Long queues at ATMs and bank branches are being projected as metaphorical ‘Achilles heel’ in the central government's decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes. It is a strange assumption, given the cultural context in which India evolved into modern nation state.
When on 8 November Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a live address to the nation, announced that Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes have been demonetised, people reacted with some shock and honest appreciation.
The agenda was clear; it was an unprecedented attack on black money. Just after an hour of the announcement when Firstpost reporters spoke to people queuing outside the ATMs, the palpable emotion was that of excitement and expectation. People were excited over the aspect of corrupt feeling the heat and expected a clean system on the anvil.
Less than a week in the decision, media reports started pouring in about the long queues outside ATMs and bank branches, about hassled lot and agonising experiencing of those standing for hours in the queues only to return empty handed, with ATMs running out of cash in no time.
Long queues can be the handiest indicator of a system failing people. But is that something new for the people of this country.
Not long time ago before the advent of online reservation system introduced by the railways, serpentine queues was a common scene at any railway station in the country. The situation has not changed drastically. A visit to a railway station provides enough evidence. Crossing an hour-long queue is must for even getting a platform ticket.
A visit to the box office of the film studio or a regular eating joint on a weekend, shows how normal a ‘queue’ is for the people of this country.
Till two decades ago in numerous towns and village across India, before the collapse of ‘license permit raj’, hoards of people standing with their bags, in long queues at ration shops, was a common sight. This was the time when Big Bazaar was a dream and neighbourhood kirana stores were beyond the reach for a majority of the population. This was a time when the middle class was still growing and India was defined by its poor-rural population. And this was a time when long queues were not an aberration to become news.
On Monday morning speaking at a rally in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh Prime Minister Narendra Modi took several pot shots on those criticising his government’s decision to demonetise and remarked, “After demonetisation, the poor are enjoying a sound sleep while the rich are running from pillar to post to buy sleeping pills."
In a country where jumping queue; whether at a temple or a hospital, by flaunting one’s identity card is reflective of one’s social and economic stature, a long queue is detested gravely by those who have achieved the legitimacy of jumping it.
In a country where people stand for hours in queue to get a momentary glimpse of their favourite deity, can a long queue play spoiler for a well-intentioned move of the government.
At his address in Ghazipur, Modi made an interesting analogy. Talking about the problems that people are facing he said, “When you paint your house to look good for any function like wedding, a strong stench remains and you are unable to sleep properly for few nights, But then you bear that smell as you want your house to look good”.
Comparing the stench of the paint with the problem people are facing currently Modi urged them to bear it for larger good and posed a simple question to the crowd “Will you bear pain for few days?” which got a resounding yes and thunderous applause, as a reply.
Posing long queues as something that will prove to be undoing of this government is misjudging the resilience of the people of this country. The current restrained resentment of the people is backed by a belief that the inconvenience is for a larger good. This assurance has helped people even in the poorest districts of the country to maintain dignified restraint. Few incidents of ATM vandalism and queues at banks getting into minor scuffles have been reported from urban centres with apparently more refined citizenry.
On Monday morning at the Union Bank ATM at Green Park in South Delhi, a long queue formed. Amidst this the people standing in the queue decided that everyone should just withdraw Rs 500, so that more and more people are able to get some cash to meet their expenses at least for the day. Such incidents only show that in spite of all the hassles people have to face, there is a will to be part of the big change.
Adding to it is a fact that queues are indeed not a part of the cultural history of the generational elites like Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, whose participation in one such queue becomes big news. For the rest of people it is part of their social narrative.