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Narendra Modi, Bob Dylan and Demonetisation

Sumanta Banerjee (suman5ban@yahoo.com) is a political commentator.

It is the opportunity of upward mobility offered by the democratic political system, which has led Narendra Modi to occupy the Prime Minister's Office. But in exchange, what is he offering to the poor and underprivileged sections of society--to which he claims to belong--who are spending days and nights waiting in queues to withdraw the money that is their due?

Poor Bob Dylan! Already trying to cope with the burden of the Nobel prize, the reclusive singer finds himself now being appropriated by guess who? India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a video address to the audience at the glamorous Coldplay concert in Mumbai on 19 November, Modi tried to harness Dylan to his caravan of demonetisation. In an effort to admonish those who are opposing his latest devastating move, he selectively quoted the following lines from Dylan’s famous song: “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticise, what you can’t understand/Your sons and daughters are beyond your command … for the times they are a changin’.”

I do not know who drafted Modi’s speech (there must have been someone since I doubt whether Modi himself had ever heard of Bob Dylan before the much publicised Nobel prize award). But the speech-writer did a cunning job. He/she picked up one single verse from the famous song, to help Modi appeal to the upwardly mobile younger generation which had gathered at the Mumbai fest. However, to remind them, those words of Dylan’s which were conveniently quoted by Modi were preceded, in Dylan’s original song, by the following verse: “And admit that the waters/Around you have grown/and accept it that soon/You’ll be drenched to the bone…”. Is this not what is happening to Indian citizens today thanks to Modi’s policy of demonetisation?

A pall of gloom has descended upon almost every nook and corner of Indian society—from the urban daily wage labourers to the rural farmers, the salaried middle classes to the retired pensioners, the small traders to the middle level industrial units. Newspaper reports and visuals displayed on television channels bear enough evidence of the daily plight suffered by these common citizens as a result of a rash and irresponsible decision to demonetise currency notes of ₹500 and ₹1,000 at one swoop. By assuring them that these are temporary inconveniences, the Prime Minister has requested the public to “bear pain for 50 days till 30 December,” after which everything will be perfectly alright, according to his promise! (going by his speech in Goa on 13 November). But from all available signs, it is evident that the new year of 2017 presages a period of suffering for the Indian poor.

Modi’s Jumla

It is rather well known by now that the rich have already escaped the noose of taxation—and now from demonetisation—by transferring their black money into real estate transactions, gold bullion stocks, and accounts in banks abroad. Unwilling to recover this main stock that constitutes the bulk of black money, the Modi government is instead targeting the common citizens by invading the area of their petty domestic savings of ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes, which they may have accumulated through informal transactions, and were reluctant to declare to the income tax department in order to avoid the usual bureaucratic harassment. Such transgressions cannot be compared by any stretch of imagination, with the massive cheating of the exchequer by Indian billionaires like Vijay Mallya, who was allowed to escape from India under the same Modi regime.

In his typical cavalier fashion, Modi ignores the long-term impact of his decision on the lives of the people—the fall in rabi crop due to farmers’ lack of access to ready cash to buy seeds; the disruption in interstate trade caused by the inability of the truckers, carrying essential commodities, to exchange cash for their daily needs while travelling; the slump in gross domestic product (GPD), among many other similar unpredictable hazards.

There are several disconcerting questions hovering in the air. Was it (i) a one-man decision by the Prime Minister to compensate for his failure to implement his much-ballyhooed promise to bring back black money from abroad, by giving instead the impression of attacking indigenous sources of black money—and thereby boost his image as an anti-corruption leader, with the help of his coterie of advisors and publicity agents; or (ii) a collective decision of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) cabinet (including the non-Bharatiya Janata Party allies), fully aware of its immediate and long-term implications; or (iii) a decision approved of by his parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the constituents of the Sangh Parivar (to which he belongs); or (iv) if the decision was in the offing for the last several months, as claimed by the Prime Minister, why were adequate infrastructural preparations (printing of sufficient new notes, recalibration of ATMs, etc) not taken in order to cope with the expected rush from customers?

Tied to these questions, are suspicions about the motives of the NDA government (which is highly Narendra Modi-centric) behind this sudden decision. Political commentators have attributed it to the BJP’s plan to deprive the opposition parties of sources of the latter’s funds in cash (money undeclared to escape taxation, usually diverted to these parties by traders, small business houses) in the coming elections in Uttar Pradesh—while the BJP meanwhile had already stacked enough cash that was donated by the big corporate houses. How to transform it into legal currency? That the BJP state politicians were forewarned about the impending decision to demonetise the two currency notes is evident from the fact that eight days before the announcement of demonetisation, the West Bengal BJP unit deposited ₹3 crore (in neatly packed ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes) at the Indian Bank’s Central Avenue branch in Kolkata (Tribune 2016). There must have been similar transactions by the BJP units in other states too, like possible transfers of cash from the West Bengal BJP bank accounts to their counterparts in Uttar Pradesh, in order to funnel the electoral campaign there.

Such dubious practices by BJP politicians are in synchronisation with the finance minister’s recent defence of writing off of bank loans to defaulting millionaires. Or, witness their patronage of the ostentatious wedding ceremony of the daughter of Karnataka’s BJP leader and former minister G Janardhana Reddy, a mining tycoon who is reported to have spent ₹500 crore on the event, in Bengaluru. Ironically enough, a few streets away from the venue of this lavish wedding ceremony, people were queuing up outside banks to get a few scarce ₹100 notes (Hindu 2016). Compelled by public pressure, the income tax department has finally conducted a raid on Reddy’s residence.

Modi’s Public Image

While Modi parades himself as a chai-walla who has won the Prime Minister’s Office, does he ever introspect over the huge gap that separates his past from his present? It is the opportunity of upward mobility offered by the democratic political system, which has led him to occupy the present post. But in exchange, what is he offering to the poor and underprivileged sections of society—to which he claims to belong—who are spending days and nights waiting in queues to withdraw money that is their due? To assuage their disgruntlement, Modi projects the picture of his mother as a common citizen withdrawing money from a bank in Gujarat—glossing over the fact that she never joined the queues and did not suffer the plight endured by other senior citizens, as she was escorted by security guards, provided by her son, to reach the bank counter.

Hypocritic jumla cannot fool the people for long, and glib politicians cannot survive for ever as prime ministers. Modi’s speech-writer ignored the end of Dylan’s famous song, which sounds a warning for him: “There’s a battle outside ragin’/It’ll soon shake your windows/and rattle your walls…”

References

Hindu (2016): “An Opulent Wedding That Wasn’t in the Least Taxing,” Bengaluru, 17 November.

Tribune (2016): “Rs 3 Crore ‘Deposited’ in Bengal BJP Account before Demonetisation,” Kolkata, 11 November.

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