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Demonetisation is a sacrifice that cleanses. It is the real swachch abhiyan of the republic

There is no sense of injustice or a feeling of being misused. It is a pollution ritual that involves everyone.

There is a touch of the eerie about politics that the Narendra Modi era inaugurates. I must confess that it is not in the stated rhetoric of the regime. Its ideas of patriotism, voluntarism, purity, security have enough violence, installing fear in the very hint of policy. The vigilantism that polices dissent on these occasions is obvious and brutal. But these are the bully boy tactics of any populist regime. Such criticisms have been stated beyond redundancy.

I want to talk about another kind of fear, a fear that oozes out from silences, from patient lines waiting at ATMs, in the quiet support of the middle class. These ATM lines are not like the ration card lines of the socialist regime. There was a tiredness, an unruliness, a fatalism to waiting then. The new generation waits differently. Even when there is despair, it is muted.

There is a sense of tacit trust of support for the regime. It is as if the crowds are acting as if they were the surrogate legislators of monetisation that (this pain, as Urjit Patel called it) is necessary and for the future good. It is almost as if a new social contract has been initiated, where the crowds believe in the leadership. There is a sense of faith, of solidarity, which I can only describe as policy patriotism. Policy patriotism emerges when the social group supports a regime because it shares a common vision of the future.

The language of discussion immediately changes. There is no sense of injustice, or a feeling of being misused. There is not much discussion. It is as if people are aligning to the Truth of policy. There is deep patience. The language is not of suffering and pain but of sacrifice. Sacrifice is much nobler. Suffering allows complaint, even a touch of hypochondria. Suffering can be spread and inflicted unfairly. Sacrifice is self-inflicted. It is suffered for a dream, a promise. Suffering can corrode but sacrifice cleanses the republic – many citizens are talking of demonetisation as sacrifice. It is the real swachch abhiyan of the republic, an act of cleansing, a pollution ritual that involves everyone.

These events also mark a particular relationship between leader and followers. The leader is seen as joining in the act of Socratically drinking the cup of hemlock, sorry, Kadak Chai, to demonstrate his commitment to his policy. So Kadak Chai becomes a refrain, a ritual of loyalty of solidarity.

Prelude to tyranny

Policy always creates rituals that require affirmation. These need not be acts of solidarity which can be loud and rhetorical. These are more effective in being understated, muted, speaking the language of silence as affirmation. It is not an ideological statement. It is a semiotic agreement, a tentative act of solidarity which digs deep into the body politic.

The mythical opening raises old memories. One saw this tacit support in the first days of the Emergency. There was a new sense of order. Trains were running on time, clerks were present in offices. It was a middle class sense of bureaucratic order where the time table is a piece of social contract and punctuality the new morality. One could smell change in the air, the whiff of progress which changed into fear much later.

One senses something similar, the initial approval of a draconian regime. The tacit tenor is once again discipline, law and order – and it appeals to the middle class psyche. Yet sometimes the signals are not clear. The crowd seems captive to Modi. It is behaving in the way a child seeks a parents’ approval or the kidnappers captives respect their kidnappers. The people want to show they share his decisiveness, his machismo, that they are like him.

Yet it is this that is worrying in a populist, majoritarian regime. There is little scope for dissent. One cannot say people suffer differently, that the targets of the regime might be sitting smugly. It reminds one of a cartoon where Modi on TV is claiming that demonetisation cleans black money. Lounging in the room are culprits of 2G, black money and they are laughing. The irony hits home.

It demands that narratives of policy be many sided and yet the ground level support may not allow dissent. I sometimes wonder whether emergencies begin as self-imposed entities, of people gung-ho about sacrifice, desperate for change before the regime like a chameleon changes colour. There is a loneliness and marginality too. The silence of the argumentative Indian is eerie. It calls for a more clinical set of readings. Something does not smell right or is mine a liberal fear of an old fashioned scholar?

I cannot help feeling that there is a touch of the Pavlovian in the prelude to tyranny.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.

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