Demonetisation may be unprecedented as an economic policy, but there is nothing novel about this kind of politics, as the Sangh parivar knows all too well.
By now, the government’s post demonetisation plans seem quite clear. Next year, the government will launch a new welfare scheme by extracting a higher dividend from the RBI and/or collecting revenue through new tax provisions. This could be as simple as putting money in Jan Dhan accounts. Most believe that this will ‘work’ – that is, it will win the BJP votes.
But the demonetisation is not just about elections. It is also in line with the kind of politics that the Sangh parivar and this government have always promoted. In this sense, the note ban is already ‘working’ at three levels.
A sacrifice that isn’t a sacrifice
The first level is the rhetoric of ‘sacrifice’ regarding demonetisation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked people to bear these “temporary inconveniences” and assured them that their “sacrifices” will not go in vain. The move’s supporters have also appealed to the public, saying that if people can stand in queues for sales, surely they can do so at an ATM.
But how exactly does dealing with demonetisation constitute a sacrifice? By definition, a sacrifice is not a sacrifice if it is not done out of choice. Living with the effects of demonetisation is not a matter of choice. No one suffering as a result of the move actually chose to do so, and those who chose to impose it are not the ones suffering. Whether you are willing to stand in a queue for a sale or not, you still have to do so now. So where’s the ‘sacrifice’?
But there is one choice that everyone does have to make – and that is, how we react to what we are forced to do. This is precisely the choice that supporters are referring to. The sacrifice they cite is not a choice about demonetisation as such, but the decision to accept or even celebrate the resulting losses. The thing being sacrificed is the public’s capacity to dissent. In this view of the world, only those who choose to cheerfully obey have put the nation’s interest above their own.
This confusion over which sacrifice is being demanded of the people leads us to the second level of politics. The language of sacrifice is a language of dignity and honour. That language is very valuable in a context like India’s. Observing the seemingly widespread support for the move, several commentators have referred to the anger that the poor feel against the rich. But this is only part of the picture. For the majority of Indians, the most destructive fact of life is not poverty as such but the deeply unpredictable, insecure and unsafe lives they have to lead. Whether it is migrant and daily wage workers who have no idea what kind of work they will find, farmers unsure of rains and prices or households fearing the loss of their life savings to a medical emergency – there is a constant threat of instability. This leads one to be dependent on the goodwill of others, such as netas, police, government staff or shopkeepers in order to survive. Thus this insecurity is experienced as a fundamental lack of dignity, of being a lesser human being.
For decades, we have all been told that black money and its cousin, corruption, are India’s biggest problems and that those guilty of corruption are precisely these people – the face of a callous state and a brutal exploiting class. Now, demonetisation makes many feel that their sacrifice somehow makes them part of a larger crusade that hits out at the very people who keep brutalising them. Ironically, the more powerless a person is, the higher the initial attraction.
The third level at which the policy is ‘working’ is precisely the widespread economic damage being created by demonetisation. This is not about lines. The massive cash crunch means lost wages, possible distress sales, the closing of businesses and so on. Those seriously ill or short on food are, quite simply, dying. However, to most people, these losses look very much like the insecurity that was already present in their lives. The vast majority of those hit by the policy cannot necessarily draw a straight line connecting the government’s decision to demonetise to their suffering. Demonetisation is making things much worse for the majority. But for each of these individuals, the BJP is hoping that it can continue to claim that black money is the ultimate cause of poverty and insecurity, rather than the scheme itself.
Once the BJP delivers its new welfare scheme, the logic comes full circle. From this ‘national endeavour’, many people will receive a direct benefit. The benefit and those responsible for delivering it will be obvious, while the much larger losses will be scattered and invisible. Thus it will be ‘proven’ that those who did not make the ‘sacrifice’, who chose to not be loyal, are at best selfish busybodies and at worst traitors.
The RSS and its ‘politics of obedience’
Demonetisation may be an unprecedented move in the realm of economic policy, but there is nothing novel about this kind of politics. This is what the Sangh parivar practices in every situation. The entire cadre base of the RSS is built upon this kind of bargain. There are two sides to it. On the one hand, give up your autonomy and your right to ask questions of the powerful and instead target ‘enemies’ (Muslims, anti-nationals, terrorists) since they are responsible for all problems. On the other hand, in exchange, receive benefits for yourself from those same powerful classes or castes – but only if you obey. This is particularly true of the Sangh parivar’s organising among marginalised sections. Thus Adivasis get access to Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram clinics and schools if they quietly accept that they are ‘backward Hindus’; Dalits get access to temples and public life in exchange for accepting the Brahminical RSS and its deep casteism; women get access to political activity and public leadership in exchange for extolling ‘motherhood’ and the very patriarchal values that excluded them in the first place.
In this sense, demonetisation is the most successful Sangh parivar campaign so far. It has hit literally every household in the country simultaneously. Moreover, the enemies it claims to be fighting are completely invisible. The government gets to decide who is labelled an enemy. Thus gigantic corporate tax evasion, such as the 2014 Vodafone tax case, is not described as black money. But every town in India is now full of rumours about the guy down the street caught with Rs 6 crores or 29 lakhs or whatever. Just like all other Sangh parivar campaigns, the real structure of tax evasion is not being confronted (leave alone the structures responsible for poverty). Instead, individuals are being asked to loyally obey the ruling party, while it attacks other individuals, who are seen as the enemy.
The result is a climate of fear more intense than ever before. Supporters proudly march and shout while critics, especially those who don’t belong to the elite, whisper their criticisms in corners. Many people feel obliged to say, after narrating their struggles or losses, that it’s all worth it for the sake of the country. Demonetisation is a hate-mongers’ dream. Incidentally, we can also expect to see Sangh outfits build on this. Cash could be the new beef, with private, official and joint official-private raids becoming the norm. Opposition parties, in particular, will be easy targets.
The Sangh’s basic problem
Of course, in the long run, the RSS faces a much deeper problem, to which it has no answer – its entire politics is built on a lie. Obedience to it produces more instability, not less; so it has to keep generating new enemies for it to ‘save’ people from. It never fulfils its ultimate promise of prosperity and security, because it strengthens the structures that create injustice and insecurity.
Several commentators have pointed out that this leads to a cycle of escalation, where something bigger is constantly required to detract attention from the previous stunt. And it is not merely bigger and bigger stunts that are necessary. All of them will be of this obedience versus dissent, enemies versus society type. This is what makes them far more devastating than merely dictatorial moves. This is also what leads so many people to draw parallels between the Sanghis and the Nazis, for this was the distinguishing feature of fascism: the mass mobilisation of people against “enemies” while strengthening the already powerful.
What the demonetisation has also shown is that both the BJP and the Modi government – confident in the Sangh parivar’s massive support base and the backing of big corporates – are quite capable of sudden drastic moves beyond the constraints that bind normal politics. In this sense, the sky is the limit. We do not know what they will do next and we do not know how many people will pay for it.
But this is not a counsel for despair. By its very nature, a politics built around constant insecurity is not a long term form of politics. It reduces its own supporters’ lives to ever-growing chaos and propels never-ending searches for the ‘real leaders’ who can deliver the safety these supporters seek. Moreover, this kind of pseudo-empowerment is no match for a genuine liberatory politics. Indeed, it creates the conditions for such a politics to emerge, as anyone who can tie the threads together can expose the whole enterprise as a sham. At the local level, wherever the RSS has confronted a genuinely strong progressive force, it has lost. The problem is for the latter to emerge at the national level – and the price that will be paid as long as it does not. Both, the most terrifying and hopeful lesson of demonetisation, is that politics as usual no longer works in Modi’s India.