The decision to ban existing 500 and 1000-rupee notes has a certain economic logic to it. Certainly, the absence of large-denomination notes will make it harder for people to keep black money in hand. That said, there are no clear estimates as to how much black money is in actual currency notes, and how much in land or gold or other forms of wealth.
But the point behind Modi's announcement wasn't to actually change the way that the black money economy works. It was to show that he is capable of doing something - of strong leadership. And, from that point of view, it was a sign both of desperation and brilliance.
Modi is now reaching that point in his term in office when the promises he made in 2014 are coming back to haunt him. He spent the last week under a spotlight because of the One Rank, One Pension (OROP) agitation - something that he politicised to start off with, and on which he has failed to deliver to the satisfaction of many ex-servicemen. Two and a half years into his term, their patience was at an end. I wrote last week that it was only the beginning of a long-overdue accounting for Modi's extravagant promises on the campaign trail in 2013 and 2014.
The promise to "bring back black money" was another such promise, one even more resonant than the OROP promise. Rare was the BJP voter in North India who was not convinced by the party's skilled propaganda, and by statements from senior leaders that they had personally been defrauded of lakhs of rupees (Rs 15 lakh is the generally accepted figure) by Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, and a cabal of sinister figures from the Vatican, Switzerland, and Dubai. Modi would end the black money economy, we were told. Whether or not Modi specifically promised to bring back 15 lakhs and put it in everyone's bank account, there's little doubt that many of those who voted for him expected some cash in their account from black money.
Well, that hasn't precisely worked out, has it? It is one of the most effective weapons in the opposition's arsenal, in fact. Rahul Gandhi had a lot of fun last year comparing the Prime Minister's "10-lakh suit" with the absence of 15 lakhs in people's bank accounts.
Make no mistake: this is the beginning of Narendra Modi's re-election campaign. No more coasting along, no more promises he can't deliver on. Now he's going to focus on changing the subject from everything he hasn't been able to do since 2014. If the opposition fails to figure out that's happening, then they'll be so far behind when 2019 rolls around that they won't be able to put up a fight. And if the opposition isn't nimble enough in constructing counter-narratives, they won't stand a chance even if they try to fight. Each time a voter sees or misses a 500-rupee note, will he praise Modi for making an effort - or condemn him for making life more inconvenient for his own ends?
The answer to that question depends on how well the opposition mobilises its counter-narrative. And the answer to that question will determine whether Modi's big gamble pays off politically or not. But make no mistake - this is the first of many such gambles. Modi is India's first modern politician. He knows better than anyone else in this country - except perhaps Arvind Kejriwal - how to seize a narrative. He certainly knows exactly how to turn it around, and to his advantage. Let's see if this one works, and what gambles will follow in the months leading up to the Uttar Pradesh election - and beyond.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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