Shwetaben has been visiting our home for the past 30 years. Over time, we have become good friends. She is a seller of antique textiles, pichwais, old Banarasi sarees, patolas, zari borders, Parsee garas. There is much to learn from this wiry, wise woman with a wry sense of humour. Apart from being exceptionally knowledgeable about her trade, she has managed to single-handedly raise her five children, educate her grandchildren, and look after her useless husband whom she married when she was just 14. Shwetaben’s home is in a village outside Ahmedabad, but she is a restless traveller, criss-crossing India by train, carrying heavy bags filled with treasures on her bony shoulders.
Shwetaben is patiently waiting for the promised achche din. She was visiting Mumbai after a break of a year or so. I noticed she looked visibly older and appeared exhausted. Accompanied by her husband, whose sole job is to fold the unfurled sarees, she spread out her wares on the carpet without too much enthusiasm. Unlike in the past, she didn’t really have too much to show, and I asked her why. She gazed into the far distance tiredly and said, ‘Where is the money in this market?” I almost burst out laughing. The timing of her visit and that statement were both ironic.
The newspapers and television channels were busy breaking news about the Punjab National Bank scam and how Nirav Modi had walked off with Rs 11,480 crores. Such a brazen and staggering heist had shocked not just Indian market watchers, but the rest of the global community of financial experts as well. None of this interested or impressed Shwetaben. She was worried about paying her grandchildren’s school fees. “It has been the worst year for the family,” she wearily admitted. “There is hardly any dhanda after all those new rules introduced by the Modi sarkar. Small-time traders, people like us, are finished. Bankrupt! All my savings over decades have vanished, just paying for essentials.” She painted a grim picture of life in Modi land. She had voted for him, like everybody else in Gujarat. She conceded it was a huge mistake: “We were so proud of him. He was like our raja! We expected him to do a lot for us. We thought our lives would improve. Now look at the sorry story.”
Her husband nodded miserably and continued folding. I noticed he had grown his hair and tied it into a neat nape bun. She smiled fondly: “He has become a panditji! My business is ruined. One of us has to earn.” He shrugged and muttered something about helping others to deal with crises like the present financial one. “We will manage somehow. Most of our responsibilities are over. But what sort of a future lies ahead for our children and their children?” Good question. This is the real dichotomy of India. We have a Forbes-endorsed billionaire diamantaire sitting on a pile of people’s money, and claiming to be a victim of a faulty system, and we have a hard-working, creative and enterprising woman on the brink of throwing in the towel out of sheer frustration. Is this fair? Shwetaben may be philosophical about her lot, but she is no fool.
I asked her if she thinks Namo will win in 2019. She shook her head emphatically, and declared, “No chance! He has misled us.’’ Gujarat seems to have spoken, if Shwetaben’s barometer is anything to go by. She talked about disillusionment and frustration of the average Gujarati businessman whose dhanda has been severely hit. And she expressed her anger when it came to amir log like Nirav Modi, like the Rotomac Kothari family, who have allegedly swindled banks of crores. Shewtaben knows someone like her would find it difficult to borrow even two measly lakhs from a bank, without producing any number of documents and collaterals.
This is as good a time as any to start a genuine cleanup of India’s unwieldy banking system, with its multiple loopholes, and a total lack of effective scrutiny. Despite all the big talk of strict checks and balances being in place, it is pretty obvious there exists a different set of rules — one for the wealthy and well-connected, the other for average citizens. Forget India’s farmers, who are the worst treated, most neglected segment of the “development story”. When people rightly wonder if anything at all will come out of the Nirav Modi scandal, it reflects the overall cynicism associated with similar scams in the past. After the initial hysteria subsides, a shrewd but deceptive strategy will be put into motion. Namo’s government will make all the right noises and talk belligerently about “punishing the guilty”. Meanwhile, a quiet understanding will be brokered between both parties, and Nirav Modi may stage a dramatic return to India, playing the victim card and claiming innocence. He will be theatrically arrested and marched off to join other celebs cooling their heels in the clink. Who knows, maybe Peter Mukerjea had bought priceless rocks for Indrani Mukerjea from Nirav Modi , and can greet an old friend over prison chai? After a lull, the media people will lose interest, and it will be back to business as usual — for those careless PSU banks playing around with our money, and players like Modi and Kothari, blatantly manipulating the system. In my little mind, the ones who are getting away with blue financial murder are the puffed-up, conceited heads of these banks, who escape without a hair on their heads getting touched, while their hirelings take the rap. Pick them up and chuck them in, ask the questions later.
Till then, a word of unsolicited advice to both Modis — Nirav and Narendra: No more posturing. You have robbed hopes. Which are more precious than diamonds. Deliver the goods as promised, or face the music....