When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his massive demonetisation effort last November, observers were struck by the immensely firm grip his government had on the popular narrative. The Opposition, of course, criticised the move. So did many senior economists around the world. The media reported on how it was disrupting the economy. The lives of people across India were hurt by lost business, the lack of wages or in some cases, illness and even death from having to stand in enormous bank lines. Yet a great many of these same people seemed to support the move, despite the evident pain it was causing to them.
This contradiction – where people whose entire livelihoods were upended by the note ban nevertheless ended up supporting it – was baffling, especially to those analysts who could see how massive the dent on the economy was likely to be. Yet, to others, it made perfect sense. Demonetisation was not sold as an economic bitter pill. It was presented as a moral duty, a sacrifice to be made by loyal citizens for the nation. Millions of people felt the pain and yet they were often convinced that those above them, the rich and the corrupt, were being hit even harder. As economist Ajit Ranade put it, the massive nature of the move – in effect, the nuclear option – helped reset public cynicism over whether corruption could actually be tackled.
Control the narrative
Demonetisation was only the most prominent example of something that has been happening at least since 2014 and, more likely, effectively since the 2G spectrum and so-called Coalgate scams had emerged in the second tenure of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. The Bharatiya Janata Party, and over time Modi, was able to control the narrative, first in the media, and then among the wider public.
The BJP would level allegations, often grounded in the genuine incompetence and corruption of the Congress-run government, and those would become conventional wisdom. Aided in part by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal’s India Against Corruption movement, the BJP at the time seemed like it could say just about anything negative about the Congress and it would take hold.
This continued into the first few years of the Modi government, partly because of how effective the anti-UPA storylines had been in the previous few years. Modi, in his speeches, picked on the malaise that began in 2011-’12 and claimed that it extended across the entire history of independent India. He said that the Congress had done nothing for 60 years, but he was only asking for 60 months to make an impact. Every initiative of the BJP government was pitched as a way to fix things that the Congress had ruined. Even when schemes that had been started by the previous government were embraced, like the 12-digit Aadhaar Unique Identity project or the Goods and Services Tax, Modi sold it as a way of overhauling something that had been badly conceived by the Congress.
Three and a half years in, two things have changed.
First, pointing to the flaws of the previous government is not working so well. There is another narrative that is also a crucial part of the BJP and Modi’s image that does not sit well alongside the Congress-is-to-blame storyline. Everyone in the party and Modi himself have been tasked with building up the prime minister’s image as the ruler of the country, who has control of every aspect and does what needs to be done. He is a doer, not one to stay silent like his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. But if Modi looms so large over the country, how can he continue to blame a government that has receded in people’s memory? If he was as superhumanly capable as he is made out to be, why has he not fixed those problems yet?
Second, it is easier to control the narrative when you’re not responsible for what underlies it. The demonetisation moral project was tremendously successful through much of last year, and still many people believe it was well-intentioned. But the drumbeat of negative data from over the last month, such as from the Reserve Bank of India confirming that the note ban did not achieve much or Gross Domestic Product figures confirming a slowdown, has been hard to shake off.
The government has tried to combat the narrative, insisting that nothing is wrong and things were worse in UPA times. But since it needs to send a message to industry too, it also set up an Economic Advisory Council, effectively admitting it needs help. The last few weeks have seen other admissions, including a U-turn on fuel prices (despite attempting to sell that too as a moral project) and giving concessions to small enterprises under the Goods and Services Tax, an acknowledgment of how much distress the rollout of the new system has caused. This weekend’s headlineabout BJP President Amit Shah’s son, chip away at yet another part of the BJP’s narrative edifice.
Land acquisition failure
Modi has been here before. Early in his tenure, he attempted to use his political capital on amending the Land Acquisition Act. He sold the changes as necessary for the development of the country. He insisted that those opposing did not have India’s best interests at heart. He promulgated the changes as an ordinance over and over, presuming they would eventually be passed by the Rajya Sabha – where the amendments had stalled. But he was not able to tilt public opinion, was hurt by Congress’ jibe that he ran a “suit-boot ki sarkar”, a government for people who wore suits and shoes. He eventually had to withdraw the amendments.
The prime minister and the BJP adapted quite quickly to that failure. They pushed the states to take action themselves and meanwhile worked on bypassing the Rajya Sabha as much as possible. It is entirely possible that Modi will find a way to adapt here too. He remains tremendously popular and Amit Shah appears indefatigable in his effort to take the BJP’s message across the country.
Yet it also seems evident that this moment will be harder to emerge from than previous ones. “I don’t think the winds are shifting yet, but... there is something in the air,” wrote The Print’s Shekhar Gupta. That something might be the feeling, for the first time since the Land Acquisition failure and multiplied several times over, that Indians are no longer simply taking Modi’s rhetoric at face value. For a party that has built its entire platform around a single leader, that is a dangerous sign.