A few days ago, I was standing in the complex of the Tanot Mata temple, close to the India-Pakistan border. “How are things?” I asked the man selling Prasad. “Very bad, Hukum (Sir),” he replied in a feeble voice. “By this time of the year, thousands of people should have arrived here. The tourists are just not coming!” Although by the time December 25 ended, the tourists began arriving and the hotel occupancy was full again.
Tanot is a place where the Pakistani army dropped dozens of bombs during the 1965 war. Several of these bombs also dropped in the temple complex, but miraculously none of them exploded. The locals attribute this to the blessings of the Devi and that is why the temple is always thronged by local and outstation tourists. But at the time I visited it, the temple was deserted.
The situation was not very different at the clock-tower located in the heart of Jodhpur. Here, vendors have set up stalls to sell handicrafts. My wife stood before a tribal lady selling junk jewellery. We were her first customers of the day. According to the lady, during winter, by the end of the afternoon, most people return home after selling their stock. The afternoon was almost over, but the stalls selling handicraft hadn’t got too many buyers.
The decision on demonetisation has wreaked havoc on farmers, labourers and those who live on the margins. A research-based report in Hindustan Times this week talked about how farmers around the country were forced to sell their vegetables at wholesale mandis at minuscule prices.
Onions sold for just Rs 1 per kilogramme in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur and tomatoes for Rs 3 a kg in Karnataka’s Kolar. Cauliflower sold for Rs 3 per kg in Patna, peas for Rs 3 in Chandigarh and potatoes for just Rs 2 in Farrukhabad.
Clearly the farmers are likely to spend the next few months in deprivation.
Small industry has also been hit hard and forced to cut jobs. The government in Uttar Pradesh has even doled out a compensation of Rs 2 lakh each to 14 families whose loved ones died while waiting in ATM queues. Opposition parties say the number of people who’ve met an untimely death in this manner is more than hundred. The 50-day time limit that the prime minister had sought has ended. But people are still awaiting relief from cashlessness. When I passed through the village Bharol in Uttar Pradesh’s Ferozabad district, I saw dozens standing in queues to draw money from an ATM. It was the 50th day of demonetisation.
Because of these reasons, the Opposition, which had been in a semi-unconscious state for the last two and a half years, has suddenly found an opportunity to become aggressive. As 2017 begins, they want to put up a united front and evolve a combined strategy to corner the prime minister.
So many aspersions wouldn’t have been cast on the Union government had a few bank officials and their cronies hadn’t found ways to dispense the new currency to turn their black money into white. It was highly unfortunate that at a time most bank employees were working day and night to alleviate the side-effects of demonetisation, some of their colleagues were busy sullying the image of the entire banking system. At one time, George Fernandes had said that wherever multinational banks had gone, they had encouraged corruption. Years later, his comment is ringing true. Most of those tainted were private bank employees. Employees of public sector banks also alleged that a larger number of currency notes were made available to private banks.
This is an allegation that needs to be investigated.
Over the last few days, crores of currency has been recovered in raids across the country. The prime minister has been repeatedly warning at public forums that those still sitting on heaps of illegal currency should mend their ways. In 2017 no mercy will be shown to them. One hopes the government has set its sights on the big fish. The people still have confidence in the prime minister. And the man on the street is with him.
Those who jump to hasty conclusions believe the PM has failed in his ambitious endeavour. Is that true? To find an answer, we return to the lady selling junk jewellery in Jodhpur. I asked her if she knew who had taken the decision to demonetise currency. “Modiji,” she replied. “Is that a good thing or bad?” The lady anxiously waiting for her first sale had her answer ready: “It’s good.” Similarly workers engaged in repairing the Khama Fort near Jaisalmer said they were poor people. They’d braved odds all their life but were confident that Mr Modi will set everything right.
Clearly the common man’s confidence in Modi hasn’t been shaken. To keep it going, the Centre will have to make a Herculean effort. A lot will also depend on the manner in which the Indian economy responds. Assembly elections are due in five states including Uttar Pradesh in the next few months. Apart from a verdict on the incumbent governments in these states, these elections will also be a referendum on this ‘bold’ initiative. If the prime minister and his colleagues can overcome this challenge, his popularity will rise more than any of his predecessors. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll have to spruce up his politics once more, since the assembly polls of 2017 could well script the prologue to the 2019 general elections.
Last, but not the least, greetings for the New Year! Indians exhausted of playing a Holi of political mudslinging can nurture a small hope in 2017: That this year brings with it a lot of things that make us feel cleaner.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan