Do it for the country. Take a long-term view of things. If you love India, you will suffer the minor inconvenience. Cooperate in the larger interest of the nation. This is not politically motivated. Brave. Bold. Courageous. Masterstroke.
The privileged class of India has spoken in unison, with a few exceptions. A strained note or two has not obscured the song. Bollywood stars, industrialists, corporates are in agreement that the government’s decision on demonetisation is a wonderful thing for India. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, nothing. Things will improve, they assure us. You cannot stand in a queue for a few hours? What about that time when you stood in a queue for a mobile SIM or the plush café you wanted to sample? You say there is a difference between one willingly going to a place and somebody being forced into standing in a queue for money that you legitimately earned? What about the soldiers?
Show some respect. Grin and bear it. Stand in a queue. Stand for eight hours, or even ten. You say 33 people have died due to demonetisation till now? Don’t bring death by natural causes into this. Just stand in a queue. Stand up. Stand up, India!
The exhortations by the rich and privileged have hit the ear drums a bit too hard over the past week or so. Anchors on news channels, like other elites of their ilk, have sounded indignant at the possibility of anybody playing politics over the issue. One channel called it ‘Notebank Politics’. Well done there. Clever, right?
We have been told to support the government. Rise above the politics. Of course, backing a government’s move is not political at all. Could I have some of the delusion-flavoured cocktail which you seem to enjoy a lot?
Someone else took a sip of it on Wednesday, one suspects. The Indian men’s Test team captain Virat Kohli found himself fielding a question on the issue of demonetisation at a press conference in Visakhapatnam. His words are worthy of being reproduced in full.
I was actually going to pay my hotel bills in Rajkot and I was taking out the old money and I forgot that it isn’t of any use anymore. I could have actually signed on it and given it to people, it is that useless now (laughs). For me, it is the greatest move I have seen in the history of Indian politics by far, hands down. I have been so impressed by it; it’s unbelievable what’s happening.
There is so much to discuss there. We begin with the question on demonetisation itself. It seems quite odd to seek a cricketer’s views on this at a pre-match press conference. But perhaps it is acceptable on the grounds that this is an issue that has a wide-ranging impact.
But let us go back in time to May 2013, when the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) got embroiled in the Indian Premier League (IPL) betting scam. Before the Indian team left for England to participate in the International Cricket Council (ICC) Champions Trophy, skipper M.S. Dhoni attended a press conference in Mumbai. He was asked about the controversy five times, but all he ever offered was a smile. A BCCI official stepped in to tell him that he should not respond to those questions.
So, the BCCI was uncomfortable with a cricketer being asked about an issue that directly impacted him. Dhoni, after all, was the captain of Chennai Super Kings, a franchise that was suspended in 2015 by the R.M. Lodha Committee on account of its involvement in the IPL betting scam. We are still waiting to hear Dhoni’s views on the controversy that shook the foundations of Indian cricket.
But the BCCI did not have any problem with Kohli airing his opinion on the issue of demonetisation. If questions need to revolve around the upcoming match or series, as is often dictated in such press conferences, why would the government’s move come up for discussion? One cannot help but point to the fact that BJP MP Anurag Thakur is the BCCI president. When public opinion seems to be turning against the government, what better way than to promote a popular figure’s views as he offers gushing support? It does seem rather peculiar that the BCCI Twitter account did not feature any other video clip from that press interaction.
Kohli’s supporters will seek to defend him by pointing to his past statements. On a few occasions, he has come out to promote gender equity. While this is not the place to discuss his remarks on that issue, it does seem a remarkable stretch of imagination to believe that Kohli’s view on demonetisation is worth something. But he must be heard out respectfully.
“I could have actually signed on it and given it to people, it is that useless now (laughs).” Actually, it would be better if he did not do that. Even in this moment, the notes that are not considered to be legal tender anymore are being accepted for key utility payments. The cash crunch, however, has ensured that people are struggling to make ends meet. It is no laughing matter. People have died as a consequence of this decision, directly or indirectly.
The sheer disregard for public harassment felt sharp as Kohli laughed. Of course, he already has an equal in that matter. Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonstrated little reluctance in making light of the troubles faced by the country’s citizens when he gave a speech to the Indian diaspora in Japan. People who cannot get their ill family member treated in a hospital or some other necessary task done are happy to suffer their problems for the nation, we were told.
Kohli went on. “For me, it is the greatest move I have seen in the history of Indian politics by far, hands down. I have been so impressed by it; it’s unbelievable what’s happening.” It is quite unbelievable what is happening.
Apparently, it is better than the Right to Education Act that aimed to bring free and compulsory education to children between ages six and fourteen; the Right to Information Act that empowered citizens to request information from public authorities does not count; the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that aimed to increase livelihood security in rural India – all clearly nowhere close to the demonetisation underway now. We could go back in time and talk about the 73rd Amendment that granted constitutional status to the Panchayati Raj system, the nationalisation of banks, the abolition of privy purses. One could go on.
Of course, there are serious questions about the implementation of these crucial decisions. But all of them were formulated in the spirit of egalitarianism and collective welfare, which were the founding principles of this nation. But no, the current government’s poorly thought out and ill-managed decision to demonetise certain denominations of the currency beats them all. Topped with laughter and gushing praise, Kohli’s thumbs-up felt like the lifting of a middle-finger to those who were struggling on the streets.
Then again, this is not a Virat Kohli problem. It is a problem that afflicts all those who cannot acknowledge their privileged existence and show empathy towards the poor and the marginalised. Kohli has fallen prey to the social disconnect that defines a large portion of India’s elite. By making light of the common citizens’ problems and pushing for anti-poor decisions, they indirectly enable an unequal society and reinforce the inequality.
So the queues are seen as a minor inconvenience; it is considered to be a matter of amusement that legal tender has lost its recognition overnight in an overwhelmingly cash-based economy. Gimmickry in the name of fighting black money has become normalised.
One may pardon Kohli by citing ignorance. Therein lies the problem. When you choose to publicly air your views on a decision that affects millions greatly, you open yourself up to scrutiny. Kohli could have chosen to deflect the question, citing ignorance. Rather, he chose to wholeheartedly endorse the government’s decision.
Kohli’s clear support for Modi’s initiative arrives at a time when the PM continues to win popularity contests among the elites in the media and elsewhere, who have uncritically accepted the narratives pushed by the central government. But as the situation worsens, the mask is slipping. The current dispensation’s miscalculation is being laid bare. Add to this the growing belief that this move does not hurt those who hold ‘black money’. A major bank has written off an astronomical sum due to loans not being repaid by wilful defaulters. None of them are likely to queue up for depositing their ‘black money’.
If you are not affected by demonetisation, this might be a good time to acknowledge your privilege. Instead of making light of the problems that beset common people, it is time to show empathy. Speaking with restraint in public could be a useful starting point. Once the privileged class of India begins to do that, we may hope to hear less anti-poor sentiment. It will not be the greatest thing that could happen in this country – but it will be a start.
Priyansh is a freelance sports journalist in New Delhi.