Demonetising the idea of India is a Coldplay joke for Modi

Angshukanta Chakraborty
Angshukanta ChakrabortyNov 21, 2016 | 14:56

Demonetising the idea of India is a Coldplay joke for Modi

In a span of about a week and half, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given fiery speeches, shed tears publicly over his selfless service to the nation, showcased his 95-year-old mother going to a bank in Gandhinagar to exchange old notes, and finally, has joked about being not quite a singer at a high-end rock concert, who could be asked to give the audience its money back in the post-demonetisation new economic currency lifeline – the highly precious Rs 100 notes.

Meanwhile, he has not attended Parliament, which has been in its winter session for a while now, and has not directly braved any of the questions – and there are hundreds of them – that the Opposition has rightfully directed at him and his government at the centre.

In other words, PM Modi has reduced the Opposition’s arguments, allegations and strong indictment of the NDA government to something the prime minister can joke about at a Coldplay show in Mumbai, the ticket to which alone costs more than the annual income of a significant percentage of Indians – both rural and urban.

Also, PM Modi has effectively demonstrated that he can unilaterally override the parliamentary process that should have preceded demonetisation at such a staggering scale, and also dodge being held accountable for the decision by simply skipping Parliament, while ensuring that he’s seen and heard as much as ever, talking from a podium, enacting a monologue in which there are no untoward interruptions that can break his pace and tempo.

Modi has effectively demonstrated that he can unilaterally override the parliamentary process.

And PM Modi can, and he’s allowed, to lace his actions – spoken, executed, imposed, televised – with humour. If an Opposition leader, such as Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal, even attempts a joke at Modi’s expense, he’s “called out” over his “poor taste” by not just the social media, but also by journalists who proclaim to occupy a “neutral” territory, doing “objective reportage” of India at the crossroads.

Essentially what we see happening, and it’s been going on since Narendra Modi’s ascension to power, is this: a decision, or draft law, or speech, election campaign, that would have seemed extremely unethical until May 2014, and would have united the media and the public at large, in addition to the Opposition parties, in putting up a firm democratic resistance to it, is now suddenly okay because it’s Modi who is behind it.

In fact, just like a section of the media with overtly pro-Modi tilt explained away the JNU crackdown, intolerance debate, the beef murders, rapes and lynchings, the Dalit uprising against caste bias, the student rebellion over Rohith Vemula’s suicide, the OROP agitation, despite continuous reports in the print and broadcast media depicting in detail the draconian impacts of the concerted hypernationalism campaigns, this too now must have a bigger cause behind it.

While the liberals bemoaned the “undeclared Emergency” even as PM Modi declared at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence for Journalism award ceremony that Emergency could and should never be repeated, he announced a financial emergency within weeks of sounding that cautionary note.

The “welfare shock” of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 note demonetisation, and the grinding halt to which the informal cash economy has come to – almost 20 per cent of India’s GDP – is now being explained away as a visionary “insurgency”, a “self-disruption”, which has essentially turned Modi into his own political adversary, thereby depleting the oppositional space even more.

In other words, in this twisted logic, Modi contains multitudes. He is his own critique because he sympathises with the severe hardships that about 85 per cent of Indians are facing at the moment, and he admits it in a theological confession to the public at large, performs the penitence by shedding a tear, and asks for forgiveness and forbearance on the part of his people.

The poorest of the poor have simply been excluded in Modi’s Tughlaqi farman of sudden and unprecedented note swap. (Photo: AP)

Exactly while the BJP spokespersons on news channels whitewash the acute economic distress and brush away the predictions of economic slowdown – a hurtling towards recession at an unprecedented rate – from 6.8 per cent growth rate now readjusted to a mere 3.5 per cent, Modi himself rises above his coterie of myth makers, partially exposing the bitter reality, but immediately sublimating it to the performance of patriotism.

Therefore, the long ATM queues, the cashlessness, the deaths from dehydration and heart attacks and panic, the hunger games among the below poverty line families, and those who until November 8 were precariously hovering above it and now have been pushed beyond the cash crunch cliff – pretty much everything is about playing along Narendra Modi and his great (mostly imagined) surgical strike against black money, counterfeit currency, terror funding and other such elevated goals of this morality play.

If the poorest and the weakest – the farmers already weighed down by a prolonged drought in swathes of India, the identity-paper-less urban migrant population who depend on daily wage labour to get a square meal, and whose little savings, all in cash, have now been duly destroyed, it’s just “temporary inconvenience” in this theatre of grand moral gestures.

Modi always forwards himself as the poster boy of sacrifice, narrating the tale of his leaving his family behind like Lord Ram, and he turns the entire country into an extended Ayodhya when he converts India into a battleground of good against the evil.

Yet, when PM Modi jokes about an imaginary penalty in Rs 100 notes at a rock concert in Mumbai, Skyping his way and words into the collective mindscape of the global Indian/citizen, he alludes to that cashless – not cash less, but plastic, digital – utopia that the Coldplay audience does have a major stake in.

