It has been over a week that demonetisation has been introduced. It has been a rather eventful week ever since. For never in the history of independent India has a nation been mobilised on this massive a scale to weed out corruption and the curse of black money from the system. While it has united the opposition against the government over its problematic implementation and the real hardships it has caused to many, what has pleasantly surprised all is that many are willing to tolerate the heartache for the cause of the nation. Demonetisation has become a national project, a media obsession and restrictive for the citizens of the country, who are queuing up outside banks to lay their hands on the new currency and exchange the old notes.
The cash crunch is felt by all, whether they are sitting pretty in their penthouses or are among the scores of poor lined up on the streets. However, the queuing up has divided many, especially those who believe that the strike was necessary, although difficult. It has led to a talk of nation and national interest, where many believe that demonetisation would be the only effective means to combat the black money menace. But are nationalism and national interest the preserve of only a few? Is the man on the street queuing up from dawn to dusk without complaining the only true patriot?
Though the decision to demonetise has been well-received by the public—even though it divides the economists across the country—it has also managed to divide us as a nation, for a man on the street has begun to identify the enemies of the nation. The enemies could be his employer, the man you see in an expensive car at the signal, the man or woman who has managed to buy gold last minute and stacked in under their beds. For many on the street do believe that big business, politicians, big traders, jewellers are all but hoarders, that they have robbed the nation of its wealth and now is the time to reclaim the money snatched away from the people. For the people, the black money hoarder is no longer Vijay Mallya sitting comfortably in his country mansion near London, but much closer—either his neighbour or his boss. This is a dangerous precedent. Problems caused by endless queues have managed to sustain public anger against these people (the hoarders, black marketers, politicians and traders). The videos of Janardhan Reddy’s daughter’s grand wedding are a case in point, for while the poor and the middle class are struggling to host a decent wedding or a reception, here is the infamous mining baron going about his business. The cash crunch, it seems, is not an issue for him at all. The movie style opulent wedding of his daughter has added insult to injury. While the lines drawn between black and white money may be clear, but the difference between hoarders, traders, jewellers, businessmen is not as clear cut today as it was before the scheme was introduced. So for the middle class and the poor this is their cause and even though they complain day in and day out they are ready to battle it out against any businessman, trader or jeweller for he alone is responsible for their misery.
The politics around black money has further contributed to the estrangement and a sense of loss among citizens. For it has been repeatedly been argued that those queuing up on the streets is not the hoarder of ill-gotten wealth but the poor or the middle class. Little effort is made to understand how black money is generated and retained, rather everything that some have managed to save for a rainy day is deemed to be black money. Statements such as “if soldiers can stand for hours at the border to defend the country then why can’t we stand in queues”, are unfair and misplaced. For every citizen contributes to the nation in their own way, at least that’s what many would like to think.
What demonetisation has done is to ensure that nationalism and national interest have become a talking point outside banks, near post offices and among housewives. It is no longer limited to newsrooms, social media or among intellectuals in universities. The nation has been mobilised to fight against black money, but also as a project of nation building where everyone is being asked to contribute. The question is are we ready?