This ‘moral cleansing’ project of the prime minister has played a big role in enabling him to break through caste barriers to create a larger social coalition.
One thing has become amply clear from the landslide victory of the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections – that the people in the largest and politically the most critical state have, by and large, accepted the moral arguments made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in favour of demonetisation.
Modi has succeeded in earning the trust of the people with his message of a higher moral purpose behind notebandi, articulated in terms of the need for sacrifices from all sections of society to build a clean, corruption free system. However, this would be a very complex project and the prime minister will be under pressure to use his fresh political capital to steadfastly remain focused on implementing this project. This is the biggest message of the UP verdict.
However, this places a huge burden on the prime minister to carry forward this “moral cleansing” exercise with proportionate sacrifices from different classes of society. The sacrifices from the very rich will be watched in this context. The transfer of excess wealth from the rich to the poor is an important component of this moral project.
In my view, this project has played a big role in enabling Modi to break through caste barriers to create a larger social coalition. In this context, it is important to note that UP is the only one among the politically significant states going to polls since June 2014 where the BJP has managed to nearly retain the peak vote share secured in the Lok Sabha elections marked by a Modi wave.
Other assembly elections such as the ones in Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Haryana, Bihar and Delhi saw the BJP losing about five percentage points vote share compared to its 2014 peak.
Significantly, this has not happened in UP in spite of the worsening conditions in the economy and growing unemployment over the past two years. Demonetisation further worsened the situation if you go by the experience of the common people.
Consequently, one was sceptical about the BJP retaining its peak Lok Sabha vote share, even if it was expected to emerge as a single largest party. But people voted for the BJP overwhelmingly. It is this voter behaviour which needs a deeper study and this may have to be outside the realm of pure economics. One was struck by Modi’s reference to Harvard economists not being able to see what was going on. The fact is, most domestic political economy observers – this writer included – have not been able to fully grasp the dimensions of the politics of “moral cleansing”. Even the RSS affiliated trade union, Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh, has criticised demonetisation arguing it resulted in 2.5 lakh small units shutting down.
It is possible that a rational analytical framework may not be able to capture the deeper moral/cultural elements driving voter behaviour. For people have suffered economic setbacks and yet want to participate in a kind of abstract moral-social project initiated by Modi. How this plays out is what will have to be decoded in time.
Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta, who often articulates the broader political philosophy of the BJP, has argued in his column in the Times of India that in demonetisation there is a Gandhian element of “personal sacrifice” with a higher moral purpose leading to greater “freedom”. While this argument may appear attractive to many at first glance – as it indeed has to the UP voter – there are inherent problems with some other aspects of this conception.
One, Gandhi had a deep suspicion of the paternalistic and centralised state imposing its will on society and its grassroots community-based institutions. Two, no one would doubt that the BJP’s overwhelming UP mandate also has a strong underlying element of majoritarianism even if one concedes that the people have accepted the “moral cleansing” project proposed by notebandi. This would certainly have been anathema to Gandhi.
Gandhi would have described as morally indefensible the fact that the BJP went without a single Muslim candidate in the UP elections. In fact, Gandhi would have outrightly rejected the oft-repeated argument by BJP that tickets are given purely on merit going by the winnability of the candidate. Gandhi would have countered this simply by arguing that means were as important as the end.
So while the people of UP have certainly endorsed the new Modi project, it is not clear how the project itself will unfold given all its problematic fault lines. Hopefully, their impact will also be felt in the broader democratic process.