Not inviting a debate on the most important economic policy measure in decades is a scornful rejection of the democratic process.
Demonetisation has been such a resounding disaster for the people and the country that the term is likely to enter our political lexicon with a capital “D”, much like “E” for Emergency. The difference between the two episodes is, however, stark.
Barring a clutch of the so-called “Young Turks”, an energetic but minor woolly socialism-oriented faction in the Congress, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s party stuck by her through the Emergency, although it was becoming plain, as the days wore on, that this method of fighting political opponents was going to boomerang badly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not so blessed.
His Demonetisation is being likened to the Emergency in that it has taken away the liberty of the people to work by creating such a devastating condition of absence of cash that the hirer is deterred from offering daily-wage employment, although there is work to be done.
The list of other negatives is long and well-known, and is reminiscent of the Great Depression of the 1930s, though we are not quite there yet. People are finding it difficult to buy food even if they have some money in the bank as they can’t withdraw their own money.
Their everyday miseries are being compounded in a variety of ways, and the prospect of the economy regaining its verve in the foreseeable future seems not even a distant possibility at the moment.
This is why the BJP’s MPs and MLAs, specially from poll-bound states like UP and Punjab, are deeply disturbed. They’ve anyway been unhappy for long as the Modi government has done so little for the farming community. The RSS, which makes or breaks BJP leaders, is said to be dissatisfied. Although its top brass have shown restraint in their speech, they know India has been struck a body blow by Demonetisation.
A vastly experienced outfit like the RSS can see the writing on the wall. In conditions like these, it is likely to be exploring fallback options to prepare for a scenario in which the Modi motif has been taken off the shelf.
Unlike the case of the Emergency, senior people in the Modi government and the BJP are not ready to speak up in defence of Demonetisation. In private, they roundly condemn it, and deeply worry for their political future.
Those in the BJP and the government who are speaking up for Demonetisation can be counted on the fingers of one hand, but are principally just two — finance minister Arun Jaitley and BJP president Amit Shah who, along with PM Modi, make up the trio that are running the show, as was derisively pointed out by Arun Shourie, a writer and former journalist who commanded much respect in the (Atal Behari) Vajpayee period.
But even Mr Jaitley and Mr Shah are careful how they put across their thoughts. The finance minister has indeed found a clever way. He speaks ad nauseam about digital cash and plastic money but remains completely quiet about how to address the bread and butter issues of the people.
The BJP president, on the other hand, has the image of a bully. He inspires fear, not affection; he tells his party ranks to take the message of the government to the people instead of complaining and malingering. But he is careful not to elaborate his thoughts on the positive features of Demonetisation. His party colleagues tend to give him a wide berth. But when confronted by him they dare not contradict him to his face, and prefer to stay mum.
In short, the people are deriving the message of Demonetisation through their own experience, not through the channels of the party machinery or the widespread RSS network. Initially, many among the poorer classes did appear to be satisfied. They grew vicarious pleasure — and solace — from the thought that Demonetisation was intended to be a blow struck at the heart of the fatcat, and of big business. Now people know better.
It wasn’t just that the banks were denying the public their own hard-earned cash while they were stealthily serving their high-end customers. Enough indications are now becoming available to suggest that clever tricks to favour the rich start not at banks but at the government security presses, where new currency notes are being printed — for example, wads of fresh notes of the Rs 2,000 denomination are marked as wads of Rs 10 notes and spirited out.
The thought is inescapable that Demonetisation was a political move, not a well-considered economic one (or it would have been much more expertly handled). It aimed to excite the poor man’s inner anger with the rich and leave behind the subliminal thought that Prime Minister Modi was on their side and intended to get even with the rich on their behalf.
Indeed, it was planned as a gigantic PR exercise to boost Mr Modi’s image with ordinary people for the purpose of gaining their confidence, first for the Uttar Pradesh and Punjab polls in February, 2017 and then the Lok Sabha poll of 2019, since the government’s track record is otherwise thin.
In this respect, it was like the “surgical strike”, which turned out to have no military value but it did catch the public imagination initially. But the hoax has now been found out. How will the poor behave? Shakespeare cautioned us long ago: “Beware the fury of a patient man!”
Mr Modi must have been made more aware of this last Friday when he addressed the BJP Parliamentary Party. Images of the event on television showed there was a sullen silence. The Prime Minister himself looked haggard and distraught, not his usual confident, crack-the-whip self. He pulled out scrappy lines from a book written by a long-ago bureaucrat to condemn Indira Gandhi and quoted from sundry speeches of Indira-baiters to slam her.
But his audience remained unmoved. The Prince of Gujarat was walking the razor’s edge and his feet were bleeding. But those who saw him thus seemed to feel no pity.
With a mood such as this within the BJP, how could Mr Modi have summoned the nerve to allow a proper discussion on Demonetisation in Parliament? And not inviting a debate on the most important economic policy measure in decades is a scornful rejection of the democratic process.