March 11: Test for Modi’s anti-currency drive

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Geopolitical Notes From India

M D Nalapat

THE antipathy expressed to the English language of so many within South Asia’s ruling elite has its roots in the McCauley Minute of centuries ago, when the British nobleman sought to encourage the creation of a class of Sub-continentals who would be fluent in McCauley’s native language and thereby serve their British masters. In effect, and almost from the start of the systematic teaching of English in the British-ruled parts of the Indian subcontinent, those who mastered the language immediately sought not a continuation of servitude but equality with the British. It was not accidental that most determined fighters of 19th century against colonial rule were those fluent in the language of conquerors of the subcontinent.
Such an emphasis on “Minimum Government Maximum Governance” is what South Asian politicians object to. They seek the unbridled power of the colonial state on the citizen and reject calls to curtail such powers. They fear that widespread command over the English language would make the citizenry less ready to accept the shoddy, third-rate rule that has been the norm in South Asia since 1947. Although the history taught in schools boasts of gifted rulers administering the land wisely, the fact is that South Asia has had a succession of rulers who deliberately perpetuated policies designed to keep the bulk of the population in ignorance of modern trends and techniques. The less educated the people, the easier it is to grab votes on the basis of sectarian identity.
The less conscious of their rights, the more the public would gloss over the fact that their condition remained awful term after term of the numerous South Asian leaders who enriched themselves from the very first days in which they were in office. The salary of a minister or a high official may be low, but the lifestyle of themselves and their family members is usually opulent. Those who could not afford a bicycle before the first time they were elected to power graduated to cars during their very first term, often to limousines before long, and some even to personal aircraft. They sent their children to study in the most expensive of foreign schools and universities, even while denying the privileges of quality education to the poor at home.
Of course, tax rates are high, even while the benefits are close to zero. It is this combination of high direct tax rates and near zero state-provided amenities that has been the single biggest factor between so many tens of millions of citizens opting to remain outside the tax net. So far as English is concerned, the Modi government is more averse to the use of that language in administration than any of its predecessors, although this did not help the party in Bihar and may not in UP. After all, people all over India wish to learn English even as the government downplays the need to ensure that hundreds of millions become fluent in the international link language. In the matter of taxes, thus far there has not been the reduction in taxes expected of Modi when he came to power in 2014. However, there are more than two years to go before 2019 national polls and there is talk that in two weeks, coming Union Budget will witness a steep decline in tax rates.
The hope of better governance is the issue that ensured the election of Narendra Modi in 2014 and which will decide his next tryst with national power in 2019. Nothing in decades has affected the lives of every citizen of India than Modi’s demonetisations of 86% of the currency of the country. In India on November 8,2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a scheme of criminalization of 86% of the country’s cash, on the grounds that such a move would deal a decisive blow to “black” money ie cash that has not been brought under the tax net. Should the measure succeed the way Modi believes it will, he will reap a political dividend. However, should it result in disaster for the economy, Modi will not only lose power in 2019 but face increasing opposition from within his own party from the time the election results, especially of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Punjab, get known on March 11.
Should the BJP fare badly, losing the top slot to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), that would affect the political standing of the Prime Minister, whose own constituency is from UP. Should even worse occur, and the party tally of state assembly seats fall below not just the BSP but also the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, within the BJP itself there would be immediate rumblings of dissension. Those in the party who are unhappy at the way the party has been managed since May 26,2014 (the date on which Modi was sworn in as PM) may be expected to voice their dissent in public, thereby making the smooth functioning of the government more difficult. Importantly, the civil service would begin to believe (after a UP defeat) that there is no way Modi would return to power in 2019,and they would thereafter go slow on implementing the schemes close to the PM’s heart.
Importantly, officials in the investigating agencies would believe that the Opposition politicians they are investigating may become their political bosses come 2019. The best time for Modi to have taken action against those whom he bested at the polls was during the first nine to fifteen months of his term, but during that time (and subsequently) the Prime Minister did nothing, not even getting a First Information Report (FIR) filed against any central leader of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that had ruled the country from 2004 to 2014.
At that time, it seemed certain that Modi would win a second term in 2019. Should the BJP lose the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, doubt would spread about such an assumption and have a substantial impact on the effectiveness of the government. For Narendra Modi, it is essential that voters support his demonetization of the rupee by giving his party a majority in UP, the state that ensured his majority, with more than 70 Lower House seats won in that state. Should they do so, his government will remain stable and effective.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.
Email: mgnalapat@gmail.com

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