The mess that the country's economy is in post the demonetization fiasco and the daily pain of millions aren't going to go away soon.
This was clearly a decision that was not thought-through, delivered more to shock and impress but without any clear idea of its effectiveness or lasting impact. It is also clear that various levels of the government and bureaucracy and the banking system failed to do their constitutional duty and act as a check on what is essentially an impulsive political decision.
There are still millions of people, ordinary middle-class people, who are happy to go through this suffering without so much as a murmur of protest – galvanized by a fond hope that the tax evaders, the corrupt, the terror funders, the hawala operators and other bad guys will finally go to jail, or will have to part with their ill-gotten wealth; in the hope that they will finally see value for their hard-earned money for which they keep paying higher taxes; in the hope that the government is finally going to do its duty and treat everyone equally.
They are willing to stand in long lines for their cash, endure the hardship and irony of going without cash when their own cash is sitting in the bank, and willing to urge – even coerce – doubtful fellow citizens to do the same.
I think that is the tragedy of this whole drama. These people, who have in good faith continued to support this dubious scheme, are being taken for a ride. Listen to them talk: they all believe a rosy future without black money and corruption is around the corner. They talk of how ordinary people are making huge sacrifices – like the maid who saved up Rs 50K and is now finding it a useless wad of paper, but is nevertheless enthusiastically supporting Modi for what he did – almost bubbling with the excitement of a teenager who found her first love.
There are the ones you find in the bank queues who talk of the new-fangled technology introduced by Modi that will track all your cash transactions and ensure that all those with black money are doomed. They talk of the near-insurmountable technical difficulties in pulling off a scheme of this magnitude. They patiently explain to those around the nitty-gritty of ATM recalibration, their infectious enthusiasm drowning out the mushrooming discussions elsewhere in the line of how the black money guys are already finding ways to swim through this supposedly tight net.
I really want to believe it all. Believe me, I do. These are the people who voted for Modi, hoping this man has the answer to all their beef against the corrupt raj of the Congress. In the same spirit they believe that it is their duty to go through some pain to ensure the demonetization scheme is a success.
Well, that is where I begin to get angry. Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley are taking these simple, patriotic citizens for a ride.
They said the ATMs will be without cash for one or two days; now they are talking of weeks. They are saying all black money will be caught, when there is nothing to show on the ground on how many people with black money have been caught by the income-tax department so far.
What the Modi fans don’t realize is that better tax policing is the first thing any government intent on tackling black money and corruption needs to do. It is not about going after the same pool of tax-paying citizens and harassing them over a few thousand rupees; but raiding those who have stashed away crores of rupees in black money and jailing them. It is something that can be achieved without inconveniencing common people. It is something the income-tax officers are paid to do. But there has been virtually no such action. While on the topic, this department is also widely perceived to be corrupt, and the citizens have the right to know how many corrupt officers have been jailed so far.
Even the effectiveness of the demonetization scheme is in doubt. To believe that Pakistan won’t be able to print counterfeit notes with all the new security features – none of which look so extraordinary – is to be gullible. Even if they do not immediately, that edge in time doesn’t matter – the flood of such notes will eventually roll back the benefits, if any, of this scheme.
For all you know, the Peshawar mint may already have been recalibrated and is spewing out the new Rs 2,000 notes.
Did the black money hoarders get advance notice? Knowing India, and how networked the corrupt are and how flexible and porous the system is, I am too inclined to believe that has happened. So the big fish would have swum away before the surgical strike on November 8.
It's easy to fool simple, honest, patriotic people. They will even die for you if you offer them hopes of a utopia. Modi is doing just that.
He has already sent out a warning to the bad guys – there will be more harsh steps after December 31. Well, so that is one more shot to keep the crowd of cheering fans hooked, what if this one is already failing.
The most dangerous part about this script is the appeal to patriotism, the unexpressed but ever present judgment that if you say the scheme is flawed, you are an anti-national. It’s easy to go from online abuse to real physical violence when you use this nationalism rubric.
Today in Goa, Modi said he is doing it for the country, for the people who elected him to fight corruption. But how many black moneyed bad guys have gone to jail after income tax raids so far? That is where you had to start if you were serious. That is where this narrative begins to come apart.
I have been chary of calling Modi a fascist but this blatant appeal to nationalism is classic fascist playbook stuff. The inability to make the income tax department do its job, the inability to tackle what is essentially a problem of corruption and the inability to execute have been morphed into a nationalist crisis. The benefits are two-fold: the masking of one’s ineptitude and the easy targeting of those who raise questions. The mob will do the rest.
It is the same rubric that casts as anti-national one fine day the millions of people who voted for the Congress -- because they aren't nationalistic enough to vote for Modi.
One last thought. Modi is obsessed with legacy. Most of what he does is about legacy, even the muzzling of independent ideas among his own ministers.
He might get some insights from a recent New York Times article about Barack Obama, similarly obsessed, which said most of the US president's legacy will be shaped by Donald Trump.
In Modi's case, he is helping reshape Manmohan Singh's legacy, and he is creating the setting for someone to come in and shape his own legacy in a way he would not want to read about in history books. I would call that history's revenge.
(The views expressed are personal)