Monday, December 19, 2016

Parable of Demonetization and the Optical Illusion of 'Class War'

Satyaki Roy

Imagine a devastating flood or a famine, cyclone or an earthquake suddenly wrecks the serenity of a village. Habitats are destroyed, food stocks washed away, crops lost forever and so on. The saviour be it a government agency or a benevolent king from the neighbouring territory arrives to rescue the dispossessed. They start a camp to provide food and water to the wretched. The zamindar and the proja or malik and the mazdoor stands in the same queue to receive a bowl of khichri and a pot of water. In my childhood I heard of a similar story. It happened way back in the late sixties. Teesta river flooded its banks and Jalpaiguri town in the North of Bengal was completely out of grids. The hearsay that remained in public memory for long was that one of the richest tea garden owners was seen standing in a queue in front of the relief camp for some food. In such situations suddenly society appears to be more equal even though it is actually not so! 


In a feudal milieu people who are exploited and tortured when find their masters in a similar condition of distress restrain their vengeance and have the rare opportunities to show sympathy to their dispossessed king. It is capitalism now. Exploitation is not driven by individual relations. It is more systemic, more anonymous and hence appears to be 'objective'. The worker, the shopkeeper, the farmer or the domestic help now finds their respective babus and sethjees in the same queue in front of the ATM or bank. It appears that demonetization has gifted us a more egalitarian regime. People with some amount of unaccounted cash had suddenly become more sympathetic to their subordinates offering them advanced wages for coming three or four months or a cut against depositing their master's money in their own account for the time being. A sympathy of convenience with the intent to park their illicit wealth, a trust that has to be paid back. Suddenly the poor has become important to them!

It is nothing new for the poor to be denied of something which is their due, it is nothing new for them standing for long hours in queues for bare minimum human needs, say for drinking water, for kerosene, for PDS entitlements and so on. Every need is procured by them as favour and with lot of pains. They are tamed to be habituated with doors being shut at their face most of the times in their life. And so the distress of the rich becomes visible while the agony of the poor has been internalized as natural as deserving. The distribution of pains seems to be more egalitarian in shock moment at least compared to the unequal society we live in. This creates an optical illusion. As if it pulls down the elite on the streets from the citadels of power and wealth, make them feel the pain which the plebeians have to swallow every now and then. No one bothers to question the wealth amassed by the rich, some are even courageous to display their dirty wealth through pompous extravagant marriages, no one would ask why Adanis, Maliyas and Ambanis are given huge subsidies using public money, why didn't the government disclose the names who have parked illicit wealth in the Swiss banks, the amount of which is far higher than the sum total of all illicit wealth held in cash. Instead be happy with a small candy...see we are all equal in the ATM queue and no one, not even the big people would be allowed to jump the queue! We are rule abiding citizens and the queue makes us equal! It is the rarest mockery of a class war where poor feel relatively empowered having a 'withdrawal coupon' while the well-dressed babu is rationed out if he is late. It is really a surgical strike that would neither unearth any black money, nor it would make India a cashless society and I believe people are gradually realizing how painful it is being dislocated from regular transactions. But it is the pleasure of seeing someone at pain who had never bothered to recognize my existence. It is a 'class war' indeed but an inverted one, a mystified, distorted caricature of the real one.

All in the name of nation! It is the moment of practicing nationalism. So the individual standing in the queue resonates with the soldier standing at the border. A pain for two hours wait is acceptable for the good of the country. It gives a feeling of sacrifice for the collective good. Here nationalism assumes a concrete, perceivable and participatory nature. Here comes the politics of demonetization. It is about mobilizing people around some idea, make them participate for a cause which in any case is not going to change their life. It is like everyone carrying a brick for the Rammandir where the individual accepts pain for a goal. The goal earlier was to build a temple and now it is about building a nation, may be a temple-nation. And by practicing hardship the individual immediately identifies himself with the cause. It perhaps has a deeper psychological effect than supporting the nation in a war from a distance. Here you are a soldier directly contributing in the crusade against corruption. And the beauty of the project is once you internalize the pain for a cause that you justify for some or no reason you hardly bother about the success of the project. I think very few today believe that this move is going to really unearth the larger chunk of the illicit wealth unless one is stuck to the Bollywood films of the sixties where the typical smuggler used to be caught red handed in the airport with a suit case full of cash or diamonds! Gone are the days of holding unaccounted income in cash. Only 6-7 per cent of black wealth is held as cash and the 90 percent is amassed over the years by evading tax safely parked even today as benami assets, gold, jewellery, land and so on (see Surajit Mazumdar’s article in vikalp). Unfortunately the 90 per cent of the population are not aware of this art of systematic cheating. The real part of the black wealth therefore remains safe beyond the reach of public sight. And this is precisely the trick of this gala show of collective pain.

