This is the last part of the five-part series on demonetisation.
Demonetisation, the great experiment undertaken by the Modi government, has run its course of 50 days. They say it has been a failure. They say its failure can been judged through multiple fallouts: the fact that possibly not more than six per cent of the black money was stored as cash to begin with; the fact that nearly 97 per cent of the demonetised currency of Rs 15.4 lakh crore is reportedly now back with the banks; the fact that poorly-paid and woefully-inadequate tax inspectors would now have to screen millions of bank accounts to determine what is black and what white; the fact that it has irrevocably eroded the reputation of the Reserve Bank of India and encouraged mutiny within; the fact that most external agencies have slashed India’s GDP growth estimates for the coming year and beyond; the fact that it has led to severe cash crunch in the unorganised sector that employs four-fifths of all labour force; the fact that migrant labour has returned in large numbers to villages; the fact that those without bank accounts, like the tribal population, have been hit hard, the fact that enrolment for rural employment under NREGA has peaked; the fact that automobile sales have dived; the fact that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor buckled under political pressure to relinquish his famed proficiency; the fact that switching the discourse from black money to less-cash was in itself an admission of failure; the fact that unearthing fake currency turned out to be a red herring; the fact that bank credit growth has hit a 60-year low; the fact that lakhs have been rendered jobless.
Well, they are wrong.
Demonetisation is not a failure because of economic reasons. Nations make up the losses, the numbers cower then reappear, economies collapse then rebound. The monetary loss on account of demonetisation (one per cent of GDP) is still less than the 2G or the Coalgate scam losses. It will be made up soon – through natural economic growth or the selling of tarnished family silver; and when it is, everyone would go home thinking this disaster never happened.
Economic numbers tell a story that keeps under wraps the psyche of the perpetrator and the prey, a story that is forgotten as easily as it is told.
No. Demonetisation is a failure not because of economic reasons, it is a failure because this government under Narendra Modi conducted a social experiment that coerced the citizens to choose apathy over empathy. Demonetisation is a failure because the eyes of the state looked away from the pain, because it decided on the limits of suffering, because it adhered to Social Darwinism; because economic numbers, not people, mattered to it.
Demonetisation is a failure because the unbearable lightness of suffering was projected as bearable.
Compassion, karuna, daya, bhavna, empathy – these evolutionary endowments, expounded first philosophically by Dharmashastras and later scientifically by Darwin, that make us what we are, that allow us to survive, were dumped by the state and its supporters who otherwise take pride in at least the former. But for them this was not the time to return to the Dharmashastras or the Upanishads or the Gita, nor was this the occasion to revere the philosophy that has trundled down our sacred mountains and soaked our body and soul alike for millennia. This was the time to revere Narendra Modi, to stand by him, to extoll him, to tell his story from their mouths, pens, and tweets; to harbour the belief that in years to come no one would recall the pain or the suffering of the common people, no one would recall how academics turned sycophants; think-tanks, echo chambers; editors, minions; tweeters, flatterers; patriots, puppets. All one had to do was to look at quarters not queues, macroeconomics not misery, stocks not suffering.
Vasudhaiva kutumbakam, as long as we decide who the family members are going to be.
Words leave, images stay. But so what? Show them a successful landing and not the horrible crash. And every passing day, every new suffering was rationalised thus – don’t meet the eyes, don’t see the anger, the pleas, the cries, the destitution, the despair. Just see the numbers. Evade what is in front of you, defend what is indefensible, even when it was clear that a great disaster was unravelling, that Narendra Modi was a failure, that an alternative had been ignored, that the war had been lost, that the milk of human kindness had turned rancid.
What you are about to see are not numbers but stories. Turn into an island and you will not cry. Become a rock and you will feel no pain. Do it.
These stories happened, the pain and the suffering was real; it was experienced – not by this writer, not by you the reader, not by the Prime Minister, not by the State, but by millions across the length and breadth of this country. Stone-pelting, vandalism, gheraos, road blockades, mile-long queues, deaths, suicides. But the disease was contained; we didn’t suffer from it. And so we have a choice – we can disregard these stories because they are not ours.
The protraction of a disease has got little to do with the discovery of a new drug meant to cure it. The cure exists, but it is not provided. Because the suffering is not felt, it is not internalised, owned; because you do not see it, you are not shown it.
Those 363 million Indians who earn less than a dollar a day, who barely eke out an existence, trapeze through life without a net, they are to be touched but only by a helping hand, never by one that snatches something of theirs away instead, something that is so cruelly fleeting to begin with – their time, serenity, money, felicity. Temporary, short run, inconvenience, momentary, transient – play with these words and phrases in your boardrooms and TV debates. The poor cannot be played around with, cannot be disturbed if it isn’t to relieve them of their crushing poverty.
Well, Narendra Modi did just that. He disturbed the poor in the wrong way. He pretended to be the friend of someone looking out the window waiting for the last leaf to detach, then climbed up the tree outside in the middle of the night and detached it. And yet everyone around him calls this his masterpiece. Next, they will turn the story on its head call it the Artist’s struggle. Narendra Modi’s struggle.
But the old woman, her smile kind yet troubled, dragging herself slowly across a cold-blooded bank, that sudden cattle herd-like release of the waiting mass of humanity at the gates of the Deoband SBI branch, that boy in a crowded bank queue carrying in his arms his shrunken grandmother, those desperate eyes of the father of a seven-year-old TB patient outside the Kalawati hospital, and hundreds of thousands of such images, and days upon days of such suffering – they are difficult to turn into numbers. They can only be forgotten with unwavering apathy, with conscious, deliberate effort. And how easy that is, to discard Dharma and Darwin both. A flick of the fingers and it is done; the stories are reduced to harmless waves slapping at the base of a cold, unapologetic rock.
Narendra Modi’s government is one such cold, unapologetic rock. And if there is one maxim about governments, it is that they never apologise, they never admit their mistakes. But voters do. And those who have suffered for the greater good of the few, they will stand in line one more time.