When onion prices were going through the roof in 2013, Congress leader and at that time Delhi chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, had lamented that she too was having bhindi without onions.
"After weeks I ate onions today with bhindi," said Dikshit in a ham-handed attempt to feel the pain of the aam aadmi. Onion prices had hit Rs 100 a kilo by then. BJP leader Vijay Jolly, unimpressed by Dikshit's onion tears, presented her with a basket of onions as a Diwali gift. "The government has failed miserably on all fronts because of which people are suffering," he said.
On the anniversary of demonetisation, his senior colleague Arun Jaitley did not even have onion tears to offer.
He defended demonetisation as "morally and ethically correct". "What is morally correct and ethically correct has to be politically correct," the Finance Minister said.
He dismissed stories of suffering saying the system had been flooded with new notes "almost instantaneously and so pick-up of trade began thereafter." That is a brazen rewriting of history. The government has consistently tried to pretend that the only people who suffered after the famous surgical strike of demonetisation were the rich and the corrupt who had wads of stash stuffed in their walls. That 99% of currency notes returned to the system proved that was not the case.
The government is being willfully blind if it chooses not to see them. You did not have to go far to see the suffering.
A survey across 21 states conducted between December 2016 and January 2017 by the NGO Act Now for Harmony and Democracy found 55.9% were afraid to keep money at home. And 55.4% did not believe that demonetisation could eradicate black money, the government's moral high claim. Only 20 percent thought that demonetisation would benefit the common man.
Statistics are dull and deadening. But stories of suffering from the poor and vulnerable were plentiful after demonetisation. The government is being willfully blind if it chooses not to see them. You did not have to go far to see the suffering. An article in Mint showed the ripple effect of that surgical strike.
Sunil Jadhav worked in a factory that made plastic sheets to stop water percolation from farm ponds. The water is used for rabi crops such as onions. This was the time when farmers having sold their kharif crops had cash on hand and invested in the farm ponds. But last year, stuck with scrapped notes, they had to postpone farm pond construction. Jadhav who earned Rs 250 a day was laid off. Hundreds of landless labourers who would have been hired to construct the ponds found no jobs. The onion crop suffered without enough farm ponds for irrigation. That meant labourers involved in harvesting and transporting the onions suffered as well. A small shopkeeper in that same village sells batteries to farmers. Farmers clamp those batteries on their forehead to work the fields at night in that season when they irrigate the farms. Last year they needed far less. His sales were down 60%.
Is this what the Prime Minister meant when he said "there may be temporary hardships to be faced by honest citizens"?
Elderly people living alone at home struggled to meet basic expenses and pay their help. It's not like the government came forward to help them access new cash.
"The urban organised sector (India) fails to notice this ripple effect on the informal sector (Bharat)" writes Milind Murugkar in Mint. "The impact on the organized sector creates a visible effect. The suffering of Bharat is diffused, invisible, but hugely more painful."
That Narendra Modi was able to persuade the poor that the rich were suffering even more is a different matter. That was not true but such is the power of oratory. It does not make it morally or ethically correct however.
Let us not forget that people died as a result of the stress of demonetization. "We have been saying for a long time that over 100 people have died because of demonetization," said Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad. "But the government refused to pay tribute to the deceased." Others pointed out that in a country like India, 3,700 people can die in one month just from snakebite.
We can quibble about the exact dotted line between demonetisation and cause of death but deaths did happen. Saud ur-Rahman, a 48-year-old poster designer in Delhi had a massive heart attack after spending three days in long queues for cash. Razia, a construction worker in Delhi, with hungry children at home, set herself ablaze after failing to exchange currency notes for five days. A woman in Telengana committed suicide afraid she would lose the money the family had just made from selling agricultural land, money that was needed for her husband's treatment. A bank cashier committed suicide unable to take work pressure.
The Hindustan Times put out a famous picture of an 80-year-old man, retired from the Indian Army, weeping inside a bank in Gurgaon, after trying for four days to get some money.
Elderly people living alone at home struggled to meet basic expenses and pay their help. It's not like the government came forward to help them access new cash. Anne Bangera, 71 and arthritic told Firstpost that standing in queues was particularly painful. "For the old and weak demonetization was very difficult as it left us helpless," she said.
At that same time, Karnataka mining baron and BJP MP Janardhana Reddy supposedly spent Rs 500 crore on his daughter's wedding. That shows an entirely different kind of moral compass.
Narendra Modi acknowledged the suffering of the common people but likened it to a mahayagna or a great sacrifice to purge black money thus giving the whole enterprise an almost hallowed feel. It certainly worked in the ruling party's favour in the elections in Uttar Pradesh. But that does make the implementation of demonetisation, whatever its aims, morally correct. Nor did the difficulties last only 50 days or so as the Prime Minister had promised.
It is true as Jaitley reminded us that the Congress of UPA-2 was riddled with corruption and scams. That makes it hypocritical for it to talk of "loot" now. But the sorry record of his own party on corruption does not mean Manmohan Singh is wrong when he says the biggest victims of the way demonetization and then GST were implemented are the poor and marginalized, farmers, traders, small and medium businesses. The mahayagna was conducted on their backs.
Of the Rs 15.44 lakh notes withdrawn from circulation, Rs 15.28 lakh crore were back in the system by June 30 this year. Black money had been washed white in the "watershed moment in the history of the Indian economy."
Had that old man in that bank in Gurgaon wept in vain? Did his tears matter at all?
To pretend that the most vulnerable did not suffer due to the way it was implemented, to imbue it now with the halo of "morally correct" is just immoral.