'Garib hatao': How the poor are being tricked with demonetisation

Neither the PM nor anybody in the government has convincingly explained how scrapping of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes will end poverty.

 |  5-minute read |   22-11-2016
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Two weeks after the government announced the demonetisation drive, one needs to put a blunt question to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Is the scheme aimed at elimination of poverty or is it targeted at elimination of the very poor?

Modi told the BJP parliamentary party meeting on Tuesday that demonetisation will “help the poor". He has been packaging the scheme as a programme to fight poverty by curbing black money and rampant corruption.

But neither the PM nor anybody in the government has cogently and convincingly explained as to how scrapping of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes will end poverty?

Assuming that demonetisation can hit corruption and corrupt people who have amassed ill-gotten wealth, one fails to understand how it can help eliminate poverty.

The argument that curb on the black money, which is at most 20 per cent of the total economy, will help the poor in the long run is a tedious one.

There is no direct and immediate co-relation between black money and the existence of excruciating poverty in the country. 

Yet the government is desperately trying to package the demonetisation drive as a poverty-elimination programme.

The desperation is understandable because demonetisation is fraught with possibilities of going horribly wrong, with the poor suffering the most by the scheme.

It’s the desperation that led the BJP to ask the party MPs to pass a resolution in support of the scheme and the PM. It appears the MPs were made to sign on a warrant about which they had doubts.

The reality is that never ever a government scheme affecting the entire 1.2 billion plus population that has nothing to do with the poor or poverty is being packaged as a poverty elimination measure.

This is crass populism. This is populist politics at its worst.

At the very best, demonetisation is a programme that can hit a small section of black marketers and hoarders who stock black wealth. As various estimates have pointed out, hardly 6 per cent of black wealth is stocked in currency notes.

modi_ap-embed_112216073015.jpg Poverty elimination is not high on the Narendra Modi government’s agenda. (Photo: AP) 

Poverty elimination is not high on the Modi government’s agenda. At no point during the 2014 election campaign, or after that in the government, has PM Modi made removal of poverty the core issue of his policy.

His poll plank was development and growth. His slogan was “sabka saath, sabka vikaas".

Development of all can help the poor too. But by no means development schemes alone can eliminate poverty in a country where over 400 million people live below the poverty line.

By all accounts and emphasis, this is a government that has professed steadfast faith in strengthening of private capital; increasing ease of dong business and helping big industry grow further.

Redistributive economic schemes, social justice and targeted elimination of poverty have not been the stated policies of the Modi government.

There is no reason to believe that the very character of the BJP or the government has changed from being a right-of-the-centre and pro-big business entity to being an anti-big capital and anti-liberalising force. 

As all populist leaders are wont to practice, Modi has to a great extent succeeded in creating an illusion among the poor that the demonetisation scheme is aimed at hitting the rich to help the poor.

Hundreds of millions of people who have been queuing up in front of banks and ATMs are being made to believe that at some date in the future, they will benefit after the wealthy have been punished.

At no point since Independence have the poor been tricked into believing in a programme that has practically nothing or very little to do with their welfare. The sheer scale of skullduggery is unprecedented.

The only time so many poor people believed in the government’s promise to end poverty was when Indira Gandhi called for “garibi hatao” in 1971. She won a landslide victory on the basis of poor and ordinary people’s support.

Garibi hatao” was a slogan that was preceded and followed by a series of pro-poor and anti-poverty measures. But the slogan didn’t go beyond its populist appeal. It failed to address the problem of poverty in absence of political will.

As a result, within two years after 1971, the Indira Gandhi government faced popular resentment as the economic situation deteriorated. The government that had promised poverty removal was forced to negotiate an IMF loan before its term was over.

Many a time and in many ways, though mostly in an unflattering manner, Modi has been compared with Indira Gandhi. They have been compared mostly for their authoritarian tendencies, for concentration of power in their hands and for bypassing established democratic norms and traditions.

There is another way in which Modi can be compared with Indira Gandhi after the demonetisation move.

For attempting, what Indira’s critics sarcastically very often said, not “garibi hatao” but “garib hatao", not elimination of poverty but elimination of poor.

At least at the time when Indira Gandhi called for “garibi hatao” she was influenced by left-of-the-centre politics. Populist all right but both the international and domestic situations then favoured pro-poor and a strong welfare model political narrative.

Today, Modi’s populism doesn’t even have a fig leaf. There is absolutely nothing on the agenda of the government that can be remotely interpreted as poverty elimination.

It won’t take much time for the poor and the dispossessed to understand that this is a government that’s working for “garib hatao” not “garibi hatao".

What then, Modiji?

Also read: Demonetisation has India on the edge


Ashok K Singh Ashok K Singh @kashoksingh

He is a journalist, writer and commentator.

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