It’s often said that all politics is local. Voters in eastern Uttar Pradesh may not vote like those in other parts of this giant state. Yet a trip through eastern UP suggests such strong support for the BJP that it will surely win.
At the grassroots, local issues usually dominate. But once in a while a national wind blows everything else away. That wind today is Narendra Modi. His national sweep in 2014 was followed by electoral disasters in state elections in Delhi and Bihar in 2015. The Modi wind seemed to be dying. But it has revived with a vengeance.
Demonetisation (or DeMo) last November was berated by critics as a human and economic disaster, and even as despotic (by Amartya Sen). They gleefully awaited a voter revolt. The very opposite has happened. After DeMo, the BJP has swept local elections across India.
In Maharashtra, a traditional Congress stronghold where the BJP was historically the junior partner of the Shiv Sena, the BJP captured eight of 10 municipal corporations. In Gujarat, the BJP won 107 of 123 municipalities and panchayats. In the Chandigarh local election, the party won 21 of 26 seats. In Faridabad, Haryana, it got 30 of 40 seats. In Odisha, it made enormous strides to oust the Congress from second position and pose a challenge to four-time chief minister Naveen Patnaik.
If a wind is blowing from Maharashra and Gujarat through Punjab and Haryana into Odisha, can UP be immune? No, politics in UP today is not local. There is little support for any local BJP leader. The chant you hear everywhere is “Modi, Modi, Modi.”
For many liberals, Modi is the mass killer of 2002, beyond the moral pale. These liberals today struggle to cope with the reality that Modi has captured the high moral ground, and can sneer at liberal critics while the crowds roar approval. In one speech, Modi boasted that after denunciations by intellectuals from Harvard (read Amartya Sen), GDP data showed no negative impact of DeMo. The crowd guffawed when he said hard work mattered more than Harvard.
Earlier, opponents galore had denounced DeMo. “Demonetisation catastrophe.“ “Modi Digs Ditch for BJP.“
“Core Insensitivity to the Poor and Rural Masses.“ “The poor have to pay for the money laundering of the rich.“
I myself wrote that DeMo would barely touch the stock of old black money, would not stop fresh black money generation without major additional reforms, and had caused much short-term pain to small enterprises and casual labourers. I still expect that when revised GDP data come in next year, covering small enterprises excluded in last week’s estimate, that economic growth will show a significant fall.
But such economic analysis fails totally to capture the moral dimension of DeMo. It is first and foremost a political move to capture the political high ground, by taking on the dishonest rich in a blunt way that no professed socialists and communists have done. It has strengthened Modi’s charisma, that intangible characteristic that defies easy definition but is enormously powerful, like that of a rock star.
Most rural voters say DeMo did not hit them, only the wealthy. Urban retailers say business was hit for two months but has revived. All say Modi is the only politician serious about catching the dishonest and transforming the status quo. They don’t know the many ways in which DeMo was bungled. But after seeing a cavalcade of politicians who swear by the poor and then enrich themselves, they see in Modi a politician from a poor family who has remained personally poor, has no greedy relatives exploiting his position, and is serious about economic development.
My fellow columnist Aakar Patel wrote a perceptive column recently saying Modi was by far India’s most credible politician. His charisma rivals that of Indira Gandhi and Nehru, who remained popular for decades despite glaring failures. Modi too can shrug off failures like job stagnation and implementation bungles in DeMo. Aakar is an articulate, vocal critic of Modi. Yet he says, “The BJP will remain the dominant party in India for a long time. And those who do not like it or its policies must face up to this fact.“
Aakar says Modi will survive even if he loses in UP. I agree, but must add that Modi will almost certainly win in UP, paving the way for re-election as Prime Minister in 2019.