Yesterday while reading a long form article on the crisis in Venezuela, I was reminded of a couplet by Anand Narain Mulla, late Urdu poet and a former judge of the Allahabad high court. The growing disenchantment with the two centrist parties in Venezuela which led to late Hugo Chávez’s ascent to presidency in 1999 is reflected in this couplet: dil kaidi ka behlane ko, darbaan badalte jaate hain (to comfort the prisoner, security guards are shuffled around).
It is well-known that the longer a political party retains power the more anti-incumbency develops against it. But if two political parties dominate the system for long enough, there is always a fear of public sentiment turning anti-establishment in nature. Such a sentiment is not satisfied merely by throwing one party out of power and bringing the other. That is what happened in Venezuela in 1990s and something similar has just happened in the US with the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the US. While Trump belongs to the Republican party, one of the two major parties in the US, he has been elected very clearly not to deliver more of the same old but to disrupt the Washington establishment that comprises of elites from both the Democratic and the Republican parties.
Even Brexit was a wake-up call for London and the elites in the UK and across the world. The Conservatives were split right down the middle—but the disruptors led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove proved too much for the former Prime Minister David Cameron to handle. Do remember that Cameron was re-elected just a year ago but he was seen as too much of a status-quoist during the Brexit vote. But what does all this have to do with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to enforce a ban on the use of Rs500 and Rs1000 currency notes for legal tender? And what do the success of Chávez and Trump mean for Indian political actors including Modi and Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal?
Political scientist Ashutosh Varshney had described AAP’s stunning debut performance in 2013 Delhi state assembly elections as an “electoral insurgency”. As a rank outsider, Kejriwal was able to convince the voters of Delhi that he will be completely different from both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi himself exploited his image of an outsider to Delhi along with a governance record in Gujarat to come to power at the centre by a margin not seen in last three decades.
But in all the above examples—Chávez, Trump, Brexiteers, Kejriwal and Modi—the insurgents used their ‘outsider’ image skilfully against the incumbents. With the latest currency swap decision, however, Modi has turned the tables. The incumbent is the new insurgent. Whether this move is a potent one in the fight against black money will continue to be debated. But the political implications are relatively clearer: Modi is the change agent, and the opposition parties including AAP are status-quoist.
Kejriwal had altered his 2013 political strategy long ago. These days, he does not leave an opportunity to target Modi and his policies. In doing so, Kejriwal is aiming to occupy the principal opposition space displacing Rahul Gandhi of the Congress. He is no longer an insurgent against the establishment. In fact, he is now part of a loose coalition (comprising of Trinamool Congress, National Conference and others) formed to agitate against the currency swap decision. He supported the Mahagathbandhan in the Bihar assembly election last year and was seen sharing stage with Lalu Yadav, a convicted politician.
On the other hand, Modi has decided to walk down a path that in corporate strategy would be called ‘self-disruption’. The iPhone that Steve Jobs developed for Apple negatively affected the sales of iPod, another marquee product of the company. But Jobs understood the necessity of disrupting oneself in order to surge ahead. This is the reason why Microsoft keeps on updating its operating systems regularly thus rendering its own previous products outdated. And this would explain Netflix’s decision to focus on video streaming thus leaving its own DVD-by-mail business seem atavistic.
Self-disruption, as we can see from examples above, comes with some inevitable pain to oneself. Modi’s currency swap is also not a good news for all BJP politicians. BJP is not immune to the malaise of corruption that afflicts political parties across the board. A number of BJP politicians must have taken the hit as their illegally stashed wealth would have been rendered worthless overnight. Trump’s disruptive campaign has left the Republican party bruised severely if not damaged to the core. The Conservatives in UK too have suffered a blow as a result of Brexit campaign and its consequences.
Disruption also involves identifying a new market and delivering higher value to customers. A lot of commentators have pointed out that Modi has taken a huge political risk as this move may alienate the small businesses and traders who are loyal voters of the BJP. But as this newspaper has pointed out in an editorial (goo.gl/9mVnqp) that Modi understands the “changing political dynamics” emerging from “rapid transformation of the Indian economy.” The editorial wonders: “Is the ruling party now reflecting the interests of the national middle class and the rising neo-middle class that is harried by widespread corruption?”
Essentially, Modi’s new market is the middle and neo-middle class and the higher value that he is promising to deliver is the elimination of black money and a significant reduction of corruption. Modi has grabbed the space and message that could so-easily have been Kejriwal’s. The latter may not be possessing illegal cash and hence will not suffer monetarily but his political stocks are likely to go down.
Having said that, disruptions—especially self-disruptions—are not easy to manage. Given the chaos of cash exchange and withdrawals across the country, this can already be seen. Modi does have time, but not much. He will have to ensure the chaos is over and economic costs are contained well before the next round of elections which include the prized state of Uttar Pradesh.
But where is the Congress party in this picture? Well, it is deliberating on when to replace Sonia Gandhi with Rahul Gandhi as the president of the party. This is as far a move from self-disruption as can be; this is essentially continuation. If there is one politician in India who is genuinely serious about a prime ministerial chance in 2019, he is Nitish Kumar. And he is supporting Modi’s currency swap. Perhaps, there is some clue here.