Raaton raat ameer hua jo, chori jisko pyaari hai, na woh sadhu, na jadugar, woh taskar vyapaari hai (He who became rich overnight, for whom theft is a passion, neither holyman nor magician he, only a corrupt trader).”

During the Emergency, All India Radio used to play jingles attacking the enemies of the people while at the same time providing injunctions towards greatness like “discipline makes a nation great”. People were asked to declare their income, pay taxes regularly, work hard: in short, a life dedicated to the nation. The freedom struggle that preceded Independence had been premised on Gandhian ideals of austerity and sacrifice. Reaching its apogee during World War 2, nationalist rhetoric absorbed wartime slogans against profiteering, black-marketing and the ubiquitous hoarder. A sentimental invocation of the idea of the people was central to the political programme of the ruling elite against enemies ranging from the remnants of feudalism and the parallel economy of the mercantile class. The populace had to be protected from these predatory groups by the state and its charismatic leaders. In return, people were asked to tighten their belts and live exemplary lives of self-abnegation and suffering. This was the nature of the political contract in India at the time of the founding of the nation. And not much has changed since then.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced demonetisation, and the withdrawal of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, the targets were ostensibly those who did not pay their taxes and hoarded black money. The hardworking, honest populace were told that they would have to suffer a bit in order to achieve this higher aim, they would have to hand in the demonetised notes and till such time as the production of new notes did not stabilise, they would have to spend less. Those who waited in queues to withdraw their hard-earned money realised soon enough that having money and being able to access it were two different things altogether. Nevertheless, the mood of the general public has been less of resentment and more of the necessity of this measure in order to purge society of the evil of black money.

Even as it has become clear now that the goalposts have shifted and the eventual goal is that of a cashless economy, the idea of the redemption of the nation through the suffering of the people is an ideology that dies hard. While there is in the abstract a notion of citizens being equal before the law in India, in practice, it is very clear that the government has a differential relation to individual groups. Some are called to privilege and some to sacrifice.

This theme of redemption through sacrifice has been recurrent in modern India. Mahatma Gandhi called upon satyagrahis to accept violence, privation and loss of dignity for the higher cause of self and nation-making. Nehruvian modernity placed a similar demand on the middle classes – called to simple living and high thinking in steel towns, mofussils, and government service. The poor remained at the edges of this vision: indigenous people losing their lands to dam and industry building and the higher cause of development, and the farmer producing at artificially low prices to feed the population. The idea of money was suspect and tainted: the province of the landed, the moneylender and the merchant.

An unequal world

Economic liberalisation in the 1990s seemed for a while to have broken this paradigm as making money became a possibility and speculation on the stock market underwrote much middle-class mobility. The era of asceticism seemed to have been supplanted by an era of excess – Dhirubhai Ambani and Harshad Mehta were the new icons. Politicians, bureaucrats and the ruling classes rushed pell mell to make up for lost time and financial scandals and political payoffs were plastered on the front pages of newspapers. Those who had, made more, and the meek were far from inheriting the earth. A brahminical aspiration to austerity had ostensibly been supplanted by bania excess, and the political class became a byword for unearned income and corrupt deals.

With the passing from an uncertain secularism to an assertion of Hindu nationalism, what is becoming clear is that the language of exhortation has changed. The secular appeal to the higher principle of the national ideal has been knitted with a Hindu one. On Thursday, a month after his demonetisation announcement, Modi spoke of the suffering caused by demonetisation as a yagna or sacrifice to purge society of the demon of black money. It is kings that perform yagnas and it was clear that this was a demand from above. It called again on the people of India to exercise their sovereign right of suffering for the nation. That the system is geared towards making the rich richer and the poor poorer makes such a clarion call possible. The playing field is not level, for there are those for whom “theft is a passion”. And redemption can come only through the suffering of the many.

Dilip M Menon is the Mellon Chair of Indian Studies and the Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand.