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Wrong To See Modi's Speech As Loaded With Handouts

Author: Ashok Malik
Publication: NDTV.com
Date: January 01, 2017
URL:      https://www.ndtv.com/opinion/wrong-to-see-modi-speech-as-loaded-with-handouts-1643887

What does one make of Narendra Modi's address on December 31, 2016, after the demonetisation exercise and at the cusp of the New Year? Many have commented that it was low-key and lacked his characteristic flamboyance. The fact is, however, that in his mind, Modi is careful to distinguish between, for example, sober speeches as Prime Minister and rhetorical flourishes as a campaigner in an election.

If one considers his speeches over the past two years, the tone, the substance and the language is very different when he is addressing people as head of government and when he is seeking votes for the BJP in a state election. The December 31 address was not an exception. There is a pattern and consistency to this, if one chooses to notice.

As Prime Minister, and this was particularly obvious on New Year's Eve, Modi is betting on his ability to connect to ordinary voters and a broader constituency across the country in the manner of a conversation, at times a sermon from an elder, and as a leader from whom common folk seek clarity and guidance. His target audience is not the dowager intelligentsia in the national capital nor the Khan Market Consensus: a small, small-minded, incestuous community of self-appointed savants who cover, report and pretend to second-guess India from the confines from a tiny central Delhi geography.

In the build-up to the December 31 speech, there had been wild speculation from usually uninformed sections about the government putting money into people's bank accounts and providing freebies to Jan-Dhan Yojana account holders. There was almost an unsavoury glee to this expectation. It would have been followed by the same people denouncing Modi as a profligate populist, using money to buy votes.

Actually, such an approach was never on the cards. Those who have followed Modi's governance since his Gujarat days would know be believes in the power of the individual citizen to improve his or her conditions, with the state as a sympathetic enabler and not a spoon-feeding parent. This is different from the culture of giveaways and doles that remains the trademark of the Congress and motivates Rahul Gandhi's familiar calls for blanket loan write-offs.

Modi has brought his philosophy to New Delhi. This was demonstrated as early as February 2015, when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced the Atal Pension Yojana. Meant to create a social security umbrella for those employed in the informal sector, this scheme promised a government contribution to match that made by the individual. Modi raj offered no free lunches, but was happy to serve an extra dish.

The same theme was apparent on December 31. For lower-income groups in both urban and rural areas, the prime minister announced subsidies on home loans. The subsidies were attractive, but the homes would not come free. The home-owner would have to take his or her own initiative and help build his or her home and future.

Likewise, small traders and small and medium enterprises that suffered in the immediate aftermath of demonetisation have been provided assistance and concessions. Some of these sections were anyway troubled by the high-interest regime that has afflicted the banking system for some time now and precedes Modi's election.

Those who regard such measures as wasteful expenditure, as well as those who cannot see any difference between such a mechanism and the one followed by the UPA, can be left to their devices and their echo chambers. They have deliberately forsaken reality.

The aftermath of demonetisation is an evolving story. India awaits an authoritative assessment and revelation of black or dubious money that has been unearthed. Indications are that demonetisation sceptics are in for a surprise. That apart, Modi's promise to go after the corrupt and those avoiding taxes, his determination to expand the tax base, and his advocacy of greater reliance on digital and banking-based payments, where feasible, is suggestive of more steps. These could be coercive as well as incentive-based, as the necessity may be. All this was either directly said or implied in the Prime Minister's  address.

Further, from what government officials seem to hint, the attack on cartels that park slush funds in real estate and create property bubbles is about to begin. By juxtaposing this imminent measure with the small citizen's quest for a humble home, Modi is sending a devastating political message that will be difficult to mock or challenge. Never mind what the Khan Market Consensus believes.

- (The author is distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at malikashok@gmail.com)
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