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Mainstream, VOL LV No 1 New Delhi December 24, 2016 - ANNUAL 2016

The Year of Unravelling

Monday 26 December 2016, by Badri Raina

The best of times were promised, but the worst of times are here. Not in any war fought since the independence of India were so many millions seen waiting their turn in interminable lines, not before ration shops, but banks and ATMs to be granted a pittance of their own legitimate earnings. If over the year some eighty-seven soldiers have died manning the borders, a hundred and eleven at last count have lost their lives asking for their very own—a consti-tutional collapse of unprecedented dimensions and import where the citizen is now denied the promissory right to her own money. As the winter sets in, we may be certain of more fatalities in the quixotic enterprise of eradicating corruption.

Tilting at the windmills, the Don Quixote of our times will not accept the stark and brutal reality that the villains are all well-placed, and only the honest millions are being ground to the dust. The scream is that only the dishonest make that argument. So, after patriotism, it is honesty of the labouring millions which is now at stake. Only the cronies are both patriotic and honest, and the nation is brazenly sought to be handed over to them via digital technologies of profit-making.

Just to note, Internet penetration in India is all of 27 per cent, and a colossal three per cent transact their payments through plastic channels. True as it is that mobile telephone penetration in India is over 80 per cent; only 17 per cent own phones that may be used for financial transactions. Not to mention the fact that India has hardly any Cyber laws in place against a reality in which the defrauding of cyber accounts is an everyday occurrence the world over. In rural India, Internet penetration is 13 per cent, and more than forty per cent Indians still remain outside the banking system, even as India has the world’s largest population of illiterates in absolute terms. Close to eighty per cent of India’s economy is in the informal sector which yields more than sixty per cent of India’s employment.

After having put the labouring, the indigent and the disempowered to the sword, of destitution, word is that all of the demonetised notes are returning to the banks, leaving one wondering whatever happened to the stock of black currency. Even more cruelly, as the “people” man their slots in the lines, a new firman offers those that may have black currency to come forward, jettison a half of their wealth, and happily keep the rest. The “people” in the meanwhile do their service by the nation in deference to the edict from the numero uno who can do no wrong.

Thus it is that the Republic is all set to tumble economically into a veritable abyss, although there is no dearth of loyal expert voices who stare down the facts every night at prime time and point to that roseate future which only they persuade themselves to see. They see the bath water being emptied; we see the baby going as well. Indeed, one does not have to be a terrific economist to know that as demand shrinks and massive job losses occur in all segments of the productive network, and as new investment will take a long while to come, the dip in the GDP is likely to be a hefty one, with all the usual consequences that must flow thereof.

Equally to the point, all the sources that generate a black economy remain in place—be it real estate, or bullion, or participatory notes in the stock market, or hawala transactions, or transactions via tax havens, clandestine moneys paid to political parties to fight elections etc. Note that there is no mention still of instituting a Lok Pal at the Centre, or bringing the funding of political parties into the ambit of the Right to Information Act—omissions that suggest how little is meant to put in place institutional mechanisms as lasting watchdogs on the circulation and generation of illicit wealth.

 And as the hoi polloi struggle to transact weddings sans cash, the cronies and some Ministers flash their clout in shows of wealth that must put the Great Gatsby to shame. Having promised “minimum government”, the nation is now set for an inspector raj of horrendous proportions at the hands of an officialdom some ninety per cent of whom are corrupt as per averment made by a top official of the Income Tax regime itself. “Good governance” at its peak!

Stepping back, this has truly been an annus horribilis where it concerns the security of the borders, especially along the Line of Control in Kashmir as well as the International Border between India and Pakistan. The mayhem witnessed in the Valley over five or so hellish months must remain unprecedented. And now, Kashmir seems a forgotten story altogether, as the Agenda of Alliance between the two coalition partners in the Jammu and Kashmir Government becomes a forgotten scrap of archival waste. And as the dialogue process overall internally and with Pakistan is a dead letter. The Quixotic recourse here has been to a famous “surgical strike” following the killing of nineteen Indian soldiers in a Brigade camp in Uri.

Even as the chest-thumping was on, it began to dawn on Indians without blinkers that the famous strike, whatever its facts, had yielded only incalculable misery. Not only have another thirty or so Indian soldiers been killed in cross-border firing, but a dozen more Indian civilians as well who live and labour along the Line of Control and the International Border. Their fields and crops destroyed, they have been obliged to migrate in droves to safer places. So nobody quite knows whether the surgical strikes are to be replicated and again announced to the world in roaring syllables. Or whether, after all, the government of the day no longer has a strategy to meet any sort of situation.

We are told demonetisation has broken the back of the terrorists; well, not quite; if anything they are now looting big and small banks for the new notes and getting away with the loot as well.. Nor have the enterprising been slow in already managing to counterfiet the new Indian currency. And with the bonanza of currency notes in the denomination of Rupees Two Thousand, it will be only half as difficult to stash away the new currency in due course. You may then well wonder what the exercise to scuttle some eightysix per cent of India’s currency was all about here as well. If anything, the brazen and bold attack on the Corp Headquarters at Nagrota some hundred miles inside from the border suggests how little the “surgical strike” seems to have mattered at all.

Then there is the other worry—perhaps the worst of them all, since this may impact the very constitutonal order of things. While the Indian Parliament is still in session, we are witnessing a style of leadership which argues that all those in Parliament whom the “the people rejected” are at bottom on the side of the corrupt and therefore need not be heeded. Which is why, the crowds are told, that the leader has opted to speak directly to them, setting aside the Parliament. This begs one or two important questions: those that have been allegedly “rejected” by the people got some 69 per cent of the mandate in the general elections of 2014. Clearly, we are being asked to accept the view that the 31 per cent who voted for the ruling party are the only trustworthy Indians.

But more importantly, are we to understand that parliamentary Opposition and questioning renders the system of parliamentary democracy defunct? And are their secret thoughts brewing here as well as they did in the matter of demonetisation? The many famous stalwarts who stood up to the Internal Emergency of the mid-seventies must ponder this question, some of them famously now in the ranks of the ruling dispensation. Are we perhaps facing a prospect in which we are likely to be the “world’s largest democracy” only in name? In that context, the increasingly unlovely spat between the Executive and the Judiciary seems another ominous aspect of the situation.

In all likelihood the answer to these anxieties will be suggested by the results of the forth-coming elections to State Assemblies. While urban elites, spawned by the neo-liberal economic “reforms” post-India’s embrace of the Washington Consensus in 1990, are largely indifferent to democratic principles, conventions, and habits of thought, if not positively hostile, it is the vast hinterland of Indians who will have to take a call in the days and months to come; and, may one add, political forces that claim to speak on their behalf.

For now, the times could not be darker. A post-truth era the world over seeks to shame facts with slogans, analyses with national pride, and criticism, however well-meant, with treachery. And classes of people who have been the undisputed beneficiaries of capitalist democracies are heard to complain the most and to be the most ready to prop up rule by strong men as against rule by laws, systems, and principles of truth and fairplay. Had Yeats been alive, he might have seen this as truly the hour of the beast slouching towards not just Bethlehem but all world capitals, with little creatures in their uncountable billions too bewildered and powerless to defend the quotidian citadels of civil and empathetic human discourse and interdependence.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.