My radical leftist friend was in splits. The only sentence of hers that I could catch while she cackled was, “We Indians are all ulta-pulta.” One moment we are on our feet, viewing the world as it should be. In the next moment, we do a headstand, turning the world upside down in our heads.
Hers was, to say the least, a curious intervention in the discussion she and I were having on the psychological changes Indians have undergone since November 8, the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his decision to invalidate old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 denomination currency notes.
The lower classes lauded Modi’s measure to reduce to waste the hoards of cash the rich had accumulated over the years, she said. It seemed Modi had brought to boil the class animosity that forever keeps simmering but never bubbles over.
It was this great class animosity that persuaded the lower classes to stand quiescently in queues outside banks and Automated Teller Machines.
“And then…” she said, and burst out laughing.
I couldn’t miss the ring of sadistic pleasure in her guffaw.
Once my radical leftist friend regained her composure, she continued.
“And then…the raids began,” she said. “Every seizure of cash was shown on national TV channels.”
The Indian class chasm
We were having this conversation on the morning of December 18. Three days before, the Central Board of Direct Taxes chairman Sushil Chandra had gone on record to say that over the past 37 days or so, his department had seized Rs 316 crores in raids, including Rs 80 crores in new notes. I cited Chandra’s figure to her, as also the admission of people that they have concealed income to the tune of Rs 2,600 crores.
“It is proof of the government’s intent to crack down on black money,” I remarked.
She said: “But it seems to have also papered over the great Indian class chasm.”
And because I gawked at her, unable to fathom the mysterious ways in which her mind worked, she added: “The government thought it was demonstrating its noble intent to root out black money. But the poor saw it as an undeniable proof of the rich and powerful cornering the bulk of new notes supplied to banks.”
My leftist radical friend then began to explain the logic presumably working on Ground Zero, that is, outside banks and Automated Teller Machines across the country.
For days on end, people have been dutifully, and hopefully, coming to banks in metros, small towns, and villages, believing that the crisp Rs 2,000 notes would be theirs, she said. Yet, just about everywhere, they are either turned away empty-handed or handed over an amount far lower than what they had wished to withdraw.
“The seizures shown on TV incited their anger,” the radical leftist friend said, giving an account of reports pouring in from different parts of the country – of people outside banks shouting slogans against Modi, or accosting and rouging up bankers. On December 17, for instance, people at Bhagwanpur, 10 km from Roorkee in Uttarakhand, jostled with policemen on duty outside a bank, beat up its employees, and blocked traffic for hours.
Adding my bit to her analysis, I said: “It was out of frustration.”
“It was also out of anger,” my radical leftist friend countered, going on to elucidate her point. As long as everyone, including the rich and powerful, seemed deprived of cash, those in the serpentine queues were willing to endure the hardship, she said. But the seizures have transmitted the message that there are people who have breached the system to walk away with crores of rupees in new notes.
I said: “Just Rs 80 crores have been seized. That’s not evidence, it is peanuts.”
“It is not about statistics,” she insisted, adding that just about everyone knows that a seizure of any kind – whether drugs or gold or black money or liquor in prohibition-ruled states – is just the tip of the iceberg. “The raids have bolstered the belief that a lot many have turned their old currency notes into new ones.”
This conclusion of theirs, she said, tallies with what they see – that there are rarely any well-heeled folks, warm in their woollies, in queues outside banks. They do not have to queue up because they use their power and influence to access cash.
“It is not my conclusion, it is the janata’s,” she said.
I asked: “Is that why there are increasingly frequent outbursts of anger?”
“Faux class polarisation has to ultimately get exposed,” she said. “And faux class polarisation also throws up faux class enemies. For instance, in these demonetisation days, it is the banker whom people have taken to cursing and accusing of supplying new currency notes to the rich.”
Bankers as villains
Her remark had me wondering where the strain of radicalism in my leftist friend had disappeared. Didn’t she know that bankers have helped, rather shamelessly, those who wished to launder their old currency notes?
Perhaps my question was reflected in my facial expression, for she asked me why the State, and all of us, expected bankers to behave conscionably.
For years, she said, they have been taught to lure the rich into opening accounts in their banks, and have then provided them with overdraft facilities and advanced business loans. It is through them that banks garner profits. To humour them, bankers court them, even dine with them.
“Don’t you think it was unrealistic of us to believe that bankers would turn down requests of the rich to be granted the right to access new currency notes before others?” my radical friend asked. After all, bankers have to think about life after demonetisation. Indeed, those turned down could, in pique, shift their accounts to a competitor. “Bankers have been targeted because they are the most visible, and immediate, tormentor around.”
So did she want the people to rage against the State?
My radical leftist friend looked at me in disbelief.
I switched tack and said: “Your narrative, till now, has been about the state failing to grasp people’s psychology. It hasn’t been about the change in the psyche of Indians. For instance, look at the growth in digital transactions.”
I cited the figures Niti Aayog Chief Executive Officer Amitabh Kant cited on December 15. Since November 8, Kant stated, digital transactions had gone up by 316% for RuPay, 271% for e-wallets, and 95% for Point of Sale – and they were still rising further.
She responded as if she had not heard me.
The radical leftist friend said that she had been to the weekly vegetable market in her colony, and just about every vendor there looked flummoxed. In the first week of demonetisation, the vendors said there were barely any customers, in the second week a few had come, in the third week, the market registered close to pre-demonetisation footfalls, but in the fifth there was a sharp decline all over again.
She asked them to explain the pattern. Either the supply of money has tapered again or customers, believing there are hard days ahead, are sitting on their cash. “You know what they think – that their customers are using e-wallets in vegetable stalls in malls,” she said. “So it is the big boys in retail market who are gaining.”
Encouraged, I said: “Some Indians are changing their behavior.”
“Ah!” she said, smirking. “It is about the great digital divide mimicking the great class divide.”
I countered: “Vendors in your colony too will alter their behaviour, because they will have no choice.”
What psychological change?
For a fleeting moment, she looked visibly upset at my adamancy. But she recovered quickly.
“It is like starving a vegetarian and saying there is only meat for her to eat,” she said. “When people are denied all options but just one, they succumb. Is that a psychological change?”
The radical leftist friend reminded me how, a few days ago, I had driven down to a takeaway to buy biryani, not choosing to order it over the phone as I would have had to pay in cash upon delivery. At the takeaway, I used my credit card to make my purchase.
“Your choice reflects your fear that you may not have cash in hand tomorrow,” she said, in the psychologist’s superior tone. “You want to spend cash as little as possible. You are psychologically insecure.”
My leftist friend did not delve into the psychology underlying decisions on expenditure. She took out her smart phone and opened the Twitter account of @truthofgujarat to show me a tweet.
The tweet has a video of what seemed to be an ambulance waiting, its siren wailing, in the hope of evacuating a person who seemed to have collapsed in the throng outside a bank in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. But people did not want to give way for the patient to be evacuated, apprehensive of losing their place in the queue – and their chance of getting cash.
I looked at the video clip. It was 1.05 minutes long. I replayed it a few times. I saw other video clips shared on that twitter handle.
She broke the silence to ask, “What psychological change do you think is manifested here?”
I kept quiet, and wondered silently: will the sops that Modi is expected to announce make us forget that our hunger for cash made us behave like beasts?
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.
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