One factoid about demonetisation (DeMo) that has been repeatedly noted by the media, but little attempt has been made at explanation, is the consistent support people have shown for Narendra Modi’s disruptive move. Almost every Indian has been impacted; many millions have been inconvenienced, and thousands have lost jobs or business opportunities, but people still say they support DeMo.
The latest India Today-Axis survey in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh shows very high support for DeMo (76 percent) even though 58 per cent of the same sample reported facing problems due to it. And 51 per cent said DeMo will help curb black money.
In almost no survey since 8 November has support for DeMo been anything less than fulsome. So all the bile unleashed by Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee has yielded zilch in terms of political traction.
How can this be, when almost every TV channel has been busy highlighting individual cases of angst and distress, and at least two major parties – Congress and Trinamool – have been aggressively opposing DeMo?
The answer is counter-intuitive. It is the hardship that makes people believe DeMo is good. They may crib about it, be upset when cash at ATMs runs out, or rant against the government when business falls, but it is precisely this sense of personal pain that gives them a sense of possible gain.
Ask any woman. Her sense of achievement over giving birth often correlates to the pain of labour, even though it is now possible to avoid most pain with modern-day medical advances. It is the hard part of pregnancy and the subsequent sleepless months spent nurturing a cranky infant that seals commitment. It is the absence of such direct, experienced hardship that makes fathers a mite less committed than their spouses to their kids. Hint to spouses: throw the hubby at the deep end of the child-rearing pool and watch his commitment grow.
Evidence from other fields also indicates the same thing.
Religions that demand more from their followers are usually the strongest. This explains why the Abrahamic religions, especially Islam, which demand more from their followers, appear stronger than do-it-yourself faiths like Hinduism. In the US, the Christian denominations that are growing are those that are more rigid in what they demand from the faithful. The more modern and liberal churches are losing customers.
DeMo has worked politically for Narendra Modi either because he instinctively understood this, or has been a happy beneficiary of a reality he wasn’t aware of.
Another piece of analogy is from business: HR consultants know that the key to higher employee productivity and satisfaction is the degree of engagement they have with their organisational goals. While some have said that a happy work environment is good for productivity, the causation also runs the other way. A productive employee is more likely to be engaged and happy.
DeMo touched almost anyone who has ever seen a rupee note. By impacting everyone – however negatively – it sent a coded message that eradicating black money is your job as well. Modi indirectly engaged the citizen to partner him in tackling black money, and this is part of the secret sauce that made Indians willing to accept short-term hardship.
Everyone instinctively knows that you have to work hard to get results, and so when a Prime Minister tells you that this agni pariksha is required to cleanse the system, people are willing to take that at face value.
It is always easy to make people temporarily happy by giving them free lunches. But it is the lunch you earned that tastes best. Freebies are essentially political bribes, and they debase both the giver and the taker. By inviting citizens to share the pain, Modi tapped deeper into the psychology that ensures commitment.
It may not last. And DeMo may not ultimately deliver us from the evil of black money. More actions are needed as follow-up. But right now people are willing to do their bit for a good cause.
Here’s the prediction: as long as the cash crunch does not endure (it is already abating), DeMo is a plus for Modi, not a weakness in the forthcoming state assembly elections.
The opposition to DeMo – whether in an agenda-driven Lutyens media or in the political sphere - is failing precisely because they have not understood this link between hardship and commitment. RaGa and Kolaveri Didi are barking up the wrong tree.
The smartest politicians are the ones who kept their opposition muted, or even spoke in praise of DeMo. Good thinking, Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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