Chase the miniscule share of unaccounted wealth, make the honest citizens suffer, let them feel the pride of making the nation just as you feel triumphant when you reach the holy shrine of a temple or a darga after a painful long walk. The arrogance of the elite allows them to believe that these poor folks because of their sheer honesty and simplicity will never get to know how secured the larger 90 per cent of the unaccounted wealth is and therefore would wilfully accept the torture of not being able to withdraw even their own hard earned income. They would not even question what happened after all these sufferings and sacrifice just as you do not question what you get after visiting a holy shrine! It is a question of faith beyond reason, of course it is a different kind of faith, something agnostic and secular but a faith indeed.

It is a violence on the life of ordinary people. The short lived exhibition of equality tends to subside. The immediate shock stabilizes. Realities of life once again raise its ugly heads. Hegel’s owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk! The flood continues and water reaches at the necks. The rich man is being rescued by his relatives. He flew to safe place once normalcy restored in air transport. The poor continues with the pain, they are now destitute, dependent on the alms of relief camps. The upper middle class and the rich now also has very little to lose. They have means to negotiate with the changed situation. Demonetisation does not affect their income, their pain is only limited to changing modes of transaction on the expenditure side. Less cash more online transactions, more cards and so on. But, what about the poor? They are really bearing the brunt of this nationalist project not because they own black money but because they reside on the darker side of capitalism. It is the providence of daily wage labour who hardly saves and so hardly feels the need of a bank account, of the marginal farmers who survive without access to ATMs, the domestic workers, home workers, the migrant construction workers who are seen as parcels of labour power without having any identity in the eyes of the state. It is the dark underbelly of booming capitalism that is condemned for ever. Now the employers are forcing them to receive old notes. They possess black money or no money at all! Four lakh workers have lost their jobs, daily wage earners have to remain half-fed for the nation; leather, garments, construction sectors are hardly hit, migrant workers are pushed back to their villages. They have to wait to resume employment till India becomes white! Farmers have to accept low prices of crops in this holy season of ethical cleansing, they may not be able to recover their costs, small shopkeepers face a dull market due to all pervading cash crunch. It once again shows nationalism means different things to different people. The costs are different to uphold the tricolour. The jawan from the lower middle class family dies at the border, the elite takes a deep breath while watching media bites or empathize by singing national anthem with a bucket of popcorn in his hand before the film show begins. For the poor demonetization means loss of income, employment, distressed selling of belongings, indebtedness, deep uncertainty about future and for the rich it is only about reorganizing  transactions.

The familiar unequal world that was camouflaged for few weeks as a land of equal distress once again comes into being. Is it a collateral damage that people have to accept for a greater cause? But who would be the real beneficiaries of increased bank deposits. Floods settle fertile soil as gift of nature only to landowners not to the landless, for them it is only loss for ever. Banks currently overflowed with cash would offer loans to big corporates who would reschedule their debts. They would actually plough the fertile soil as the flood settles. The poorest of the poor who were sacrificed as collateral damage in this swatch abhijan would be denied of any kind of loan because they do not possess assets to be shown as collaterals to the banks.

Corruption is a common evil. It cuts across caste class religion gender and all structural divisions of the society. A rich can be corrupted so can be a poor, a man or a woman, a Brahmin or a Dalit and so everyone would find it worthy to fight against corruption. Notably, the enemy of all, in this case, is diffused amongst all. Degrees hardly matter, corruption is corruption and so don’t raise your fingers to someone, it is a systemic evil, mystic enough to camouflage the system itself.

Say for instance cheating in exams need to be stopped. No one would disagree to that, not even the cheaters! But this common evil does not explain the more fundamental problems of our education system. It does not explain why the number of illiterates is so high in India, why drop-out rates increase, why children of school going age work in tea stalls or beg at traffic signals, why a girl child is discouraged to pursue higher education and so on. These are important questions which would never be raised leave aside answered in the midst of this cacophony if our sense of concern about education remains limited to the idea of stopping cheating in exams. And this is the advantage such common evils offer to the elites, it hides the fissures within the structure, it rescues the elite from being questioned and hence subverts the class conflict by a hegemonic discourse. Fight against corruption also bears a similar advantage. Corruption is a class neutral evil, it submerges divisions that are real and more permanent in nature. Why India is the second most unequal country in the world, why and how rich 1 per cent of the population in India owns 60 per cent of the total wealth of this country, why our Human Development Index is far lower than many of the similarly placed developing countries, why not paying tax according to government rules is considered to be an act of corruption while not paying wages according to the stipulated minimum norm is conveniently ignored? Corruption obscures these more fundamental questions into a maze where you perceive an evil while not being able to detect the enemy.

Imagine… in not so distant future………in a similar evening at 8 pm…..the prime minister of new India once again appears in the television and declares on behalf of 95 per cent of Indians:

All land beyond a ceiling would be confiscated and distributed to the landless.

All factories would be owned by workers because they produce all wealth.

Owning property is not a virtue by which one can earn without doing work.

Education and health care would be free for all.

Discrimination and exploitation is a crime.

Expropriators are expropriated!

This would be a land where everyone would be equal not only for a few weeks in ATM queues or in emergency relief camps but forever! Let the violence be inverted this time for the cause of the majority of our nation!

The Author is Associate Professor at ISID, New Delhi

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