My radical leftist friend took a sip of coffee, smiled smugly, and said, “Poor journalists! Aren’t you confused at the popular response to demonetisation?”
We were in a coffee shop discussing the unfathomable. For a month now, people have been standing in queues outside banks and Automated Teller Machines, or ATMs, to withdraw their own money, and have often returned home without a paisa. People have cut down on expenditure, trade has taken a beating, factories are throwing out casual labour, and employers don’t have liquidity to pay workers their wages.
“And…?” I shrugged my shoulders.
“And yet there hasn’t been an outpouring of anger, protests and chaos,” my radical leftist friend said, drawing out my confusion.
But what is even more bewildering is to hear people on television root for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s November 8 decision to demonetise high-value currency notes. Or to read about people in the boondocks reeling under the cash crunch and yet describing their misery as a price that must be paid for a better tomorrow.
“Hope is elastic,” said my radical leftist friend, helpfully. “Hope explains, as also makes us accept, misery wrought by others.” For 70 years now, we have been running on hope, expecting a better future as expectations are stoked and promises made. That is why we prefer to wait instead of stalking the streets or rising in popular revolt, she said.
I thought she was about to link this Indian psychology to the failure of her type to usher in a revolution, but no. She flipped open my notebook lying on the table, took out a pen and drew three circles.
“These three circles represent three paradigms into one of which all political issues are located,” she said, scribbling in the manner of a schoolteacher writing on the blackboard. She read aloud: “ideological, ethical, and functional”.
“These three paradigms are linked,” said the friend. Because I looked befuddled, she added that there are issues that have their roots in the ideology of the party propagating it.
Thus, for instance, only the Bharatiya Janata Party could have mooted the proposal to build a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, or only the Communists in West Bengal could have executed Operation Barga that bestowed tenancy rights to sharecroppers, or only the Janata Dal could have implemented the reservation policy in jobs, or only the Congress could have devised the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme.
“Parties float ideas in consonance with their political outlook,” she said, quickly switching over to spelling out the contours of other paradigms. “In the ethical paradigm fall issues which are deemed to be morally right – prohibition, for instance, or…”
“…Demonetisation,” I added, pre-empting the course I presumed she was about to take.
The radical leftist nodded, and smiled, adding: “But also freebies different political parties offer – free laptops, free bicycles, free TVs, you can go on and on. These too invoke the ethical principle. Basically, that it is morally right for the state to provide goods and facilities to the poor who lack the means to pay for them.”
She took to talking about the third paradigm – the functional one. In it are issues that appear least dramatic but are ostensibly most relevant. This is because these issues, when bundled into policies, are expected to make the economy and society function more efficiently than before.
The Good and Services Tax proposal, for instance, or mid-day meals in schools to enhance enrolment of students, or, as is happening these days, the use of digital money.
I began to fidget, wondering how her esoteric theory was connected the confounding popular response to demonetisation. The radical leftist friend lifted her cup of coffee and said, “Be patient. It is a virtue not found in journalists.”
She repeated what she had said earlier: the three paradigms invariably get inter-connected because India is a democratic country. It is also because India is diverse, socially and ideologically. An idea a political party moots may have acceptance among its rank and file, but it does not guarantee popular endorsement – and, therefore – nor legitimacy.
The democratic requirement of winning the popular mandate for their ideas, whether functional or ideological in nature, has political parties relocate them in the ethical paradigm. They tend to clothe every decision in ethics. It implicitly indicts the person opposing the decision as unethical.
“Once you link the ethical paradigm to nationalism, you have the poor guy in your trap,” said the radical leftist friend, chuckling. “Who would want to be known as a desh-drohi [anti-national]?”
I understood what she was getting at – that people in queues outside banks, or even those at home wondering from where to get Rs 100 notes, weren’t lashing out against demonetisation because, decent folks that they are, they did not want to be seen unethical or anti-national.
“It is a win-win for Modi,” I said.
Hope of deliverance
The friend shot me a withering glance and muttered, “The problem with journalists is that they want everything spelt out in neat binaries: for and against, good and bad, black and white. No regard for complexities.”
Ultimately, she said, people scrutinise every issue by placing it in the functional paradigm. Therefore, to judge demonetisation, the question people will ask is: Has it turned our economy efficient, our society better, what is in it for us?
Certainly the economy hasn’t become efficient, I said. Not at the moment though, not at least for the next few months, and cited the consensus among a slew of economists whose names I began to recount. “It is obvious people are suffering,” I said. “Why aren’t they then opposing demonetisation?”
She said I hadn’t factored in the element of hope, which is difficult to stamp out. She added that for a lot of people, demonetisation seems a weapon that has felled the rich. “They will hope India’s inequality will become less so.”
Obviously, nothing of this sort is going to happen because demonetisation is not designed to alter, to use the Marxist phrase, “relations of production”.
She said that the people will remain miserable and continue to hope until they realise that the rich remain where they have always been – at the top – and the gulf dividing them from the poor is as wide as ever.
“Is it then they will express their opposition to demonetisation?” I asked.
Lessons from the Emergency
My radical leftist didn’t answer the question, promptly switching over to talking about the Emergency that Indira Gandhi imposed decades ago. That too was projected to save the nation from the ignoble imperialistic intent of global powers. There were massive street protests, schools and colleges were closed for months on end.
“Then there was peace for a while, trains began to run on time, sterilisation was hailed a brilliant move, and the media gave Mrs Gandhi thumbs up,” she said. “Convinced of winning the popular support, she called for the general election in 1977.”
My friend gulped her coffee down, took out a slip of paper, and said, “She was swept out of power, but her party, the Congress, still won 34.5% of vote and much of South India. What do you make of it?”
I kept quiet, not knowing what she was driving at. But I assumed she meant the popular base of parties does not vanish overnight.
She was critical of the myopic vision of journalists. The lives of many have been thrown in disarray, their livelihood threatened, and yet they have been told their suffering will serve a larger ethical cause, even improve their economic conditions.
“Really, what do you journalists expect them to tell you?” the leftist friend asked in an amused tone. “Let the functional paradigm kick in, wait for them to ask what has demonetisation given them?”
She looked at the slip of paper in her hand and said, “In 2014, the BJP polled 31.34% of votes and came to power. In 1977, the Congress bagged 34.5% of votes and bowed out of power. Try to imagine the result in case all the Opposition parties hadn’t united.”
She did not have to parse what she was trying to tell me – that there would be people who will say they support demonetisation even though it has made them suffer, that election results are not dependent on just one factor, and that the misery inflicted by a leader on people cannot be justified because he or she wins an election.
“Let us have another cup of coffee,” the radical leftist friend said.
I walked to the counter to place my order, but the man there said he didn’t have change for the Rs 2,000 note I handed over to him.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.