Let me begin with a disclaimer. I am writing this piece not with the credentials of an economist but as the representative of the man on the street gripped by anxiety.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to ban the 500- and 1000-rupee notes has turned the life of people topsy-turvy. The market systems that were used to following a conventional path have been forced to tread the path less travelled.
This turmoil was expected but a matter of respite is that the people’s unrest hasn’t yet been expressed through extreme means anywhere in the country. Should we assume that people born and bred in India are tolerant? Are they prepared to face every circumstance, whether it is a foreign invasion or any other emergency? To assume this will be to insult them. This is the India of the 21st century that has achieved the distinction of evolving from a poor, colonised nation to a rapidly emerging economy in just six-and-a-half decades.
Whatever happens, we Indians never let the flame of hope be snuffed out.
Here Narendra Modi deserves to be applauded. Even the opposition parties are not condemning this step openly. Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, P Chidambaram and Arvind Kejriwal have all criticised the manner in which it is being implemented and have spoken of the troubles the people are undergoing but they haven’t been able to term it a wrong step unequivocally.
Despite having weathered 45% of his prime ministerial tenure, he hasn’t let the voters’ confidence in him flag. If you recall, the statements he made in the first half of 2014 are still on people’s tongues like movie dialogues. The first was about the 56-inch chest and the second that said he would bring back all the black money deposited in foreign banks and deposit Rs 15 lakh in every Indian’s bank account.
His rivals have been making fun of Modi but by conducting a surgical strike, he has declared that he is not one to keep silent. This government has the calibre to attack its enemy on their own terrain. The buzz around the strike is still in the air. So, when people began to hear at on November 8 that the Prime Minister will address the nation at 8 pm, it gave rise to speculation that the India-Pakistan tensions had crossed their limits.
As it turned out, the issue wasn’t war but black money. Taking both his opponents and supporters by surprise is Modi’s signature style of politics.
Still, nobody would have imagined he would go to this extent. No wonder the opposition is still in shock. Reeling under the embarrassment caused by the uproar over the surgical strikes, the opposition parties are fumbling for issues they can adequately respond to. Anticipating this, Modi addressed the issues of cross-border terrorism and drug smuggling and took swipes at politicians, bureaucrats and affluent businessmen in his speech so that his rivals don’t get a handle to raise the political temperature.
Before the surgical strikes, by extending a hand of friendship to Pakistan, he had succeeded in conveying an impression to the world that India’s intentions, unlike its neighbour’s, were benign.
The first to come was the disclosure scheme. During that time, Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley warned those with black money to declare their undeclared assets otherwise the law would have to take its own course. In this way, by taking the common man into confidence, he was preparing to strike when the iron was hot. Therefore, when he took that step, there wasn’t as much uproar as some people had initially thought.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not communicate what he did to the people. Unlike him, the current Prime Minister knows that he has to take the resonance of his achievements to the people. We need to understand this difference between an ‘elected’ and ‘nominated’ prime minister.
It is a fact that Modi has broken the back of black money by banning larger currency notes. But it is also true that small businessmen and the man on the street are tremendously inconvenienced. The cash economy is a centuries-old tradition in this nation. Its collapse has taken a toll on people who cannot even dream of black money. They worship cash currency because it fulfils the basic necessities of their lives. Clearly, for this to be restored, banks will have to work round the clock. It needn’t be reiterated that despite the advent of numerous private banks, nationalised banks still rule the real India. Their callousness is apparent around the world. If the lower-income groups and the middle class keep getting money 24/7 from the ATMs, banks keep exchanging currency and the wholesale traders’ business isn’t hit, then their popularity can grow in this section of the population. These are the people who represent the real India as well as the ‘voters.’
Clearly, Modi’s actual work has just begun. History is looking at him with eager eyes. It has a bad habit of recording both the success and failure of politicians with equal ruthlessness.
I am sure Modi is aware of this.
Shashi Shekhar is editor in chief, Hindustan. Views expressed are personal.