The digital transaction economy – still a very small percentage of the Indian GDP – nevertheless is the one that is directly linked to Modi’s own economic and political fortunes.

His pet project, Digital India, is not only about internet outreach and connectivity, it is also about smartphone sales, and Reliance Jio’s gargantuan ambition of disrupting the telecom sector.

It is also about online apps that facilitate electronic transactions, something that is routine for the Coldplay audience, but might be inaccessible, or even inconvenient, and in fact unimagined by many in the remotest corners of India which are still waiting for a good mobile/internet network to begin with.

There are only two lakh ATMs and far fewer banking outlets in the whole of India. (Photo: Reuters)

Many in the Union ministry of finance, as well as in the wide circle of Modi-explainers, have cited Modi’s Jan Dhan Yojana, under which about 250 million zero balance bank accounts have been opened, as a precursor to demonetisation, and as a grand exercise in financial inclusion, bringing almost 20 per cent of Indians under the ambit of banking, thereby significantly expanding the tax net, and limiting tax evasion.

However, it must be noted here that bringing everyone – particularly the poorest of the poor – under the banking network is a bureaucratic exercise, meant to ease the government's job of revenue collection, and may or may not help alleviate, at least in the short term, the immediate and major monetary woes of the poor.

There are only two lakh ATMs and far fewer banking outlets in the whole of India, and of these 95 per cent are concentrated in the metros, cities, and small towns of the country. If there’s one bank catering to 30-40 villages in vast swathes of rural India, how does having a bank account significantly help a farmer who ekes out a living ploughing other people’s fields? What about the old widow whose family has deserted her, or the ill and the aged, who are unable to travel for miles – in itself an expensive exercise – to deposit meagre savings in cash?     

In other words, the poorest of the poor have simply been excluded in Modi’s Tughlaqi farman of sudden and unprecedented note swap. As former Union finance minister P Chidambaram spells it out, this isn’t demonetisation at all, because not only are the new Rs 500 notes already being printed, the entire logic behind easing out high denomination notes has been completely squandered by introducing (some say extremely uncouth-looking) Rs 2,000 note.

This is Modi’s pink revolution that is, in the now increasingly popular parlance of Modi-lovers, the new insurgency, the self-disruption that will reinforce Modi’s image as a strongman statesman, a later-day Indira Gandhi.

That the Modi camp seamlessly borrows from the socialist doctrines of Indira Gandhi, whose 99th birth anniversary was celebrated on November 19, while continuing to deride the 1975-77 Emergency; that it uses an ad hoc and arbitrary rule-as-you-go method in its economic and policy-making tendencies, while decrying the “left-leaning” initiatives of the former UPA government, particularly MGNREGA, Food Security Act and the Land Acquisition Act, squeezing and tweaking each of them in the name of a futuristic development – is inconsequential to the majority of the Coldplay-going audience.

A British rock band that saw its hey days in the mid-90s and has been living off its former glory, much like the United Kingdom, which is adrift economically and politically since the shock and awe of Brexit, Coldplay is, however, the international cultural currency the believers in Digital India and the global cashless utopia are armed with, or at least aspire to.

Chris Martin is the name now more synonymous with neo-exoticism of an eclectic kind, in which Beyonce and Sonam Kapoor can become decked up backdrop of a cosmopolitan cultural stage, strangely rootless and alluring, giving a sense of satisfaction and smugness at having unlocked the secret to a truly post-colonial, globalised, digitised world.

So when the prime minister seemingly self-flagellates and kids about being punished for his audacity to unleash a “surgical strike against black money”, which he compares rendering cashless about 85 per cent of the Indian cash economy to just a bad bout of tuneless singing, he not only normalises the woes faced by 85-90 per cent of Indians on the nation’s march to greater glory, the promised superpowerdom, he also assures the moneyed (dollar-armed) Indians abroad who are worried about the investment climate in India, the premonitory slowdown of the economy and the downward slide of the informal sector that would eventually have a blowback on manufacturing and tertiary services. No, the conduit to greater good is Modi himself, as Shalabh Kumar of the Hindu Republican Coalition would agree.

If speaking – digitally, Modi is a political hologram – at the Coldplay concert makes more sense than answering the Opposition’s pointed questions in Parliament, it’s because Modi, and his ilk, think very little of parliamentary democracy, which for them manifests as an incessant electoral campaign of constant nationalist arousal.

The point of this arousal is never to quite climax, but in the idea of Modi – whether as the Leader, the Emancipator, or the Disrupter.

He’s the joker king who’s destroying and rebuilding his own empire of the Great Indian Nationalism. Until the mirrors that reflect Modi back are truly broken, Modi is his own Opposition.

Last updated: November 22, 2016 | 13:32
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