No matter which side of the demonetization debate you are on, there is little doubt that it has been the defining moment in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five-year tenure. Most mainstream economists think the idea of invalidating 86% of the outstanding currency was daft. Most opposition politicians have been using images of demonetization and the subsequent disruption it caused to the rural and informal parts of the economy to work up voter anger against Modi. That they haven’t succeeded in this endeavour tells us something.

Today, Modi may not be keen to remind people of the hardships they went through in 2016-17 after demonetization, but subliminally this is what he is invoking with the #MainBhiChowkidar hashtag that went viral a few days ago on Twitter. While his political opponents raised the slogan of #ChowkidarChorHai, a cynical call to disbelieve in someone who is supposed to protect your life and property, the Modi hashtag does the exact opposite— it invites people to reinvest in hope and not cynicism, to become a part of something larger than their own self-interest. The invisible thread that links #MainBhiChowkidar to demonetization and almost all of Modi’s schemes is this call to reduce cynicism.

A second theme running through Modi’s tenure is empowerment, not entitlement. The assumption that people want only freebies and are unwilling to help themselves is cynical and feudal. If the flagship UPA scheme was MGNREGA, a boondoggle, the flagship Modi scheme is Mudra, which is about giving micro-loans to poor people and creating small sources of additional income. While the Congress is an avowed believer in massive farm loan waivers, Modi has been a critic of the idea, even though his party has ignored him in some states.

This strand of enabling people to help themselves while the government stands in support is a running thread in most of Modi’s schemes. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana is not about providing free cooking gas, but a free connection where you pay for the refills. Saubhagya is not about providing free electricity, but about a free connection to the last home. The Fasal Bima Yojana is not about free crop insurance; it is about the farmer paying a low 2-5% premium to give himself various levels of crop insurance. The direct benefit transfer (DBT) scheme, a UPA idea that the Manmohan Singh government could never bring itself to universalize, has been converted into a sweeping subsidy reform scheme under Modi where every beneficiary of the feudal dole has been converted into an empowered customer. The same can be said for the Atal Pension Yojana, the Awas Yojana, and the informal sector pension scheme, all involving subventions but no free lunch.

At another level, better-off sections have been exhorted to contribute to the poor by voluntarily giving up subsidies (#GiveItUp for cooking gas and an opt-out scheme for senior citizens in railway ticket concessions). There is nothing less cynical than asking citizens to help other citizens who are less fortunate. The Swachh Bharat toilet-building programme is another project to challenge the cynical to think differently. Critics of the scheme can be found in plenty, but the idea is not any less revolutionary just because of the warts and kinks in its implementation.

The only true giveaways, the Ayushman Bharat medical insurance scheme and the interim budget’s proposal to pay 6,000 in three instalments annually to every eligible small farmer, both clearly pre-election voter lures, have also been couched in phrases of empowerment and respect. While one is touted as the government’s bid to ensure that the poor are not ruined by major illnesses, the dole for farmers is titled PM Kisan Samman, a small bit of help to the farmer at critical times in the year. This is Modi’s way of justifying a freebie without technically breaching his theme of empowerment.

While it would be foolish to pretend that anything Modi and Amit Shah came up with to woo the electorate is devoid of cynical electoral calculations, their messaging has an undertone of giving primacy to hope and reducing cynicism.

In India’s feudal system of vote-bank politics, where both voters and politicians have entered into a Faustian bargain that demeans both, Modi’s politics has brought in a non-cynical element to the relationship that needs nurturing. In a country where bad economics has been the basis of cynical politics, Modi has injected a dose of appeal to the voter’s higher impulses. And even when he has indulged in bad economics (as with demonetization), the politics of it has been less demeaning.

John Kennedy, in his inaugural address as US President in 1961, said: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Demonetization was Modi’s call for sacrifice, and nothing forges an emotional bond between leader and people more than a call to sacrifice. When you sacrifice, you invest yourself in something larger than your narrow interests. Despite some major sins of omission, including a failure to anticipate the bad loans problem of banks early in his administration, Modi has redefined politics by injecting hope and removing some of the embedded cynicism.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director of 'Swarajya' magazine.

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