A slightly different version of this column appeared first on Catch News on 13/1/17
It is now well over fifty days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that 500 and 1000 rupee notes were no longer legal tender – a policy popularly known as ‘demonetisation’. In the new year, economists, bankers and accountants are busy tallying currency and estimating the impact of this policy on key indices. Alongside, the government’s official and unofficial propaganda machineries are hard at work, spinning out narratives of how things have returned to normal.
Herein lies the risk: people’s daily lives may well have returned to ‘normal’. But do not for a moment, mistake that to mean that the demonetisation was an acceptable policy. It absolutely was not. This ‘normalisation’ narrative is problematic. It is that which asks us to get over a trauma without questioning it, and carry on with life. But collectively as citizens, and on a matter of public policy gone wrong, it is ridiculous to not question, and not demand that those responsible be held accountable.
Demonetisation has been one such policy. Post the fifty days that the government asked of us, we are still trying to estimate the cost that the economy would have to bear. While the government can announce Gross Domestic Product estimates (7.1% for 2016-17) on the basis of the first seven months of the fiscal year, the consequences of an economic downturn will be severe. We already know the costs have disproportionately fallen on the poor – those who do not have the means to go cashless – as opposed to, say, the middle class. Reports of workers losing jobs, and a spike in demand for MNREGA work is evidence enough that the hardships are real, and will not go away anytime soon. As this report on the website Scroll indicates, the impact may not be known accurately for a year or so.
Amidst all of this, the government and economists who favour them have not deemed it necessary to explain how they are factoring in these costs when they analyse the impact of demonetisation. How is their analysis comparing the benefits (if any) of demonetisation with the human, financial and institutional costs that have been incurred?
A narrative that seeks to establish that all is normal is essentially designed to paper over the pain, and to subvert critical questions on who should be held accountable. Also, that all is normal now will also be sought to be presented as evidence that demonetisation was, in fact, good policy. The narrative will also suggest that there are no negative consequences to the erosion of institutional autonomy of the regulator, Reserve Bank of India.
This is the reason one feels that demonetisation was just an experiment to test the tensile strength of the Indian citizen. These tests started with the invasion of impropriety and excesses on campuses, communal incitement, harassment of artists, academics and thinkers, etc., and have now emboldened the government enough to be extended to the entire populace. A normalisation narrative is a strategy to wilfully erode any sense of public accountability, and to hoist upon the people, the concept of a saviour to counter all (real and imaginary) ills of society.
It is this kind of normalisation that also holds the threat of politically expedient escalation by not just lowering the level of scrutiny at present, but also for the future. For example, if domestic politics so demands, a cross-border skirmish may not be out of the question. The same dose of patriotism will be fed to people and exhortations will be made to bear the pain while we embark on a project to uphold the nation’s dignity.
We must, therefore, resist this narrative of normalisation. Ask why our government thinks they can restrict how much cash we can keep, and how we can spend. Even if one agrees that we should move towards a higher proportion of cashless transactions, demand to know why the government thinks it is okay to coerce us to do so. Contest the smugness at the highest levels of the government that assumes that issuing daily notifications – where one contradicts a previously issued one – should be acceptable. Because, if you do not protest, you will be smothered.
In the seventieth year of independent India, we have been reduced from talking about progress, to deliberating how we can protect our right to ask questions, which is at the core of our democracy. More people have access to greater information these days, but this is information powered by propaganda, and shaped into easy-to-digest narratives. These narratives, in turn, leave us with no space to step back and ask questions that matter. We must reclaim that space.