“At dawn all the clocks stop, and a shooting star appears in the sky.” Midnight instead of dawn, ATMs in place of clocks, and this amazing sentence could be a satirical riff on the chaos of demonetisation, and the extraordinary rah-rah cult which it has ignited among the believers. Actually, it is a tweet from @MagicRealismBot, a machine which dreams up sentences reminiscent of Borges and Marquez every two hours.
In India this week, reality has been doing better than magic realism. The ruckus on Rajya Sabha TV was more gripping, even, than a BBC’s Hardtalk with Patricia Cornwell, which was running at the same time on Thursday. There were the cheeky subterfuges, for instance, by which the UP Congressman Pramod Tiwari kept repeating the names of certain tyrants in the House, in close conjunction with the name of the prime minister. And the satisfaction with which Venkaiah Naidu said that they had been struck off the record, quite forgetting that Tiwari’s speech was broadcast live and had already been shared on the internet, which is the only public record which really matters. This list of autocrats who demonetised their currencies is going to hurt as much as Sitaram Yechury’s “Modi Antoinette”, an internet meme which owes originally to a very talented graphic artist.
All this excitement, just to bring back socialism? After all the denunciations, Nehru is back. The queue is back, Nehru’s most durable legacy, with the exception of the Bhakra Nangal Dam. Shortages are back. The demonisation of prosperity is back, something that Indira Gandhi had turned to advantage and that the Left can identify with. In a sarcastic speech televised two years ago, Narendra Modi had told Sitaram Yechury that he recalled the days when the CPI(M) told voters that their blood fuelled the cars of the rich. Yechury got his own back this week in the Rajya Sabha. But going by the behaviour of the Treasury benches, and by the Prime Minister’s determination to keep away in order to attend less important events, the government may not agree. They are inside a bubble as opaque as the one which once housed Mrs Gandhi.
The media have battled valiantly to make sense of a senseless situation. We have struggled with the strange drama of prime ministerial speeches and the incontrovertible evidence of nationalism and sacrifice seen in queues. And invisible soldiers. They crop up in every discourse these days, even in conversations about ATMs.
Talk show panels are still out on whether this was an economic or political project. Are we seeing intelligent design or ignorant bungling? For days on end, headlines about a ‘surgical strike’ dominated newspapers and television, when the real story was precisely the opposite — massive collateral damage among innocents. And it took days for the reality to sink in, in cartoonish form — the government has only variable geometry policy du jour. The rules are changing every day in response to media reports, and since the hapless Urjit Patel is missing in action, the equally hapless Shaktikanta Das is trotted out to convince the press that it all makes sense.
Meanwhile, Ramdev tells Shekhar Gupta that the BJP blundered into the wedding season because so many of them are bachelors. The Finance Minister is married but clueless nevertheless, protesting about “unnecessary panic”. What we are seeing and experiencing ourselves is not panic. This is concern for family and friends who may not be equal to the new religious requirement to stand in line for hours to get one’s own money. And the concerned are not likely to forget Arun Jaitley’s put-down.
In the middle of all this, there have been flashes of insight. CNBC reported as “fishy” the rise in deposits in state-owned banks. Former RBI governor Duvvuri Subbarao’s warning to the central bank against using deposits to remonetise banks and offset the burden of non-performing assets gained wide traction. But Arun Jaitley’s intervention on NPAs in the Rajya Sabha, in the light of reports that banks are writing off thousands of crores borrowed by wilful defaulters, wasn’t really examined. He clarified that a writeoff did not imply that the government had cancelled the liability. In that case, why aren’t all dodgy loans written off and recovery pursued nevertheless?
In this bizarre political landscape, the Prime Minister has pulled it off the improbable yogic balancing act of playing hell with the markets while resurrecting the ghost of the long-forgotten index of Opposition unity. If the Sainiks and arch-anarchist Arvind Kejriwal marches with Mamata Banerjee, it could be the beginning of something interesting, as they compete for constituencies which became collateral damage to the surgical strike. Meanwhile, we have all learned to live on credit, from housewives shopping for sarson ka saag to farmers buying mustard seeds. Our government, which is focused on economic issues and came to power on the promise of growth, may recall that credit is a polite word for debt.