"Acchi debate hogi" says Narendra Modi as he walks into Parliament in the middle of the demonetization storm this morning.
But the debate is no longer about demonetization, whether it works or not, whether its rollout has been mishandled or not. It has been transformed into a "debate" about a topic on which debate, achhi or not, is forbidden – nationalism.
Plastic is the new patriotism in cashless India. PayTM is the new khadi. Your debit card is your new charkha with which to spin the dreams of India Shining.
No one can defend black money, not even those who hoard it. So they oppose demonetization in the name of the poor, the card-less, the daily labourer who has no bank account, the old widow who stashed her life's savings under her mattress. But just because those politicians railing against demonetization might have their own selfish interests at stake does not mean the travails of those ordinary people hit hard by cash shortage are not real.
By making it a debate about nationalism, the government tries to cleverly sidestep a more contentious issue on which it is on less sure footing – implementation of the rollout rather than the hallowed aims of demonetization. The BJP has always assumed that it has the upper hand whenever it can turn any debate into a referendum on patriotism.
Thus Kanhaiya Kumar becomes a debate about nationalism, not the freedom of expression. The lawyers who beat up the JNU accused in a courthouse in broad daylight were "patriotic", a tad overzealous perhaps, but red-blooded patriots. When Congress member Ramya aka Divya Spandana says "Pakistan is not hell" she is accused of sedition, of insulting Indian patriots.
The BJP wants to define nationalism, own that definition and then plant its flag in it. The Prime Minister floated the idea of MPs and MLAs setting out on a Tiranga yatra bikes carrying the tricolor, eight foot high, to evoke patriotism and nationalism among the youth. Now "the transition from nationalism of the independence movement, which was a costume ball of ideas, to the uniformity of the nation state is complete," writes Shiv Visvanathan.
"Any sign of difference confronts the mob and the lynch squad."
Once patriotism could accommodate a spectrum of opinion. In fact it took pride in it. Gandhi and Subhas Bose were often at loggerheads. But no one doubted that both were patriots in their own way. As was Veer Savarkar though his opponents abhorred his particular patriotic vision of India. Now patriotism is about uniformity of opinion, preferably the government's opinion. Any difference of opinion is tarred quickly as anti-national by the troll brigade.
Modi is the first prime minister born after Independence. He represents an India that has benefited from the sacrifices of its forbears but has little appetite for sacrifice of its own. Rahul Gandhi has never understood that mind shift. He still sells the sacrifice of the Gandhis, way past its expiration date, oblivious to the fact that no one cares about that anymore.
Modi, astute politician that he is, understands that his job is to sell success, not sacrifice, in fact success with the minimum of sacrifice required at least from its voters. When he went before cheering NRIs in New York he told them balidaan (sacrifice) was in our psyche. But he asked for no sacrifice from them. He told them to visit India. He told them to bring friends to India. He told them about the convenience of e-visas. And now suddenly the Prime Minister, his voice choked with emotion, is reminding the nation of his many sacrifices as he asks voters to bear with the woes of demonetization.
He is telling his voters to do their bit and stand in queues, never one of our best traits anyway. It's not an easy sell anymore.
As the government tries to shroud its economic policy in the rhetoric of sacrifice it realizes how depleted our vocabulary of sacrifice has become. We just do not know what sacrifice means anymore when Sheila Dikshit thinks sacrifice is doing without onions in her bhindi for a few weeks as onion prices were going through the roof.
A new script is circulating all over social media. If you can stand in line for hours for auditions of reality shows, or a new iPhone, can you not stand in line for a few hours for a black-money-free swachh Bharat? But we want the iPhones and the reality stardom. Those are markers of success we covet in the new get-rich-quick-and-show-it India. Standing in line for the good of the nation feels so old India to us. What is this? 1955 again? A Five Hour plan reminding us of those dreary Five Year plans? We have lost the virtue of patience in a time when politicians promise us revolutions in their first 100 days.
As the government tries to shroud its economic policy in the rhetoric of sacrifice it realizes how depleted our vocabulary of sacrifice has become. We just do not know what sacrifice means anymore when Sheila Dikshit thinks sacrifice is doing without onions in her bhindi for a few weeks as onion prices were going through the roof. Now we are left with two potent overused symbols of sacrifice which we can still understand. We have seen both used in the demonetization debate.
One is the brave jawan and the other is the saintly mother.
It's about standing in line and reading about a mega Reddy wedding with its Hampi temple replica. The queue is not the problem. Mismanagement is.
"During war, our soldiers fight without eating food for seven to eight days. So, can't we do the same for our nation?" asked Baba Ramdev. Virender Sehwag tweeted "Shaheed Hanumanthappa waited 6 days, 35 ft under snow, in -45 (degree) C, in hope of being rescued. Surely, we can wait few hrs in line to rescue Our Nation."
(Of course, it's not about standing in line at all. It's about standing in line and noticing who is not. It's about standing in line and then facing an empty ATM at the end of it. It's about standing in line and reading about a mega Reddy wedding with its Hampi temple replica. The queue is not the problem. Mismanagement is. It's not about currency notes that went away. It's about the currency notes that have not yet replaced them in sufficient numbers.)
Now the papers are flooded with photographs of Modi's 96-year-old mother changing her money leading to a political squabble. While Arvind Kejriwal snarkily says if he had a 96-year-old mother who needed her money changed, he would stand in line for her, the BJP obviously hopes that the image of Hiraben Modi will be powerful reminder that everyone, even those in wheelchairs are doing their bit in the service of the nation. It does not matter whether Hiraben Modi is a fiercely independent women who went on her own or whether it was a photo-op as the likes of Kerjiwal argue.
It's no longer a debate about the merits of demonetization or the problems of its implementation. It's about nationalism, jawans and aged mothers. And which spoiled corrupt anti-national naysayer dares to be seen on the wrong side of that argument?