POLITICS

Demonetisation — India's Great Leap Backwards To License Raj

Déjà vu.

23/12/2016 12:24 PM IST | Updated 23/12/2016 1:01 PM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
No cash in HDFC bank ATM at Nuh, on November 13, 2016 in Gurgaon, India.

Demonetisation is supposed to be propelling us into Digital India's shining cashless future powered by PayTM and Freecharge. But the great leap forward is starting to feel like a jump backwards.

If you have been to a movie theatre lately, there's a retro feel that evokes a more old-school socialist country than the hi-tech Digital India the Prime Minister wants to fast forward to.

There are a slew of film division-style dreary public service announcement films. While once we got a short film about Sabarmati ashram before the hip Coca Cola ads, now there are all kinds of less-than-subtle messages about how to be a good citizen delivered with schoolmasterly pedantry.

UIG via Getty Images
People in a queue outside a cinema hall for buying a ticket for an Indian movie. Sikkim, Inida.

The Prime Minister's voice asks us to join his digital abhiyaan. Worthy sons of the soil fill the screen with images that look as if they have been ripped off from those old Five Year Plan brochures. There are exhortations to take part in a National Sample survey. We get panoramas of the unity-in-diversity in India the Congress government routinely stuffed down our throats — doughty farmers, factory workers, young women all nodding in patriotic agreement.

And then ultimately everyone rises to their feet to watch the tiranga fluttering on screen and listen to the national anthem. The only reminder that it's 2016 is that the seats in the multiplexers are a little more plush than those old cinema halls, and the popcorn a lot more expensive.

Meanwhile, outside the cinema hall the good citizens are queuing up at banks and ATMs just as they once queued at ration shops. In this new India, it's not rice and sugar being rationed but cash. In fact, your own cash. At my bank the teller says cheerily "Sir, you are allowed to withdraw 24,000 but today we can only give you six." As I make out my cheque, she says "Oh, I think I can give eight, make it out for eight."

With the Reserve Bank of India being dubbed a Reverse Bank of India because of its almost daily barrage of regulations, modifications to regulations and U-turns on regulations, it certainly does not sound like the era of maximum governance, minimum government model we were sold.

And I am ridiculously thrilled at this unexpected bonus, grateful for the extra two thousand as if it's a Christmas gift from the state as opposed to my own money from my own bank account. The latest news about the gold possession limits, graded carefully by gender and marital status, only add to the feeling of being back in the old Ration Days. And when I read about some mining baron's 100 crore wedding, it just intensifies that feeling.

But in those days at least a ration card was enough. Now your PAN, Aadhar, passport might still not be enough. The Times of India recounts the travails of NRI Jhelum Roy who tried to go to her Kolkata bank with ₹40,000 in old currency notes after landing in India. She took her passport, voter ID card, Aadhar card, PNA card and even noted the serial numbers of her notes. She was asked to go back and get her original flight ticket and her baggage tags. To add to her woes, her luggage had not arrived. Everything took four-and-half hours and two trips back and forth to her in-laws before she could deposit her own money.

"They kept saying they were merely trying to follow the rulebook," said Roy. Does that not sound familiar? Clearly the old red tape monster of the License Raj is back with a vengeance.

As it is some of his ministers sound more like courtiers the way they did in Indira Gandhi days where they would make it clear they were just satellites orbiting around her India-is-Indira glory.

With the Reserve Bank of India being dubbed a Reverse Bank of India because of its almost daily barrage of regulations, modifications to regulations and U-turns on regulations, it certainly does not sound like the era of maximum governance, minimum government model we were sold. Barkha Dutt writes in Hindustan Times "(Narendra Modi's) demonetisation decision has given the State overweening powers of the kind not seen in years. In some ways, this phase could well be the return of 'Raid Raj'; where an Income Tax officer will now prowl about in your bedroom and bank locker to determine whether you -- as an unmarried, single woman -- have more gold than you should!"

All we need is for the Prime Minister to start hinting darkly about the foreign hand and the spell will be complete. As it is some of his ministers sound more like courtiers the way they did in Indira Gandhi days where they would make it clear they were just satellites orbiting around her India-is-Indira glory.

What else would explain the usually erudite and articulate Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad going over the top in defence of his leader by calling Modi "Ganga ka samaan pavitra" (as pure as the Ganga). As Prasad was immediately reminded by cheeky Twitter, Ganga is not quite so clean these days.

The government even has a ministry for Ganga rejuvenation for that very reason. But the PM looms larger and larger. The Telegraph points out that the 2017 calendar from the government has given Modi a 10-fold in hike in paper real estate over the last two years.

In 2015 he took up 4.7 percent of the space. Now nearly half the page for each month has a picture of the many avatars of Modi with weavers, famers, construction engineers. This sounds like those old Soviet Union calendars with the Politburo chiefs busy in various nation-building activities.

They say we need to learn from history, that we need to know where he have been in order to know where we are going. But right now in demonetised India, we don't seem be learning from history as much as reliving it. Raid Raj, License Raj, Rationing Raj – take your déjà vu pick.

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