The True Meaning of Mahesh Shah, the Man With Rs 13,860 Crore

Invoking people's power as a force higher than state power, as the prime minister appears to be doing, is highly dangerous.

It was a razaiwalla who last Sunday made me start thinking about the importance of a gentleman named Mahesh Shah. This roadside petty businessman was full of praise for “Modi Saheb’s notebandi.” The razaiwalla in Chandigarh, who in the best of circumstances has had to negotiate regularly with a host of small-time municipal tyrannies, gave vent to a tremendous sense of satisfaction because notebandi had ensured that “this man in Ahmedabad” — a reference to Mahesh Shah — had been arrested. Millions and millions of Indians, in small towns and villages, have explained the notebandi to themselves as a cleansing act, a kind of mahayagya that would purify us all of our collective sins.

On the other hand, there are very many respected and knowledgeable economists who have failed to endorse the demonetisation. Bankers, businessmen, investors and others, whose opinion till the other day was deemed to be the most sacrosanct, have voiced concern at the very whimsicality of Modi Saheb’s supposed masterstroke. And, then, there are populist leaders like Mamata Banerjee, no less committed to the people’s welfare than anyone else, who have violently expressed themselves against this initiative, which they are inclined to see as a politically-driven imposition and inherently anti-poor. Still, all these protestations have not yet been able to inflict on the Prime Minister any significant, debilitating “trust deficit.”

On the contrary, on Wednesday, the Prime Minister, at the BJP Parliamentary Party meeting, took the ultra-populist argument to the next level — and, a dangerous level — when he argued that janshakti (people’s power) had to have a claim higher than rajya shakti (state authority). Whatever be its meretricious appeal, this is demagoguery at its very best. Nor is it a new argument. This precisely was also the thrust of the Anna Hazare movement. A few decades back, it was Jayaprakash Narayan who thought that state power should defer to lok shakti. Both these prophets had claimed for themselves a bit of a saintly halo. Both had insisted that those who gathered at the Ramlila Ground constituted a more authentic and more representative voice of the people than those who had been elected to Parliament. The only difference was that while both Anna Hazare and Jayaprakash Narayan were inciting the crowds — or, mobs, if you will — against the entrenched Prime Minister of the day, here, it is an entrenched Prime Minister who is invoking janshakti against the established order, which gives him the very power to play havoc with everyone’s money.

More disturbingly, important functionaries of the government have taken it upon themselves to declare that the PM-induced dislocation and disorder is the “new normal” and that it is time that the country adjusted itself to this new abnormal normalcy. Those who otherwise marketed themselves as custodians of conservative virtues and values are now suddenly speaking the radical’s anarchist lingo.

It is time, therefore, to come back to Mahesh Shah, whose arrest had so excited and animated the razaiwallas throughout the land. This Mahesh Shah had to be from Gujarat; specifically from Ahmedabad, the very civic site that represents the Gujarati spirit in all its roughness and brashness. In fact, Mahesh Shah can almost be called the poster boy of the “vibrant” Gujarat. It becomes necessary to delineate the political context. The last time when Gujarat had voted for a Congress government was in 1985. It means that for nearly three decades, Gujarat has remained beyond the reach of the presumably corrupt and corrupting Congress regimes. It also means that all these years, the BJP/VHP/RSS had all the time and the elbow room to rearrange comprehensively the state — its politics, economics, society, and culture. In these three decades, for 12 years, the state was blessed with Narendra Modi’s unchallenged stewardship. Yet it would produce a Mahesh Shah — the man who would declare a mindboggling income of Rs 13,860 crore of undisclosed wealth under Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s Income Declaration Scheme.

The Mahesh Shahs of Gujarat represent that wonderful convergence — a nexus, in fact — of a certain kind of business ethics, political disposition and social prejudice. It is this nexus that first begot and then sustained the Narendra Modi political project. Yet, the multitude applauds when one product (Modi) throws the book at another product (Shah). Maybe it is our civilisational gift for duality. But, it can only be injurious to the long-term health of the democratic polity.

A Mahesh Shah would have been invented, if he did not exist. After all, every village needs a witch, who can be burnt at the stake, who can be held accountable for an illness, for a dried-up well, a failed crop and other misfortunes. If the witch is at loose, there has to be a shaman and his assistants who would help the villagers ward off the evil eye. A nation is a grand village. And nations, too, need symbols and totems, around which collective passions can be incited. Nations also need “villains” against whom the leaders can rail. The demagogues have the skill and the cunning to be able to tap a populace’s vulnerabilities and anxieties and then offer simplistic solutions. Pakistan has long served that purpose for us.

Now, we have turned on ourselves. And, there is a new streak. What began as a fashionable rant against “Nehruvian elites” has now got translated into a kind of defiant “we-are-in-power-and-therefore-we-are-right” assertion. The other day, a Central minister told off a Nobel laureate (also, a distinguished economist) who had declared himself unconvinced of the soundness of the demonetisation. With all the arrogance of a Central minister, the Nobel laureate was told that just because he had won a “prize” did not make his views right. At other times, this arrogance would have been laughed off as a boorishness of a regional mind, but today we have persuaded ourselves to see virtue and wisdom in doing away with any nicety, convention or institutional norm in the name of slaying the “black money” dragon.

Consequently, the polity has become dangerously imbalanced. The ruling clique seeks reaffirmation in the intrinsic merit of notebandi and the presumed popular acceptance of the “surgical strike against black money.” But the country finds itself in a bind. The demonetisation cannot be rolled back as easily as it was thrust upon the nation. But, nor can the cost of dislocation in the economy — and, society — be wished away. The government — and its accomplices in the corporate world — manufactured a narrative of “short-term pain and long-term gain.” The mood can turn sour and then we all may be saddled with ugly consequences. The democratic forces and voices have an obligation to reassure the nation that the common man is not at the mercy of one man.

Harish Khare is the Editor in chief of The Tribune (thetribuneindia.com), where this piece first appeared.

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