THESE are surreal times in India. With most of its citizens forced into queues, it is a country at a near standstill. There is despair and death as people scramble to access their money after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the most sweeping and arbitrary demonetisation since Independence, declares that the most commonly used notes have been withdrawn. That is, 86 per cent of the currency. As anger grows over people’s inability to meet even their food requirements, outraged opposition MPs seek answers from the prime minister who studiedly avoids parliament but insists the abrupt switchover is essential to fight black money and counterfeit currency used to fund terrorism.
Using the overheated rhetoric of nationalism, he puts critics on the defensive portraying them as deshdrohis or enemies of the state. He makes several such public speeches where he dubs anyone questioning the so-called demonetisation as both anti-national and black money hoarders. Never mind that most opposition politicians are only calling for better management of what must rank as the most ill-prepared and ham-handed implementation of a major policy decision. The prime minister mocks everyone, even those harassed citizens standing in endless queues — overwhelmingly the poor who have no bank accounts — as people with ill-gotten riches.
This is as bizarre as it can get. Unmindful of the distress caused to millions, the prime minister even jokes about the currency crisis during a surprise video appearance at a Coldplay concert in Mumbai. But these are times defined by the cult of the leader who is mesmerised by his own myth, the myth of an invincible and infallible strongman who knows what is best for the nation. It’s clear that Modi’s hold over his cabinet colleagues, his BJP party and even the once independent central bank, the RBI, is complete and unchallenged. So is it surprising that senior ministers are fumbling for answers as to how matters have gone so awry?
For Modi it’s all about keeping the pot stirred — be it a strike across the border, terrorism or demonetisation.
Does it matter that the Supreme Court has questioned the constant chopping and changing of rules on cash withdrawals and warned of riots? Modi says it is all for the greater good of the nation and people must bear the pain for 50 days. After all, the prime minister’s opinion poll on Twitter with its Hobson’s choice of replies has resoundingly approved his demonetisation policy. In less than 24 hours, Modi has won 93pc approval from respondents using his special app!
So should Modi care at all if the leader of the Communist Party Marxist has described him as a modern Tughlaq, a reference to the 14th-century Delhi ruler famous for his quixotic decisions? One such was the ill-considered decision to shift the capital of his sultanate from Delhi to Daulatabad. The other, more disastrous, was replacing gold and silver currency with brass and copper coins of equal value. Historians say that turned every Hindu home into a mint.
Fortunately for the current ruler, that is unlikely to happen in 2016. But counterfeiters may well be biding their time given the colossal currency mess. Tughlaq-like, the RBI has been releasing new notes of 500 and 2,000 in different sizes and colours which it says is “due to the rush”. So both versions of the notes will remain in circulation. Should Indians be laughing or crying? Where does this leave the battle against counterfeit currency and the war on terrorism?
In parliament, former prime minister Manmohan Singh has called it monumental mismanagement in “a case of organised loot and legalised plunder of the common people”. Strong words from a man of mild disposition but then remember that over 90pc of the workforce is in the informal sector. More troubling is his warning that demonetisation could shave 2pc off the GDP.
As the Modi regime hits the midpoint of its five-year term the country is struggling with an increasing sense of unreality and frustration. The dream of development and jobs for the young that he sold the electorate in 2014 is turning out to be delusional —and bitterly so for many. For the very poor who subsist on daily wages, the demonetisation could be the last straw in a series of policy decisions that have had a severe impact on their lives.
While a host of social welfare schemes have been repackaged to show that the government’s heart beats for the poor, subsidies have, in fact, been slashed. A prime casualty of this sleight of hand is MNREGA, the flagship employment scheme that guarantees 100 days of work for those in dire need. With much fanfare it was allocated a record budgetary allowance but in effect, people got less than 49 days. The government claimed people did not turn up for more days because they did not need work, a patently false claim in a time of drought and rural distress. It turned out that the government used an unofficial WhatsApp group to warn states not to offer employment because the centre would not provide them the funds.
By being economical with the truth and artful in deflecting criticism, Modi with his embarrassingly fawning ministers has managed to sidestep the most pointed questions. Such as why it was necessary to put the country through such turmoil when it’s well known that just about 3pc of unaccounted or black money is actually held in cash; the rest is stashed away abroad or is invested in real estate or in business enterprises.
Since a rational answer is not possible, the government is falling back on its stock in trade, a slogan or a clever phrase that captures media attention and the right-wing Hindutva imagination. Surgical strike continues to be the current favourite since it was first used to describe a raid across the border to hit terrorist camps. A surgical strike, it was argued, would stop incursions through shock and awe. Not that it has worked since around 20 Indian soldiers have been killed thereafter along the Line of Control. Now we have a surgical strike on black money that is as misguided and way off calculations as the first.
But this time around Modi may have stirred the nationalist pot once too often. For the mass of Indians whose lives are in turmoil nationalism is a poor excuse for robbing them of their own money.
The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.
Published in Dawn November 28th, 2016