Vikram Johri: Wrapped in the gloss of change

The News Minute reported this week of an old woman in Kerala who learnt only in the new year, that is, after the deadline to exchange them had passed, that old notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 were no longer legal tender. Sathi Bai, who lives all alone in Ernakulam district, told the online news outlet: “I don’t have electricity here. I don’t need it. I have no idea how to use a television… never used a phone either in my life.”

When Sathi reached the SBI branch she receives her pension in, she was told that the bag of old notes she had brought could not be accepted. Luckily for her, the police intervened and they are now in touch with the income tax department to help her convert her currency.

Sathi’s case may be extreme but her dilemma is hardly different from that faced by many in the days since November 8, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled his grand design to rid India of a host of evils. For two months now, we have seen long queues outside banks, harried customers and bank staff, but perhaps most damagingly, a government and RBI unable to contain the chaos unleashed by demonetisation.

We have been told this is being done to rid the country of corruption and terrorism. Indeed, there are reports that hawala transactions have gone down and that terror funding— in both Kashmir and the Naxal heartland— has dried up. Belatedly, the government also evangelised the benefits of digital payments, of how less cash in the system will force people to adopt mobile wallets and online money transfer.

But none of this takes away from the deep pain the exercise has wrought. Scores in the informal sector have been affected and the GDP is expected to go south of 7 per cent for this financial year. More worryingly, the hallowed aim of rooting out corruption may remain unrealised. Much black money has been laundered in return for stiff fees charged by some unscrupulous bankers. Even as the queues outside banks lengthened, new notes made their way to those capable of meeting the asking price.  

If this had been another prime minister, the gamble would have backfired badly. But Modi benefits from more than charismatic leadership. He followed a prime minister whose second term was marked by such tragic passivity that Indians, it would seem, are willing to go to great pains to help this one realise his ambitions for them. 

Photo: Reuters
Modi is also— and this has been proved repeatedly since his Gujarat days — politically astute. For a while, it was believed that protests against demonetisation were not happening because there was no cash to go around (and in our society, even protests must bow to the power of pelf before they can be “spontaneous”). But as the days went by, it became clear that there was genuine support for the move among the poor, even as they suffered hardships far greater than merely waiting in lines. 

Ironically, the dominant narrative in the media— of people suffering inside and outside banks for days on end— fed into what some commentators uncharitably called schadenfreude. These commentators failed to see that to the poor man, lines are a symbol of access. Used as he is to being denied entry, he finds it unfathomable that people should complain about being made to wait. Perhaps there was some glee, too, at the sight of others, better off than him by orders small and large, scrambling to ensure that their currency remains usable. But who can blame him? We reserve our empathy for those who face “our” problems. 

It is this poor man and his ilk that are likely to vote Modi back to power, should the prime minister manage to keep the issue alive over the next two-and-a-half years. Modi has brilliantly diffused, and even at times valiantly adopted, barbs directed at him. In the popular imagination, he remains the “chaiwallah”, the outsider who stormed the pearly gates of Lutyens’ Delhi and who will not rest till he recasts his country and society in his image. 

He is here for the long haul, a fact that gets lost in the heat of politics. He outgrew his blackened past to emerge the national leader. Now, he has jettisoned his “minimum government” agenda under the guise of cleansing India. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was famously known as the man to whom no charge stuck. Modi has done one better, wrapping his idiosyncratic experiments in the gloss of change. For a long-suffering nation, his words are music. For a democratic one, they are ominous.

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