In 1839, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote one of his most often quoted epigrams in his monthly journal Les Guêpes – “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – which in English, loosely translates to – the more something changes, the more it remains the same. This, unfortunately, seems to be the current state of affairs for an average person, to say nothing of more than 300 million (by the most recent Planning Commission’s estimate) living below the poverty line.
In 2014, as a result of a fiercely spirited campaign run by Narendra Modi, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had completed the most comprehensive electoral victories, securing 336 out of the total 543 Lok Sabha seats, essentially eliminating the competition. To be eligible to be the official Opposition, a political party needs 10% of the total seats, whereas Congress attained 8.1%.
This marked the first election since 1984, where a government had a mandate of this magnitude. The last 10 years with Indian National Congress at the helm, had ravaged the country from within, with high levels of inflation and unemployment accompanied by rampant corruption and woefully inadequate infrastructure plaguing the nation. This was a time when a candidate emphasized not on ‘identity politics’ which is almost a de facto norm in Indian politics since independence, but on issues that affect the daily lives of an average citizen.
So, naturally, when BJP won in a landslide victory, the masses looked upon Narendra Modi as their personal hero, one who had had beginnings as humble as a majority of the people who had voted him, and his party, into power.
On November 8, 2016, Narendra Modi unleashed what he and his Finance Minister, unapologetically consider one of their watershed moments. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his demonetization move from the pulpit – “From midnight November 8, 2016, today, ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes are no longer legal tender.”
This represented more than 86% of the money supply at the time. The central government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) outlined three key objectives of demonetization:
1. To curb ‘black money’ and corruption by preventing hoarding of cash
2. To prevent counterfeiting of currency notes and
3. To fight against terrorism by cutting off cash funding of terrorist groups operating in India.
It is now clear that the government has failed gloriously on all the three counts. By the RBI’s own admission, 98.8% of banned currency notes found a way back into the banking system, and with an approximately ₹5,000 crores additional burden on the exchequer to print the new ₹500 and ₹2,000 bills, the entire rhetoric around demonetization seems to be a ruse at best.
The hoarders of ‘black money’ used a variety of ingenious ways to game the system, one of them being allegedly depositing money into the accounts of poor and low-income individuals. This was especially convenient since they allegedly now had access to millions of new bank accounts opened during Narendra Modi’s supposedly financial inclusion scheme called the “Jan Dhan Yojana”. To that end, the demonetization worked for the hoarders of ‘black money’ and against people who couldn’t even afford two square meals a day.
RBI’s annual report also noted that in 2016-17, the fake Indian currency notes (FINs) represented ₹410 million of ₹500 and ₹1,000 denominations (of more than ₹15 trillion). The question that needs to be asked then is whether counterfeiting would have been better prevented by printing existing notes but with better security features that would be difficult to emulate, rather than disrupt the entire economy of more than 1.2 billion people.
Also, there has been little to no evidence to suggest that demonetization was successful in curtailing (even slightly) the terrorist activities in India. While all these costs have been punitive, they pale in comparison to the human costs that an average person was subjected to.
People whose lives were already filled with so many hardships did not need another ill-conceived move to make it even harder. But that is precisely what happened. I have had cab drivers, on an almost daily basis, tell me how their lives have worsened – by way of jobs getting dried up for them and how they are striving every day to make ends meet for them and their families.
The poor rely not only on one revenue source to make ends meet. They have these little ‘side businesses’ as they like to call them that they rely on to provide buffers, especially in the event of medical emergencies, not only for them and their families, but also for any member of the community that they are a part of. And these and almost exclusively cash-driven.
So is the entire agrarian economy, and so are countless local artisans who rely on selling their wares in a local village. Most of these people are not salaried or contracted workers and toil away the whole day to earn their wages in cash. It is almost farcical on the government’s part to think that people living in the remotest parts of India would have no problems switching to electronic methods of payment overnight.
It is not a surprise, therefore, that an average person feels let down by this administration, with jobs drying up and wages facing a constant downward pressure. There is a growing discontent amongst people and an unmistakable sense of betrayal, the kind you feel from a dear friend in whom you had reposed all your trust.
Even when Narendra Modi was declared the Prime Ministerial candidate for BJP led alliance, the NDA, there were a lot of sceptical voices, both within the party and without. And although he had been absolved of any complicity in the communal riots in 2002 by the Supreme Court, it did little to enhance his image as the far-right Hindu nationalist, who was more likely to advance Hindu nationalist agenda than focus on real issues.
But, because his entire campaign was a pro-governance campaign (his motto “minimum government, maximum governance” struck a chord with both Congress and BJP supporters alike), he had captured the imagination of the entire nation. Another prevailing sentiment was that once he was voted to power, he would come out in support of those ethnic minorities who were rightly feeling marginalized (that would be anyone who didn’t associate with the Hindutva ideology).
Well, the minorities’ worst nightmare was realized when he was voted into power. There were reports of violence perpetrated against people who were allegedly suspected of eating or buying beef.
There were reports of forced conversions by these ‘fringe groups’ who were now a part of the mainstream, emboldened by the tacit support of their dear leader. From the time BJP has come to power, there has been an almost theocratic encroachment on free speech (except when it is they who are spreading their bigoted ideas) – from appointing sycophants to institutions that are dedicated to the free exchange of information and ideas, such as the Film and Television Institute (FTI), to censor boards, there seems to be nothing that they would stop at.
They have been quick to blame while shouldering none of the responsibility for their actions, or for the resulting collateral damage. The attitudes of this administration are not dissimilar to the attitudes of the religious in the following quote from the late Christopher Hitchens. During one of the debates (Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris were debating a couple of rabbis on the existence of Afterlife), Hitchens said to the moderator: “People often ask me whether I get tired of debating the religious. And I say I absolutely do not, because I never know what they are going to say next.”