“Well, I’d been selling an article to take tartar off the teeth-and it does take it off too, and generly the enamel along with it,” says the Duke, the conman claiming to be the ‘rightful’ Duke of Bridgewater during a hilarious exchange with another conman in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There’s no conman involved in the demonetisation exercise undertaken by the government, but it seems to be having the same effect on common people as the article peddled by the Duke to unsuspecting, gullible customers.
While some black money stacked in secret cupboards might have been smoked out, it appears to have come at a massive cost to the everyday economic life of ordinary citizens who have little to do with tainted cash. There has been no dependable calculation of the cumulative loss to the economy due to the government’s demonetisation move yet, but it is clear by now that the current pain from it may be much bigger than the presumed gain at some uncertain point in the future. The initial appreciation for the supposed 'surgical' strike on black money is being replaced by subdued scepticism.
‘Some tartar on teeth is alright if we are going to pay with the whole enamel to get it removed’ – this seems to be the gathering mood. It gives the political opposition in the country, so far unsure how to take on the government on the issue, a reasonable talking point: the cost, economic and social, from the financial disruption. It has nothing against demonetisation per se though it has been largely sceptical — justifiably so — about its outcome, but it could not have allowed Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP to walk off with all the credit in the fight against black money. Weeks after Modi made the big announcement, they have found solid ground to get back at him at a personal level and his party at a wider one.
However, not too much should be read into the Jan Aakrosh Divas of the opposition parties. The joint action is neither indicative of any index of opposition unity nor of a political formulation taking shape against Modi. Beyond optics, noise, and posturing, it means little since there’s already intense competition among parties such as the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, among others, to be first among equals. All these parties are eyeing to mark their space in the 2019 battle against the BJP. Coming to demonetisation, no party has yet come out with an acceptable argument on why this is no silver bullet against black money. If they have one, they have failed to convey it to people at large.
The great inconvenience caused to people is an issue worth taking up but the electoral benefit from it is doubtful since the government is only half-way through its term and it will have ample time to correct the negative public perception, if any. To make matters worse for the opposition parties, their energy in Delhi is not matched by their activity among people in remote areas where public anger against demonetisation is gathering steam.
So, the BJP would not mind them taking to the streets and staging violent protests. The fact that the prime minister can be openly aggressive on the issue and even taunt other political parties is reflective of the fact that he is aware of the vacuousness of the latter’s protest. He has taken them by surprise and he can enjoy their misery now. It is unlikely that he would not have factored in the problems, most important among which is the inconvenience to people and their anger, arising post-demonetisation before taking a call. It is possible he would take more such measures within the next few months. He can easily handle a few more Aakrosh rallies.
As political games keep taking place around him, the harried common man would keep wondering whether tartar was such a bad thing to have.