Have a happy New Year! Please say it with conviction, so it works this time. Last year we clearly messed up — 2016 was not a happy year. In fact, there has seldom been a year that has caused so much grief to so many people across so many countries, and has introduced so many possibilities of causing further grief in the future. No sir, not happy at all. Bizarre, at best. Take, for example, our homeland. We have a respectably right-wing, pro-capitalist government, right? It’s the government that released Republic Day advertisements where the words “secular” and “socialist” had been omitted from the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. So why on earth is it spouting socialist jargon? Why this sudden harping on empowering the poor? During the colossal chaos following demonetisation, apna sarkar even talked of the redistribution of wealth. Keep the money the rich have deposited in your Jan Dhan accounts, said the Prime Minister to the poor, do not give it back! If this is what we do when we hate socialism, what would we do if we loved it?
But to be honest, this drastic demonetisation does have benefits. I for one am happy that I can give my seven-year-old a glimpse of my childhood experiences. We grew up seeing people standing in slow-motion, serpentine queues. For kerosene, for sugar, for rice, for wheat, for candles, for daily necessities generally classified as “ration”. People set aside time for queuing up, took time off from work, skipped friendly addas, got up early to get a headstart on the queue. Because sometimes, by the time they got to the head of the queue the kerosene or sugar was finished. Which meant another day standing in line. Very often, it was just a long line of odd bricks and empty tins thirsting for kerosene. Placeholders for tired men and women who sat in gender-segregated clusters in the shade somewhere nearby. Today the queues are back, but the new generation has not perfected the art of waiting with placeholders yet.
Unlike middle class youngsters today, we were also quite used to not having enough cash. You had to choose your pleasures to suit your pocket. So this post-demonetisation cash crunch was not entirely new either. It had elements of déjà vu. Except that we were now middle-aged, with less patience and greater needs. More importantly, we were not queuing up for government-subsidised provisions, but for our own, hard-earned money on which we had already paid tax to the government. This was the first time that the promise inscribed on the Reserve Bank of India’s promissory notes was being brazenly violated. Legal tender was suddenly not legal anymore. Every other day you were given new instructions about how you may try to access your own money, and how little of it you would be allowed to touch. And even then, you were not sure that there was money at the end of the long line. Banks and ATMs speedily run out of cash. Like unwelcome rain, you are routinely told to go away and come back another day. It was as if the very concept of private property was under attack. Now it’s money — the next target, we are told, will be our houses. Sounds like a communist dreamland, doesn’t it?
But we are not really interested in the abolition of private property or the redistribution of money in the socialist sense. That’s where our government sticks firmly to its pro-capitalist stance. While the poor are squeezed dry and the honest cash economy is throttled, as farmers unable to repay small loans kill themselves, the State Bank of India gets busy writing off loans worth thousands of crores of big industrialists, and dishing out a $1 billion loan to the Adani Group. It’s income redistribution all right, but not the socialist kind. Anyway, there’s more to our déjà vu than the cash crunch and socialist frills. There is the word notebandi. Reminds us of another notorious word from our childhood, as scary, as confusing and as disempowering — nasbandi. The forced sterilisation campaign during the Emergency. It reminds us of the sudden suspension of our rights, the clampdown on free speech, the suspension of democratic freedoms and constitutional guarantees. When citizens were as harassed and frightened as today, but not as silent.
People spoke out. Everyone from political opponents like Raj Narain, who sought justice in court, and Jayprakash Narayan, who galvanised the public, to a strident press that refused to accept censorship, to writers and poets and even Bollywood filmmakers and lyricists. “Kya mil gaya sarkar tumhe… Emergency lagake/ Nasbandi karake hamari bansi bajake? (What did you gain my government with this Emergency, by sterilising me, by making us face the music?)” people asked in I.S. Johar’s satirical film Nasbandi. And concluded: “Ram bolo bhai Ram, Ram nam satya hai!” Today, Bollywood bows not only to the state but even to the wishes of non-state agents. And Karan Johar has to prove his nationalism by promising never to work with Pakistani actors again.
Of course we are not in an Emergency-like situation today. For one, the trains don’t run on time. And bribes continue to rule the roost. Besides, there is a fascinating arbitrariness about this demonetisation and other attacks on our individual freedom that a heavy-duty act like the Emergency could never aspire to. We are merely distressed. And so is our democracy. But fear not, dear reader. The year is over and a new year is waiting. A year full of possibilities. It could be full of towering taxmen and further shrinking freedoms, or it could be a rejuvenating year celebrating democracy. It’s up to us. As they sing in Nasbandi: “Jag zara soch zara lagega sabka number/ dama dam mast kalandar! (Hey crazy beggar! Wake up, think a bit, everyone’s time will come!)” So this time, we better get it right. Let’s make it work. And say it once more, with feeling: Happy New Year!