The government’s demonetisation drive has seen fierce debates. Opposition parties, with the exception of the JD(U), are visibly confused. Their protest is directionless — a case of wanting to have the cake and eat it too. Each of them rails against black money but none has any formula. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is an exception, supporting demonetisation with a demand for a strong law against benami property.
The Congress and the Communists have no agenda; they are opposed to demonetisation but shy away from saying so directly. Their ploy is to raise the people’s day-to-day problems with the banking system to question the government. Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal are categorical in demanding a rollback of demonetisation, but offer no economic and political rationale.
When the move came into operation, it was not unanticipated that people would experience some pain for a few months. Nevertheless, they have extended support to the government. Such support cannot be interpreted in a limited sense; its wider meaning should be read along with the ideological contextualisation of demonetisation.
Black money took off with the neoliberal turn to the Indian economy in 1991. Neoliberalism, a version of the 19th century politico-economic philosophy of laissez faire, enhances the wealth of a few and makes the majority subservient to the market, while making the state an executive of big business and capital. Common people are impacted both by inequality and black money. Even vital minimum needs like health, education and housing become an end in themselves.
Demonetisation should be the beginning of a revision intended to humanise the market and legalise hidden assets. Old polemical divisions in politics — never inappropriate in India, but imposed because of a Cold War ideological polarisation — have become irrelevant. In the 1950s, the RSS thinker Deen Dayal Upadhyaya identified the left-right divide as anti-people because it deters the evolution and contextualisation of development policies, and enforces ideological ghettos. His initiative enabled the Bharatiya Jana Sangh to differentiate itself from laissez faire forces in India, namely the Swatantra Party, a replica of the European right-conservative. The party’s vote percentage had risen to nine per cent. There was a popular demand from both sides for the merger of the Swatantra Party and Jana Sangh (their combined voting percentage was over 16 per cent).
But Upadhyaya accorded primacy to ideological pragmatism over political expediency. In his view, the Swatantra Party’s economic philosophy was not for the welfare of peasants and poor; it was a party of Dalal Street. The Jana Sangh under his leadership took a great egalitarian turn, like supporting zamindari abolition, strikes by central government employees and land reforms.
Neoliberalism since the 1990s impacted the political morality and culture of every political party. It is the biggest onslaught on our democracy. Old doctrines of political parties remained unrevised but adjusted themselves to new economic forces and political aspirations. This is a fundamental reason for the decline of political discourse, reflected in the invective on television directed at political opponents.
In the 1960s, the Indian right had Minoo Masani, N.G. Ranga and Piloo Modi; the communists had Bhupesh Gupta, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Jyotirmoy Basu, A.K. Gopalan; the socialists had Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayprakash Narayan and J.B. Kripalani; the Jana Sangh had Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Balraj Madhok, Upadhyaya and Atal Bihari Vajpayee with the RSS. There is now a need to revise old ideologies in the face of new technologies and forces, global politics and people’s aspirations. The gap between slogans, idealism and practical formulations is one of the reasons Indian socialists and leftist parties have lost ground.
Demonetisation has resurrected the ideological debate on economic reforms. The people’s support is based on their ideological premise of minimising the gap between rich and poor and reversing devaluation, rather than surrendering the state’s role in economics, leaving private parties to grab natural resources in collusion with state agencies.
RSS veteran and trade union leader Dattopant Thengadi opposed neoliberalisation’s premises, suggesting a third road between capitalism and communism. The present radical step in a larger context is being actualised by a prime minister derided as a right-wing reactionary. This is nothing but anti-Modi-ism, which makes even the Left go against its own politics and ideology.
The country has witnessed many political satyagrahas, but this is the first economic satyagraha when people use their wisdom to articulate opposition to neoliberalism. It is up to Modi and his team whether they use the measure as a philosophical correction to neoliberalism or just as a random programme. Time will test both the opposition and the government.