The current political discourse in India sounds more and more like a WhatsApp joke that somebody recounted recently. It goes something like this:
A man claims on social media that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it. To this someone provides data and evidence to prove beyond doubt that the Earth is round and revolves in its orbit. Guess what the proponent of the Earth-is-flat theory replies? He retorts: "We will discuss all that later. First tell me why your wife ran away with the neighbour?"
If you can't counter the facts, attack the face. That's Indian political discourse for you today. And its shining example was the response to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's speech in Parliament on the demonetisation experiment.
Manmohan Singh: This may lead to a fall in GDP by two percentage point...an underestimate.
Response: Why don't you tell us about 2G first?
Manmohan Singh: This is monumental mismanagement...organised loot and plunder.
Response: Woh to theek hai, Raja ka kya? And yes, Bharat Mata ki Jai! What about Malda?
Singh's speech in Rajya Sabha was a metaphor of our times. As a newspaper said in a witty headline, Manmohan turns Modi, Modi turns Maunmohan!
Since he outlawed currency notes of higher denomination, Modi has not had a word to say on the people who are dying in queues for money. He has found time to laugh, cry and attend concerts. But, maun is the word in Parliament. And, Singh is roaring.
We can go on and on about the loot and plunder during UPA-II. For several years, the former prime minister indeed presided over what was a criminal manifestation of the parable of Ali Baba and Chaalis Chor. He did not speak when the country expected him to, he did not show a spine when the nation expected him to. All that is documented and perhaps been paid for by him.
But, if having skeletons in the closet were a disqualification in Indian politics, the Indian Parliament would have struggled to find even a dozen suitable candidates. Some may have been discarded for lack of personal integrity, some for financial mismanagement, some for not being able to control communal riots and incite communal frenzy.
In Indian politics, everyone who struts around as a saint has once been a sinner. So, Singh too has every right to talk about demonetisation. He is entitled to blasting the government for the mismanaged demonetisation experiment.
Are those 70 deaths — notice all victims are poor people struggling to withdraw their own money from cash-starved banks — because of some new strain of black death? The long queues outside banks and ATMs are not imaginary. The fact that the government couldn't even print Rs 2,000 notes of the right ATM size is not imaginary. That the government has had to tweak withdrawal rules every second day is not a canard.
Even the prime minister's promises carry no weight. On 8 November, he had told the nation the limit for cash exchange would be raised after 24 November. But, on Thursday, the government, instead of increasing the limit, banned it altogether.
If this is not mismanagement we are living in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.
The former prime minister is right in pointing out that growth will suffer because of the hasty implementation of the decision. Several experts have argued that the economy will take a hit because of lack of capital, paralysis of unorganised sector and financial problems faced by farmers, labourers and traders. The estimates of GDP fall have been outright gloomy to moderate and severe.
This, as Ratan Tata pointed out, is a national calamity. In a statement released on Twitter, Tata suggested that the government consider special relief measures. “While Govt is doing its best to increase availability of new currency, it may be worthwhile to consider special relief measures similar to those employed at times of national calamities to serve poor for their daily needs and for enabling emergency medical treatment,” he said. (What about Neera Radia, Mr Tata? No?)
So far the government has come up with no data to support its experiment. The prime minister, instead of speaking like a statesman, has been busy laughing, crying, expressing fears to his life, quoting Bob Dylan, taking potshots at the opposition and posing hilarious questions on his App.
Has the government answered any of these questions:
1. How much black money is stashed as cash? How much does it expect to unearth through this drive?
2. Why was there a nearly 40 percent spike in deposits during the months preceding the 8 November announcement? Were some people aware of the impending decision to outlaw currency notes?
3. How many Indians have access to bank accounts? How will they get access to new notes if their exchange is banned without an account?
4. Has the government studied the short-term and long-term impact of demonetization? If yes, what were the results?
5. Will the government now ensure that political parties give an account of their poll funding? Will the BJP lead by example by telling us how much it spent over the past five years and what was the source?
It is, of course, convenient to divert attention from burning questions by chanting ''what about your wife."
It doesn't convince us the earth is flat.