Queuing up for change

Pleased at the suffering of the dishonest, poor voters support the Modi government’s demonetisation move. But this enthusiasm is emotional, not political.

Written by Sheela Bhatt | Updated: December 1, 2016 8:06 pm
demonetisation, demonetisation deaths, old currency notes, black money, atm queues, atm, banks, bank queues, corruption, pm modi announcement, modi, pm modi, india news, latest news, indian express Long queues outside banks and ATMs have become a common sight following PM Narendra Modi’s announcement to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna)

In May 2014, when Narendra Modi became prime minister, it was expected that boosted by anti-incumbency against the Congress, personal charisma that inspired people to believe in promises of acche din, and a strong Hindutva undercurrent, Modi would change the narrative of Indian politics and confidently lead his party to 2019’s election.

But Modi has proved more ambitious than any other leader in recent history. Exactly halfway into his tenure, Modi gave an astonishing jolt to the nation on November 8 by touching on a raw nerve — money. This has created a new class divide out of which Modi wants to earn electoral profit. The great gambler has put everything on the table.

There are no two opinions on people suffering hardships they didn’t deserve. As old notes pour into banks, it seems the government’s calculations have gone haywire. A lack of preparation and inefficient implementation add hardships. Yet, there are contradictory emotions around demonetisation.

When you talk to poor people, you realise that they think Modi has actually unleashed the promise of acche din plus. Now, it won’t be easy to bracket the BJP as a “Brahmin-bania” party. That’s bad news for its opponents. This explains Nitish Kumar, Chandrashekhara Rao and Naveen Patnaik supporting the move. The victories of the BJP in local body polls after November 8 also proves that people have been patient, so far.

Traders are angry as the Modi government wants them to put their cash in the banking system, slash profits and pay taxes. They hate exposing their dealings via Aadhaar, etc. They see demonetisation as Modi’s “undemocratic” way of “imposing” change. Traders in Surat told me that just as China bulldozed people and displaced them from their land to rebuild Shanghai and Beijing, Modi is pushing a digital economy into India. They claimed the government is bullying dhobis, cobblers and daily wagers to open bank accounts, for meagre earnings of Rs 20 a day, which shows an insensitive disconnect from Indian reality.

But many of these poor people are singing a different tune. In Delhi, Sanjay, who cleans Mercedes SUVs costing over 50 lakh and gets paid Rs 350 a month, has a smirk on his face. He says, “Saab ko zaroor takleef hoga. Bahut maal kamaya hai.”(The car owner will feel the pinch, he’s earned a lot.)

Modi has touched upon this idea amongst the poor that “others” have earned too much and hoard lakhs of unaccounted money in dark corners of their homes. For Sanjay, the rich, flashy people he serves affect him profoundly. He supports Modi, who gives him the feeling that he’s punished a Mercedes owner in some way.

With demonetisation, Modi has brought a sharp divide on to the national platform. Normally, the poor are resilient simply to survive — that famed Indian resilience is working for the Modi government now. People are suffering but staying patient, thinking, “Acche din will come after the cleaning is done.” The AAP has strong support among poor voters, but in Delhi the street situation is under control. This shows Modi has once again touched a chord with the aspirational Indian.

Those carrying shopping bags belonging to their “madams” in malls, those paid low wages but carrying the physical burden of growth, those whose income is only “salary-after-tax-deduction-at-source” feel “this will bring good results for the country in the long run”. This narrative is not backed by economic logic; it works on the worldly wisdom of ordinary Indians. Today, the idea of attacking injustice assures order.

I spoke with poor workers, salaried professionals, unscrupulous builders and devious traders across Delhi, Mumbai, Vadodara and Ahmedabad. A conversation with Mahesh, an unemployed youth in Delhi, was revealing. When I asked, “What do you think about notebandi?”, he replied, “It’s trauma. But the pain is only for a few weeks. We can do without subzi temporarily. Lekin bhavishya ke bina kya hai zindagi main? (Without a good future, what’s there in life?)” Mahesh added, “My friends who go to college and seek jobs think that after December 30, everything will be affordable. Cereals will become cheaper. We’ll have more money. Today, rich men are weeping. Corrupt people are howling. This has happened for the first time.”

In Vadodara, Mrugesh runs a taxi service. His business is down to 20 per cent but he supports notebandi, saying, “My father was raided in 1987 by the tax department. We lost our jewelry business. Taxmen harassed us for bribes. We sold flats, bought with black money, to pay our customers, whose gold the tax department confiscated. I now pay taxes and sleep well.” In South Delhi, a two-bedroom flat was on sale. The week before demonetisation, the deal was finalised at Rs 1.60 crore. But it got delayed. After demonetisation, the flat is being purchased for Rs 1.32 crore, the full payment in cheque. Someone’s hard-earned 28 lakh is saved because of a feeling that real estate prices will crash by one-third. That’s bad new for builders — but good news for honest buyers.

As India enters December in amazement, what will happen to those supporting the government? Enthusiasm is on shaky ground; the poor have no cash in hand and fear a loss of jobs. Ground sentiment suggests supporters will lose faith if people find the exercise hasn’t stopped conversion of black money into white. People’s enthusiasm will ebb if the banks end up with deposits around Rs 14.18 lakh crore (money withdrawn from the system as 2,203 crore notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 denominations turned illegal tender). Now, the government’s hasty move to amend the IT law, after it found tax-cheats successfully trying to convert black money into white, created doubts. People could ask if the government is failing somewhere in its target. Any move that allows tax evaders to keep a substantial amount of their black money won’t go well with Sanjay, Mahesh or Mrugesh. Their support is emotional, not political; it can’t be taken for granted.

sheela.bhatt@expressindia.com