Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Harish Khare - The Cult of the Leader: Demonetisation and Modi Worship // Sarita Rani - Deaf PM, Hapless Parliamentarians Need a Dose of Nation-Wide Protests

Are we heading towards an authoritarian regime that curbs our freedom to spend our own money?
“We do not want another ‘god’ as the political leader of our country… We must not only not have any more gods…we must also ‘devalue’ the exaggerated importance that we have given to the office of Prime Minister.”

The author of this wisdom lies gravely unwell in a nursing home in New Delhi. Much before old age and its attendant infirmities took their toll, this man used to articulate - on behalf of the BJP - wise propositions of good governance and democratic accountability. His name is Jaswant Singh, the most suave, educated and responsible minister from the Vajpayee era. Singh had made this formulation in 1987. That was the age when the prime minister had more than 400 seats in the Lok Sabha; he also had a majority in the Rajya Sabha. He had a shouting brigade who would keep the presiding officers in check; he had an officer in the PMO who would publicly deride opposition leaders as “cretins”. That was the age of prime ministerial supremacy and it produced many unmitigated national disasters.

Let us dig a little deeper in history. The year is 1971. Legend has it that the legendary soldier, Sam Manekshaw, told off an impatient prime minister, Indira Gandhi, that he would not  be prepared for “action” in  East Pakistan till he was satisfied that adequate preparations had been made and logistical wrinkles sorted out. The prime minister had the good sense to heed the sound advice of a sound officer and lived thereafter to see the Indian armed forces settle Pakistan’s hash.

These glimpses from the past are being recalled to reiterate the lessons that recent history has taught us. And, the unambiguous lesson from 1975-77 onward, has been a cultivated distrust in the idea of an omnipotent prime minister and his overweening ambition. Beware of a prime minister too powerful. India is too vast a country to be at the mercy of a prime minister and his wisdom.

The demonetisation mess painfully brings home the correctness of Singh’s caution against elevating a leader as god who must be given unambiguous obedience and obeisance. The utter incompetence in implementing the demonetisation drive merely underlines the Reserve Bank of India’s total abdication of its institutional autonomy and voice. The RBI governor was duty-bound to tell the prime minister to slow down, just as General Sam Manekshaw once told another prime minister. 

The country witnesses everyday how the finance ministry officials are encroaching upon the RBI’s institutional space and making a mess of it. This is incongruent. Here is a regime - whose senior-most impresarios take considerable pride in micro-management and have built up a formidable reputation in Gujarat as control freaks - but they were also callously inattentive to the post-demonetisation dislocations. The very arbitrariness and the resulting chaos are being sought to be palmed off as “worth the pain” because prime minister Modi “means well”.

No one is sure of the extent to which the finance minister – let alone the rest of the cabinet members – was privy to this so-called ‘surgical strike’ on black money. The country remains in the dark about whose counsel the prime minister sought while firmaning this most drastic and draconian change in currency notes. Not since Morarji Desai’s gold control (in the wake of the Chinese aggression ) order, has any other single governmental initiative touched the lives of so many Indians. Collective thinking and collective decision-making appear to have been done away with. This unhealthy concentration of power and authority in one man can only be a recipe for unhappy consequences. Already the blue-book of the personality cult is operational. Ideological, political and moral approval is sought for the prime minister and his “bold” move. Anyone disagreeing with the ‘Leader’ is being called a habitual dissenter, a fake secularist, and a potential “deshdrohi”. Anyone dissenting is dismissed and ridiculed as an accomplice of the corrupt and the terrorist.

The officials down the line have interpreted this kingly intolerance as a simple license to shut people up. For example, in Indore, the local officials have outlawed any criticism on the social media of the demonetisation decision because they think “internet social media wars” could disrupt social peace. The ‘Leader’ can disrupt the daily lives of the millions and millions of citizens but no citizen can have a right to share his/her plight, or vent anger about being denied one’s own money. On the other hand, the PMO uses that very social media to conduct an opinion poll of its own and claims wide public approval for the demonetisation move.

Why was one individual – howsoever popular, wise and honest – allowed to undertake this experiment in monetary Stalinism? Collectivist impulses of the state have been let loose. Millions and millions of households have been forced to surrender their meagre savings to the banks. The mopped-up savings will now be available to the omnipotent sarkar, to be dispersed as per the preference of the ruling clique.

If Stalin could force the Soviet citizens to donate their labour for industrialisation and for the glory of “motherland,” we can also force our people to cough up their hard-earned savings to fight off the evil Pakistan. The minatory penetration of a Leviathan state is complete and total even in the remotest part of the land; each day the state issues firmans on how much and how a citizen can use his own money. All because the ‘Leader’ wanted to be “bold” and to “transform” India, like no other Indian leader had done these last 70 years.

In the best of the Stalinist traditions the (virtual) mobs are being encouraged to denounce anyone who dare question the ruling regime’s preferences and priorities. We are manufacturing new orthodoxies: any governmental initiative – good, bad or malevolent – will not be questioned if it is declared to be in aid of fighting “corruption, black money, terrorism and counterfeiting of currency.” It is demanded of the citizens that they put up with the “inconvenience” in “our fight” against these presumed objectives. 

As in Comrade Stalin’s days, endorsements for the regime are expected. Expectedly, the venerable Ratan Tata has led the chorus of approval. Just stand up and applaud. A wise king was always advised to leave his subject unmolested of his two possessions – jameen (land) and jorru (womenfolk).  Rulers, democratic or authoritarian, have faced the most primeval resistance whenever they have sought to take liberties with their citizens’ land or women. Now, we have witnessed a new experiment with a democratically elected king putting his hand in the subject’s jeb (pocket). Consequences will be there. This article was originally published in the Tribune.

