Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Make way for a revamped version of ‘garibi hatao’

Later this week it will be a month since the dramatic announcement of demonetisation of high-value currencies by the government. The economic fallout/gain is still unclear but the political narrative is acquiring a distinct tone of a class war around it: all the corrupt are rich. Clearly demonetisation is now acquiring the hue of a ‘Garibi Hatao’ 2.0 as it were.

The broader message gaining ground is that this is a gutsy assault on corruption—which has all but eaten away the innards of the country—but also an equally important attempt to redress the associated inequality (most manifest in the ostentatious consumption funded by illegal cash). The brazen attempt to use Jan Dhan accounts of the poor to launder black money has only reinforced this perception that there is an urgent need to end status quo—which perpetuates the hegemony of a few, allowing corruption to become a way of life and denying the less privileged of India their right to realise their aspirational quotient.

It is exactly this sentiment which explains why the crowds outside ATMs/banks have (so far) neither turned unruly nor allowed their morale to flag, despite their daily disappointments (not just at being unable to draw their cash but even dealing with the almost daily flip flops in the rules). Their anger against the inflictions of inequality offset their disappointment over the inept administrative handling of demonetisation—a small price to pay to achieve the larger global good of operating within a rules-based regime which by its inherent nature allows for a level-playing field (a society that would be fair to their kids if not them).

If this narrative retains these contours it could lead to a reset of the country’s politics; something akin to the emotive ‘garibi hatao’ slogan that former PM Indira Gandhi employed in the late 1960s to consolidate herself politically. It led to a leftward tilt in public policy (like the nationalization of banks and eliminating the privy purse) and a reordering of the Indian economy.

However the two anti-poverty slogans fundamentally differ. One, the economic context is not the same. In the late 1960s, India was an underdeveloped economy struggling to address poverty, the sheer numbers of which were staggering; today, the country is a middle-income economy with a national income of $2 trillion and the worst in the battle against poverty is behind it.

Second, segueing from the previous point, the previous policy battle was to ensure subsistence levels. Today it is one of ensuring the realisation of aspirations. Inequalities, especially those perpetuated by corruption, deny people the opportunity to realise them. The new policy intent is not to rely only on affirmative action. Instead it is to remove the glass ceilings to allow aspirations to flower.

So ‘Garibi Hatao 2.0’ is about tapping into the aspirations of the people; something Narendra Modi did so effectively in the 16th general elections campaign. The raft of scams denied aspirations and dented the governance image of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance; the birth of the anti-corruption movement around the social activist Anna Hazare sealed their fate. All Modi did was to seize the moment with a credible narrative woven around addressing aspirations—especially among the young.

To its credit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance has in the last two Union budgets sought to realign policy priorities—leaning more towards Bharat as opposed to India defined around the privileged. The policy lexicon (by creating a social safety net for the rural poor or Mudra bank loans for small business) has acquired a distinct slant; a slogan like ‘garibi hatao’ can only reinforce the government’s claim to champion for a level-playing field by taking on even the so-called power elite.

The messaging from demonetisation is that the upcoming Union budget to be presented on 1 February will further rewrite the rules of social and economic equity. And if Modi and the BJP are able to harvest the political gains implicit in such a strategy, it will force other political parties to follow suit. In that case Indian politics is in for another major reset.

Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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