthquakes, tsunami and other natural disasters. By urging and encouraging ordinary citizens to bear the hardship of a temporary shortage of cash and standing in long queues to get cash, Modi has sought to mobilise the altruism of an entire nation. The social media is full of stories of ordinary people willing to be kind, generous and patient in dealing with this hardship imposed on them. How long will long queues feel patriotic?
In the era of mass media, when television can generate and multiply public anger, it requires even more political courage to ask people to bear personal pain for national gain. Recall how a couple of hundred angry Delhi-based relatives of passengers on the hijacked Indian Airlines plane IC 814 brought the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government to its knees, forcing the government to surrender to the hijackers and release terrorists who then escaped to Pakistan. The live telecast of the Anna Hazare rally in 2013 forced the Manmohan Singh government to yield on the Lokpal issue.
The constant telecasting of such organised anger can create disproportionate pressure on government. Can a government-sponsored national political campaign neutralise such pressure? If it does, the social and political externalities of demonetisation can be many.
However, courage alone is not enough when it comes to undertaking national effort. Be it in fighting a war or fighting corruption, one requires both courage and cleverness. Modi has clearly shown courage, one waits to see if he has been adequately clever. Cleverness is required not just in the implementation of a national initiative but also in its messaging.
Should the government have been alienating the media on the eve of such a massive campaign? The closure notice to a television channel succeeded in uniting large sections of the media for the first time in years, and that too on the eve of this massive campaign. National campaigns like this require a strategy and cannot be shaped by tactics alone.