UTTAR PRADESH -- If he were to reveal his true feelings about demonetisation, a businessman in Uttar Pradesh foresees reprisals against him on the Internet, Whatsapp forwards about him, and his face plastered on news channels, with a gaggle of reporters and police cars outside his house.
More than two months after the Modi government scrapped the ₹500 and ₹1000 notes, the businessman, the owner of a small-sized enterprise, feels constantly under the radar. The businessman claims to be following all the new rules, but he still worries about how much cash is kept in the house and how much he is carrying. His heart skips a beat when he sees a police checkpoint on the road.
The police and income tax personnel are carrying out random checks all over U.P. to stop cash, liquor and illegal arms from coming into U.P. ahead of the Assembly election, now less than three weeks away.
"Hum chor ban gaye, lekin him chor nahin the," the businessman said in sorrowful tones during a recent conversation about demonetisation. He repeated himself in English. "They made me out to be a thief but I was not a thief."
"And it led people working for me to also believe that I was a thief," he continued. "When I meet people, I get a feeling that they think I'm a thief. Many SMEs [Small and Medium Enterprises] you meet will say they made us into thieves... The super rich were not affected, we were affected."
They made me out to be a thief but I was not a thief.
The businessman requested that his name, and the city he lives and works in, not be revealed because he is also a member of an industry body that works closely with the government. He is afraid of reprisals if he were to speak against the government.
And, despite all the "humiliation" he has suffered, and the "fear" that he feels in speaking out, the businessman also explained why he remains devoted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The conversation was held against the backdrop of the upcoming Assembly elections in U.P. The BJP has touted its recent victories in the Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab civic polls as people's endorsement of Modi's demonetisation move, but the first true test of what the voter thinks of Modi's audacious exercise will be in poll bound U.P.
It is not the politician, not the bureaucrat, but the small businessman who is the thief.
While his small-scale enterprise has made the businessman quite wealthy, he doesn't count himself among the "super rich". Speaking on condition of anonymity, he explained how demonetisation had turned small businessmen such as him into "villains" while they were constantly worrying about their cash holdings, the taxman's knock, the police vehicle siren, and the prying media. All, over a sum of, "what, some ₹20-30 lakh."
Corruption Is Alive And Well
Living through demonetisation has been like living through a "natural calamity," he said. It had a greater impact on his life than marriage, he added with a laugh.
And, while he was sure that digitisation led to some improvements in the way businesses functioned, such as greater transparency and better book-keeping, it had not achieved its stated goal of eliminating corruption. The businessman said that no one in his line of work believed that the purpose of demonetisation was to tackle corruption.
"The demands that the people have from me, as an SME, remain the same," he said. "Nobody's character has changed. Corruption levels have not gone down. There is a cost of running a business and we are still paying it."
In some ways, the businessman said that corruption had only worsened, all the way from the chowkidar level to higher government officials. Because, "people had lost their savings and wanted to make it up."
Nobody's character has changed. Corruption levels have not gone down.
The problem SME owners were facing now was that they couldn't withdraw enough cash to pay bribes to these government officials and others who helped them cut through the red tape. "Unless the character of the nation has changed, it can't be changed," he explained. "The only change was that we became thieves. It is not the politician, not the bureaucrat, but the small businessman who is the thief."
He felt that, with the demonetisation goal-post shifting from beating corruption to digitization, the real purpose behind it remained unclear. The government, he said, had no right to tell citizens how much money they could withdraw, carry or keep. "Why can't I take out the money that I want?" he said. "What do you want to prove? What are you wanting to restrict? Is Visa, or Mastercard or Paytm, going to become the boss?"
Is Visa, or Mastercard or Paytm, going to become the boss?
The businessman also questioned the government for creating an environment in which the wealthy were looked upon with suspicion, whereas illegal businesses such narcotics continued to thrive. "If you have money, you are the biggest villain in this world but money is a very important thing. Earning money is an ambition," he added.
But he was afraid of speaking his mind in the current political environment. "I can only be harmed by saying something," he said. "There is a fear in the society to not say anything. If you assure people that they will not be quoted, there will be people who will curse."
There is a fear in the society to not say anything.
Devoted To Modi
Surprisingly, after fuming about how demonetisation had wreaked havoc in his professional and personal life, and admitting to a climate of fear, the businessman said that he remained an ardent supporter of Narendra Modi and the BJP.
He recalled how Modi neither spoke to the parliamentary panel on demonetisation nor addressd the Lok Sabha on the subject. Modi, he said, was "inaccessible". But what he found admirable was the prime minister's ability to take decisions. "Vajpayee ji and Modi are the ambassadors of being non-corrupt people," he said. "My inclination was for BJP, is for BJP and will remain for BJP. The best things about Modi is that he can make decisions and that he can stand by them. It is the kind of democracy that we should have."
The best things about Modi is that he can make decisions and that he can stand by them. It is the kind of democracy that we should have.
The businessman said that he planned to make the best of the situation, as he would after any "natural calamity". "I have never seen a bigger change," he elaborated. "Like choosing your career, marrying somebody, it is that kind of a game changer. It has motivated me to do new things. It has affected my thinking. Otherwise, I was in inertia. Now, I have to act and work."
My inclination was for BJP, is for BJP and will remain for BJP.
As the conversation wound down, the businessman from U.P. admitted that his support for the BJP had less to do with his line of work and more to do with religion. "As a Hindu, I prefer this party," he said. "Muslims are not as bad as they are projected to be; they are not as persecuted as the media says. They live with us, they are happy with us. But they have to realise, as we do when we go to the US, that we are the minority. So, definitely minority does not have the same rights as the majority."
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