If there is one outstanding theme which is common to the campaign rhetoric of Narendra Modi in the run-up to the historic 16th general election and the language of governance of two-and-a-half years of Prime Minister Modi’s regime, it is indeed the fight against corruption.
This campaign has been ratcheted up in the past few months, first with the amnesty scheme for black money (wealth on which the due tax has not been paid), the big-bang demonetization of Rs1,000 and Rs500 denomination currency notes and the ongoing crackdown on those who so successfully abused the banking system in the past 50 days to launder their stash of black money.
It is a theme which has always resonated with the public—not just with Modi, but even the movement against corruption led by social activist Anna Hazare (which eventually spawned the Aam Aadmi Party); and, if we were to go back further, then V.P. Singh’s brief anti-graft fight in the 1980s. The patience with which the public dealt with the dislocation—including temporary loss of jobs—caused by demonetization in their stride suggests enthusiasm in the fight against corruption has not waned.
It is therefore safe to assume that Modi will make corruption the recurrent theme of 2017. His speech to deliver the weekend offering—a New Year gift for Bharat—left no one in doubt of his intentions. “Corruption, black money and counterfeit notes had become so rampant in India’s social fabric that even honest people were brought to their knees,” he said.
Implicitly, he is arguing that the capture by corruption has largely benefited elite India at the expense of Bharat. From the tone of this government’s past two budgets and the sops announced on Saturday, it is apparent that alongside the fight against corruption, Modi will also be attempting a rebalancing towards Bharat—and the Union budget is likely to reflect this.
For good or bad reasons, Modi has linked the narrative of fighting corruption to every major policy initiative his government is undertaking (and in some instances being stalled by the opposition). By arguing that it is the singular reason for failed aspirations, Modi has touched a raw nerve in Indian society.
And he has, at the cost of making even some of his own party people uncomfortable, turned the corruption lens on the structural fault lines in politics which encourages the creation of black money. “Political parties, political leaders and electoral funding figure prominently in any debate on corruption and black money. The time has now come that all political leaders and parties respect the feelings of the nation’s honest citizens, and understand the anger of the people,” he said on Saturday.
This is generating considerable social capital for Modi to push for an expansion of the formal economy—which by its very nature, unlike in the informal sector, entails adherence to rules and benefits (another matter that they are routinely flouted). Whether it be the push for financial inclusion (opening of Jan Dhan bank accounts) or loans bankrolled by MUDRA for the small and micro sector enterprise or implementation of a goods and services tax or ramping up of the digital economy, a desired end outcome is the expansion of the formal economy.
And as a clever politician, he is subtly tweaking the message from targeting the corrupt to rewarding the honest—once again feeding the aspiration quotient. Understandable, given that there is only so much mileage you can get by beating up your predecessor, Congress, for wrongdoing. At some stage, people are bound to start asking “Isme mera kya?” or what is there in this for me?
The PM’s address on Saturday formalized this recalibration.
“In this fight against corruption and black money, it is natural to debate the fate of the dishonest. What punishment will they get? The law will take its own course, with its full force,” he said, before adding, “But the priority of the government now is how to help the honest, protect them, and ease their difficulty. How can honesty gain more prestige?”
Yet, he is still very much on the message: anti-corruption.