The other day I walked into an ATM near my house in Gurgaon, a Delhi suburb. It was eerily quiet and deserted; a drowsy, bored guard was sitting inside, his gaze fixed on the cell phone screen that featured a Bollywood dance number; “Cash hai, sahab, nikaal lo,” he said without looking up, yawning a few times in the duration that I took to withdraw.
Sometime back the same ATM was mostly without money; and when there was some a long-queue snaked through the night. A few concerned households in the area offered tea, coffee and biscuits to those stranded with empty wallets post the November demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes. After December 30, the situation has improved considerably though not entirely sorted. The jury is still out on the electoral impact of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to ban high value notes.
It is likely to be tested during the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur, comprising a huge chunk of the Indian population. Some indicators will emerge: whether people are miffed due to the hardships or back the move that has been officially justified by multiple reasons to rebuff the critical and varied narrative that has played out in the media and TV screens.
The initial official versions spelled out by Modi and the rest included fighting terror, counterfeiting, black money, smuggling; later fire fighting by the overactive government machinery has impressed that cashless economy is the way forward for the poor to escape exploitation though one tends to believe that education, health, skill and employment are more fundamental parameters that can catapult the country forward.
E-wallets and UPI can at best be important facilitators provided the basics of doing business are already good. Over the last few weeks I have had random conversations with a segment of the population, the so called underclass, among the most physically and mentally distressed by the sudden decision to ban the notes. The folks include cooks, maids, drivers, gardeners, security guards, waiters, who are psychologically most comfortable with cash-in-hand, rather than an entry in the passbook or PayTM account. This category of menial, uneducated but by no means stupid or unintelligent workers arrive from villages in Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh; they service India’s burgeoning city-based middle and upper middle classes, who avail of the cheap labour to feel like minor Maharaja’s and Maharani’s housed in their three or four bedroom high rise apartments within gated areas. Based on feedbacks, it does seem that the underclass has managed to survive as they have always done.
For them, standing in queues is no big deal, they do it all the time at bus stops, to buy train tickets; now it happens to be ATMs that the media has chosen to focus upon; the poor are inured to getting pushed around, treated badly by employers, short changed at shoddy government hospitals and schools. Post demonetisation, skewed mindsets are, however, definitely at play. There is some satisfaction that others not like them, the middle classes and perhaps the rich too, are inconvenienced.
Which means that many more are getting a taste of what the deprived have been braving forever, that is standing unendingly in lines. Black money is a concern. News is followed closely given easy access to cellphones, free Reliance Jio data cards, radio, sometimes TV. Politics, cricket and Bollywood are the known obsessions of most.
There is happiness when authorities seize illegally stashed new or old notes or the hawk-eyed income tax department freezes bank accounts due to unwarranted cash movements. Stories of black sheep bank and government officials playing complicit roles by helping the evaders are universally condemned as betrayal, desh se gaddari, especially when so many, including elderly have died waiting for their turn at ATMs.
Does this mean that demonetisation will be a winning formula for Modi, the game changer in the state elections? The answer is not so simple. The electorate knows his/her vote is precious; there has to be a quid pro quo. This can take the form of a sense of empowerment along caste or religious loyalties in the absence of a better choice; definite promise of a better future via development and good governance that Modi so nicely marketed in 2014 can work; so can freebies that the late Jayalalithaa became so good at over the years. Demonetisation is abstract, still in the air, a cat and mouse game in which nobody is sure who has emerged winner. Or, has everybody lost. It cannot be a clincher in winning elections. Modi clearly has to do more. But, in the absence of an effective choice, a leader of equal standing, he might just get away.
Sadly, pretenders to India’s top political throne do not inspire much: Rahul Gandhi treats the process as a part time job while Arvind Kejriwal has to work on re-inventing his image of being a Modi troll. They need to learn from Virat Kohli. It is due to stunning performances over the years that Kohli has replaced the great MS Dhoni, winner of two World Cups.
(Take a look at my new book Blogging the 40s)