Sarita Rani: Deaf PM, Hapless Parliamentarians Need a Dose of Nation-Wide Protests
Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced parliament on Thursday. It’s not so much that he faced it, as he graced it. Like kings and monarchs do. He came, he sat. He listened for exactly an hour and left. He had promised to stay for all the 24 parliamentarians speeches and to respond to their questions. He didn’t. Modi is in the habit of breaking promises. He disdains questions. In fact, he detests people who ask questions. After all, we all saw him walk out of an interview on prime time, live, national television in 2012. 

Aware of Modi’s dislike for interaction with peers of any kind, Indian parliamentarians tried to efface themselves as best they could, while still managing to stand and speak. Former finance minister and prime minister Manmohan Singh called demonetisation: “organised loot and legalised plunder.” Singh is a scholar and a technocrat. He spoke harsh words softly. That’s his style. A style Modi is not bred to recognise.

The Trinamool Congress’s Derek O’Brien brought facts and figures to the table.
  • 1 out of 5000 people has a credit card
  • 5 out of a 1000 people have debit cards
  • 90% of them use it only to withdraw money
  • 4 out of 5 villages don’t have a bank
  • We have a GDP of Rs 45,000 crore a day
  • 59%  of it is (Rs 27,000 crore) is household financial expenditure
  • 87% of that (Rs 24,000 crore) is cash
“So my question is if it’s 24,000 crore cash and it’s been 15 days … we’ve lost Rs 3,75,000 crore – and challenge my figure – of GDP in the last 15 days.” Derek O’Brien said. “This is not about an ATM inconvenience.” Modi was unmoved. Modi is often unmoved when not thinking of himself.
O’Brien offered a specific solution. “Why don’t we allow old and new 500 notes to work in parallel for the time being?” he asked. He pleaded for a solution. Any solution. 

Modi chose not to return to parliament at all, after lunch. 21 parliamentarians left to speak on that day, were left unheard. They represent the people of India. At the very least, they represent Indian voters. They were elected to parliament so their voices could be heard, asserted with pride, not humility. They were meant to make every vote count. Yesterday, 16 united opposition parties were left unheard. At least 70% of Indian voters who did not vote for Modi, were left unheard.

Through the looking glass: Instead, not long after parliament was adjourned abruptly, we heard a series of contrary and conflicting bits of newer measures. On November 9, a cabinet minister had said of the cash crunch, in the style of Marie Antoinette : “Let them use cards.” On November 24: hearing of long queues at banks and people dying of stress, Modi seems to have decided in the style of the Red Queen : “Off with the queues.” This despite promising on November 8 that old currency could be swapped at banks till the end of November.

A couple of hours later, came a minor reprieve. Perhaps a minister begged. Slipped in an order to sign. We will never know. All of these measures end on December 24. None of these neat steps, however, address the simple fact that replacement currency is simply not in place. Simple mathematics and logic, it seems, are of no account here. Both reason and empathy, are officially dead in official India.

And then this morning came yet another announcement. Currency exchanges will happen, but only at (far fewer) RBI counters. If this were merely a farce, one would poke fun at it. But this is fantasy. This is so far down cloud-cuckoo land that it is difficult to describe. To any sane mind, Modi has gone too far down this path himself. And he’s inviting us to follow. In Derek O’Brien’s words, this is “Lulu land.”

Law may be blind, justice is not: To stay on this side of the mirror, one must respond to such a notification. And the simple truth is that there are so few RBI counters that this announcement means less than nothing. Everyone knows it. Modi has to know everyone knows it. Even his supporters by now know everyone knows it. And yet, this is how the world works, when a lawyer handles finance, instead of an economist. Much has been written on the possible illegality of this kind of demonetisation.

It was to get tested today in the Supreme Court, which chose to postpone the hearing till next Friday, December 2. That would be six days after the nation-wide all-opposition call for protest on November 28. Modi could have used the opposition in parliament to extend the date of exchange. Perhaps by a month, or even by two. It would not have solved the problem, but it would have certainly eased things a little. That would have been a face-saving measure. Even a grand gesture in a country that adores grand gestures. His followers would have loved that about him. But he chose not to. Perhaps needed  not to. Instead, he cracked the whip. From the November 8 declaration of allowing the exchange of notes till December 30, he cut it off at midnight.

The authoritarianism of this government is now beyond doubt.

Whatever conflicting ideas of India we may have, we like to believe India is an independent nation. That means we are a free and working democracy. A limping and flawed democracy, yes. But a democracy nevertheless. That means that however flawed our representatives may be, from whichever side of the spectrum they come from, when they stand up in parliament for our sake, they deserve to be heard. They deserve to be listened to. Because Indian voters deserve to be heard.

But when 552 members of parliament cannot get themselves to agree decently, on behalf of 1.25 billion Indians, it is perhaps time to let them go. These 552 parliamentarians may survive on government-given plastic cards. Most Indians can’t. Not now. Perhaps not ever. This Monday the opposition has called for a protest. As a first step, all Indian citizens should join in. Participatory democracy does not end by voting once in five years. Sometimes it needs more. We should join not because we belong to one party or another. But because we belong to a parliamentary democracy. We should give parliamentarians a chance to show that they are capable of working as a worthy opposition.

It is not enough that we share, argue, debate and pass snarky comments on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. It’s great. But not enough. Because the thing is, if we can afford to be on social media – chances are we will survive the next year. What we may not truly survive, is the part we did or did not play at this time. Ultimately, democracy is about standing up to be counted. Not sitting down to be liked.

see also
Harish Damodaran - In fact: When the money stops