How the Fig Leaf of Nationalism Obscures the Impact of Demonetisation

Hiding behind the soldier allows the government to get away without answering any serious questions about the disastrous effects of demonetisation.

People queue outside an ATM of State Bank of India to withdraw cash in Ahmedabad, India, November 27, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave

People queue outside an ATM of State Bank of India to withdraw cash in Ahmedabad, India, November 27, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave

It didn’t take long after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes on November 8 for the ultra-nationalists to link it with love for the motherland. Baba Ramdev was the first off the mark, declaring that those who opposed the move were committing treason (deshdrohi) and the cyber-warriors, safe in their anonymous, egg-shaped cocoons, did their bit and waded in by invoking soldiers guarding Indian borders.

Any sensible person may wonder what is the connection between standing in a crushing line for days to access one’s own money and the Indian army patrolling Siachen but for the deshbhakts such leaps of logic are normal. The ‘sacrifices of our brave soldiers’ is the default, all-purpose phrase to be applied to everything, a bit like those silly games where one is asked to use a common word for movie titles, leading to funny results.

Except that the humour, if there was any, about this constant invocation of the nation, Mother India and our men in uniform has long disappeared. Linking demonetisation, or anything else, with patriotism is no longer a routine ideological response from the feverish right-wing mind. It has a strategic aim and its fervour and volume are growing by the day.

The latest to jump on to the bandwagon in Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis who is a lawyer by training and also an MBA. He was the mayor of Nagpur. He is committed to bringing in big investments into Maharashtra, though regrettably, they have been eluding him. In short, he is technologically savvy and forward-looking. But, no matter the educational gloss, his roots lie in RSS thinking and show up with alarming regularity.

Commenting on demonetisation, Fadnavis recently said that those who do not support the prime minister and the move were “deshvidhrohak” (anti-national). This is a neat trick, used by demagogues, propogandists and advertisers, of seamlessly conflating two different ideas into one whole. The prime minister becomes the country and vice-versa; doubting one is doubting the other, and is, therefore, treachery.

This is hardly a new formulation – minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju had recently said that the habit of asking questions, any questions of the government had to stop. Rijiju does not appear to have an RSS background but has been quick to pick up the key phrases.

Just like it would be a mistake to think of such statements from the government and its supporters as knee-jerk declamations, it is also wrong to respond to them in the usual knee-jerk way of criticising them for bringing in nationalism into the debate. That is what they want – it allows them to frame the debate around their agenda. It forces everyone else to prove their own patriotic credentials when that is not the issue at all.

Hiding behind the soldier allows them to get away by not answering any serious question about the monumental disaster this decision has turned out to be. It deflects discussions about the economic rationale, the social consequences and the long-term repercussions of the drastic move, made clearly without any in-depth assessment of the fall out on a vast majority of Indians.

But invoking nationalism is not merely a convenient slogan that can be deployed at any time. In March, the BJP’s national executive passed a resolution stating that freedom of expression did not mean “seeking the destruction of the country.” Refusing to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai‘ was tantamount to disrespect to the constitution since Bharat is mentioned in the constitution, was the argument. That argument sounds convincing, except that it does not stand for a minute since the constitution also allows for freedom of expression.

Nationalism has, of course, been the currency of many political parties throughout history and is now on the rise in different parts of the world. In India, the openly nationalistic BJP and its sister organisations have raised it to a high pitch. The constant chanting of patriotic mantras serves many purposes – it keeps the faithful satisfied and alert, it throws the opposition into confusion and it makes all kinds of ‘enemies’ – ideological and religious – nervous. Most of all, it stirs the basest instincts in people who may have been otherwise peaceable and harmless but who then beat up innocent people in cinemas for their refusal or inability to stand up for the national anthem.

These are the neo-converts to the religion of hyper-nationalism who will now infect large numbers of the population who in turn will become soldiers guarding against malcontents. Tomorrow, if it is announced that not spying on your neighbours is unpatriotic, these soldiers will spring to attention and get on with the job.

The law of diminishing marginal returns would suggest that ultimately the routine use of the deshbhakti card will stop yielding results. The citizenry at large and voters, in particular, would see through this cynical ploy and stop falling for it. But it would be naïve to see it as an exercise for mere electoral gains. A loss here or there is not going to make anyone change their strategy. This is a long game and it is here to stay.

This article originally appeared in Hindustan Times