By Karan Thapar
With less than a week for the state election results it’s time to try to answer a contentious question. Is it the case demonetization has not diminished the BJP or Mr. Modi’s popularity? Although a conclusive answer is not yet possible I do believe we have a fairly clear idea of what it might be. That can be discerned from the recent local body elections.
Let’s start with Maharashtra. Here Samana, the Shiv Sena magazine, called demonetization an “atom bomb”. It said: “Prime Minister Modi has reduced the Indian economy to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All are dead.” Uddhav Thackeray said it was time for “BJP-bandhi as well.” But did that sway the voters?
In the municipal polls the BJP won 8 out of 10 councils, coming a close second in Bombay where it increased its tally by 264 per cent to 82 seats. Altogether, of the 1268 seats under contention its strength rose from 207 in 2012 to 580. The party saw similar success at the Zilla Parishad level where the number of seats it won rose from 165 to 410. The Shiv Sena’s improvement was far more limited, from 233 to 264.
Now Orissa. Though Chief Minister Patnaik supported demonetization his MPs loudly and repeatedly spoke of the devastation caused to rural Orissa. Indeed, this forced Patnaik to address urgent letters to Delhi seeking special assistance. But did the panchayat poll results reflect this distress?
The BJP’s tally in the Zilla Parishad outcome increased by 825 per cent, from 36 to 297 seats. In contrast, the BJD’s tally fell by 28 per cent, from 654 to 473 seats.
The answer becomes clearer if you look at how Congress fared. Manmohan Singh called demonetization “organized loot and legalized plunder”. Rahul Gandhi went on and on about the damage it had done to the economy and the poor in particular. In fact, no one levelled a stronger or more persistent attack on demonetization. But did that reflect in the outcome?
In Maharashtra, at the Zilla Parishad level, Congress’s tally fell from 419 to 293 seats. In Bombay it collapsed from 52 to 31. Congress also lost control of Solapur and Amravati to the BJP. In Orissa its Zilla Parishad tally almost halved from 128 to 66 seats.
In fact, what we’ve seen in Maharashtra and Orissa was earlier witnessed in the November Gujarat local bodies and Lok Sabha by-polls, the December Chandigarh civic polls, the January Maharashtra municipal council elections and the February Uttar Pradesh legislative council polls. The BJP, effectively, won them all. Doesn’t this mean voters have been tested in several states, in different elections, at different times, and on each occasion demonetization hasn’t damaged the party’s performance?
No doubt at local body elections people vote with local issues at the top of their mind but if demonetization had caused significant suffering they would hardly have ignored it. The fact they voted so strongly for the BJP suggests it did not.
It’s another matter why demonetization – which has caused human suffering and adversely impacted the economy, in particular the unorganized sector and casual daily wage labour – has such support. Perhaps it’s to do with schadenfreude or the hope demonetization will end the culture of bribery, a bubble that’s still to burst. But if UP produces similar results it will be very hard to refute the answer I’m suggesting.