Seriously! Ever since the demon of demonetisation (how does one say it in Gujarati?) raised its far from pretty head on November 8, I have gone from feeling very, very rich to very, very poor. Let me start with rich. I left for a three-day trip to Kathmandu with a princely sum of Rs 4,435 in my wallet. The exchange rate at the time was Rs 160 for Nepali 100. I felt like a millionaire but swore I wouldn’t shop... would avoid cafes and restaurants, and exist on greasy momos and thukpa from roadside carts. It was a little like going on a field trip in school, with limited pocket money from Daddy-O. On my second day, I was broke, down to my last few desi rupees! Curious vendors of irresistible trinkets gathered around me in the busy Durbar Square and clicked selfies with the lovely pink note. The colour hadn’t run. And Gandhiji was smiling. Change was returned in soiled Nepali currency. One chap wickedly offered a Rs 500 note accompanied by a wink and a snigger! That’s when it struck me — I was indeed back in school. And the Daddy-O was NaMo!
Back home in Mumbai, I was scrambling to find 100-buck notes in my “hidden” places. Like any other thrifty, desperate housewife, I had a secret contingency fund, which was created to tackle emergencies during long weekends. This was my last resort — it’s a family joke that mother does not know how to operate an ATM machine. I felt embarrassed to line up at my friendly, neighbourhood ATM booth, certain I’d be making an ass of myself. So... I sat around and discussed this grave situation with one of the most intelligent men I know — our old dhobi. He was sanguine when I broke it to him that his weekly hisaab would have to wait. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “We are all facing the same museebat.” Demonetisation has been the great equaliser Indians were in need of. Over kadak chai, we discussed our respective futures. The mood was sombre but not dark. The milkman also turned up for his hisaab. He was happy to accept a cheque, smugly boasting he had a legit bank account. Phew. That was music to my ears. More music was in store when I called my CA. In fact, it was a symphony! He assured me all was well, since I don’t have all that much money to begin with.
“Madam, this is a problem faced by wealthy people — not you.” Oh well, being un-rich suddenly sounded wonderful. I was hearing violins by then. He continued calmly: “Being a senior citizen, you are allowed to keep some cash at home, in case you have cardiac failure, stroke, etc. Plus, being a self-employed woman, you also have a few concessions...” My CA being a blunt Gujarati gentleman (are they all like that?) meant to sound reassuring but... hey... I was beginning to feel like a geriatric bag of worthlessness. His voice changed to a more soothing tone: “Madam, believe me, it is better to be in your position today... see what is happening to all those rich people! My wealthy clients are phoning nonstop to ask for some solution.” I guess it was suddenly hip and cool to be relatively poor. Then came Sunday, and my weekly date with the maalishwalli. She had to deal with her young son being sent back from a tuition class since he hadn’t brought the fees with him. Despite that, she was optimistic and cheerful, “In the long run, this will be good for India. All the black money will disappear. People will work more honestly... pay taxes.” I marvelled at her philosophical argument. It was fantastic that she believed in NaMo’s strategy and was willing to sacrifice a great deal for it. I wished I had her confidence and conviction.
The way I see it, minus the hoopla and claptrap, NaMo’s secret mission may cost him and his party big time in the long run. Uttar Pradesh elections chhodo. I am talking about the bigger one. Indians are used to taking the “patli gully”. Any headmasterji bringing a heavy ruler down on knuckles in the hope of “reforming” naughty children is bound to fail. Naughty children always win in the end. Indians always find ingenious ways to hoard cash and beat the system as ex-RBI governor Raghuram Rajan has warned. It’s just a matter of time before some wily genius cracks this crisis. And it will be back to business as usual. Then there is the other issue: Business people who have mastered the art of evading taxes and cheating people en masse are getting increasingly resentful of the present government. The only way to fight NaMo is to find and finance an alternative “leader”. At the moment, the only one on the horizon is Pappu Gandhi. The Congress Party has mastered the art of managing mega money for decades.
Builders, industrialists, politicians are accustomed to the Congress way of doing business. There is a great deal of money floating out there... and that money is not about to let itself be converted into worthless toilet paper. Once the demonetised notes get “cleaned up” by a genie, they will once again be conveniently parked at hard-to-track destinations. This lolly will be pumped in to prop-up Pappu and his gang. It may take a year or so to achieve this disastrous objective. But what’s the bet dalals are at it already? Till then, the toiling masses will be forced to toil on. As a sage put it, corruption starts with politicians. It can only end with them. So long as the funding of political parties remains a shady, clandestine activity, funny money will continue to clog the system. There is growing and palpable unrest in the capital, and the “winter of our discontent” has just set in. If NaMo cannot come up with better mechanisms to navigate the calamity, the outcome may be terrible. Forget two more years of this administration... even two more months seem rocky right now.