By now it must have become apparent to the meanest intelligence that India is in turmoil. A running economy has ground to almost a halt and there is no saying when things will get back to “normal” again, normal in this case being the ability of the common citizen to work, earn and then spend that money for his/her daily needs. To be cut off from legitimately earned money, lying within arm’s reach but yet inaccessible, and going through tiresome and humiliating moments to get it, has understandably frustrated millions of innocent citizens. Fervid supporters of the present government and specially of Prime Minister Narendra Modi still persist in hailing this “masterstroke”. His political colleagues have now begun to admit that there is pain, but say it’s all for future gain. Economists are not so sure that it was a good idea at all, because the costs — economic and human — far outweigh the benefits.
What will social scientists make of the aftermath of the off-with-his-head kind of firman issued by the Prime Minister one weekday night, which has radically changed the lives of millions of people and will cause serious long-term damage? How has India reacted and what does it tell us, about our political masters, about our society, about ourselves? Undoubtedly sociologists and historians of the future will study this phenomenon but even observing the unfolding of this human drama, which has seen not just economic misery but also death, one thing has become starkly clear — the vast class divide between the well-off and also the well-connected and the rest of the nation’s citizens has grown exponentially. There was always a chasm in India between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. The poor were a blind spot for the other Indians, specially in urban areas. Even if they were within the eye line, they were mostly ignored. As for the rural poor, for much of urban middle-class India, they existed only in the abstract and therefore didn’t matter. But in an earlier India, even the richest and the wealthiest knew that poverty was a problem and something had to be done for them.
In the post-reform era, it was hoped that trickle-down economics would eventually reach them, but as we know, that was a chimera. It was the middle class that got richer and got the full benefit of higher salaries and consumer goods; the government was happy to tailor its policies towards them. It was during the peak of India Shining and later, the India Story that a rising intolerance towards the poor became manifest. One of the criticisms against Manmohan Singh — and Sonia Gandhi — was their allocation of funds for schemes such as NREGA or the food subsidies, which were seen as a drain on resources. Though NREGA has not been done away with, that “imbalance” is being readjusted now. Poverty is no longer part of the conversation. This disregard for the invisibles at the bottom of the economic pyramid has created tremendous antipathy and hatred towards those who do not fall within the idea of what the modern Indian should be: consumerist, tech-savvy and digitally networked. The poor now are a drag, a nuisance holding us back.
In recent days, how often have we seen voices exhorting the poor to get plastic or mobile wallets instead of paying the old way? Or wondering why they don’t have bank accounts? Why don’t they just download WhatsApp on their smartphones? And in any case, why would demonetisation matter to them since they don’t have `500 notes in the first place? Aren’t the poor used to standing in queues? Can’t they understand it is for the greater good? On social media, the tone is virulent; one asked, “Why should every policy be about the poor.” Why indeed? These questions have not just come from the raucous online warriors but also from corporate chieftains and politicians who are credulous that such a great decision by the Prime Minister is being actually questioned. Their world of privilege and entitlement, a world in which one can manage with credit cards for weeks and months, has inured them to all other realities. This divide — economic, social or indeed digital — has not happened overnight. It was becoming apparent over the years.
No one from the government has said sorry for this major mess-up — that would be asking for too much — and there has been no show of empathy either. No minister or MP has walked among the crowds or the people in their constituencies, offering them assurances — all the platitudes are being issued from their offices and then echoed by their publicity machine. Anyone who complains is being asked to think of the soldier in Siachen. The Prime Minister says it is the rich who are sleepless, not the poor — but all around one only sees ordinary people queuing up outside banks from 5 am while the rich are hosting multi-crore weddings; the incongruity seems to have completely missed our leaders.
There have also been enough stories about people helping the weak and the indigent (though even that kindness has been mocked), because there is also no dearth of goodness in this country. Small traders and vendors have shown compassion and helped their fellow citizens. That is the least one expects in a civilised society. The turbulence this decision has caused will eventually settle down — in 15 days, 50 days or maybe longer. Farmers, workers and businessmen, specially small ones, will somehow make do, as Indians are known to, and get back on their feet. Whatever the outcome, the government and its vocal drum-beaters will claim success; if you say something often enough and loud enough, it starts sounding like the truth, at least to yourself. But something has deeply changed in India and the long-term consequences of that will not go away....