Suspicions grow when the ruling classes urge the public to put up with, or even agree to become, “collateral damage” in the interest of the “greater national good”. No special insight is needed to know that it is almost always the most vulnerable sections of the population that end up becoming the “collateral damage” that ruling elites demand in the implementation of grand projects — particularly those infused with missionary zeal. Or even projects that, as political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta has observed in his column in The Indian Express, have become the “personification” of the initiator — in this case, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The bar, in such circumstances, moves to an all-time high. As Mehta writes: “With personification comes a punitive imagination. The state is telling you that the honest have nothing to fear. But there is every sign of unleashing the worst aspects of the Indian state on even ordinary citizens.”
Already some 50-odd people have died as a result of demonetisation. On the other hand, because they can leverage power and have access to wealth, privilege and contacts, the intended targets of Modi’s demonetisation policy are not going to financially haemorrhage to death . Many among them must already by now have found ways to hoodwink the government. They have long been masters at this game. The government seems to be operating under the illusion that India’s “robust” systems cannot be circumvented.
It’s hardly a surprise that the poor and vulnerable are the ones paying – many literally with their lives – to make Modi’s deeply personalised mission succeed, at least in the short–term. Surely such levels of human suffering can’t be shrugged off as a paltry matter of “inconvenience,”or explained using the normative, dry, business-as-usual logic of “collateral damage”. What happened to all that rhetoric of a “caring” dispensation? A government that truly cares for the weaker sections of society — those least equipped to withstand such sudden assaults on their lives — would have retrained itself from moving ahead with such a ruthless drive as this.
The closest parallel to such heavy-handed policy implementation is found in the manner in which Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar pushed through the recent prohibition law. Its draconian “guilty by association” provision criminalises not just the drinker or the alcoholic, but the family members of such a person as well. Like the prime minister, the Bihar chief minister also made prohibition his personal mission, regardless of the countless field reports revealing its dark consequences, and drawing attention to the prohibition law’s sweeping punitive clauses. No surprise therefore that Nitish is perhaps the only Opposition leader to have warmly endorsed the demonetisation drive.
The drive itself is stamped with the unmistakable personal imprint of the prime minister. In a highly dramatic move, Modi recently, spoke about the “sacrifices” he has made to serve this nation. His critics can argue that the prime minister made a conscious decision to become a politician, and it is to that end that he made those “sacrifices”. No one compelled Modi to serve the nation! Who can deny that a gulf of difference separates the “sacrifices” made by Modi and those affected by his demonetisation policy. While the prime chose his path, others are being forced to adopt one over which they have no control.
The fact is that many facing the brunt of this policy have had no choice other than forced-sacrifice: Whether it is the daily-wage worker, the shopkeeper, or the vast multitude of people who have no resources to cushion the sudden battering to which they have been subjected. Stories of how the underclasses are at their wits’ end struggling to make ends meet are pouring in from all over the country. The proverbial stick-and-carrot policy at present, seems to be all sticks and no carrot.
Even if the big fish among the black money owners and tax evaders are temporarily hit, they will rebound. But outside those rarefied circles, the repercussions of such a mammoth project will be felt deeply and for a much longer span of time.
Last but not least, the danger underlying all such projects imbued with personification of powerful leaders, cannot be underplayed. As Mehta has written:
“The personification of policy works at different levels. To work as a national project, all individuality, all questions of distributive consequences, have to be effaced. Every citizen will appear, alternatively, as a patriot or a criminal: The histories of their individual life worlds, whether they have bank accounts, how much cash they use, how far they live from an ATM, all these questions pertinent to the distributive consequences of these actions will be immobilised.”