Notebandi & its woes: Why we must protest the narrative of 'normalisation'
It is now two months since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes were no longer legal tender - a policy popularly known as 'demonetisation'. In the new year, economists, bankers and accountants are busy tallying currency and estimating the impact of this policy on key indices.
Alongside, the government's official and unofficial propaganda machineries are hard at work, spinning out narratives of how things have returned to normal.
Here lies the risk: people's daily lives may well have returned to 'normal'. But do not for a moment, mistake that to mean that the demonetisation was an acceptable policy. It absolutely was not.
'Normalisation' is problematic. It is that which asks us to get over a trauma without questioning it, and carry on with life. There might be instances in one's personal lives where that makes sense.
But for us, collectively as citizens, and on a matter of public policy gone wrong, it is ridiculous to not question, and not demand that those responsible be held accountable.
Why demonetisation is NOT ok
Demonetisation has been one such policy. Post the fifty days that the government asked of us, we are still trying to estimate the cost that the economy would have to bear.
While the government can announce Gross Domestic Product estimates (7.1% for 2016-17) on the basis of the first seven months of the fiscal year, out there in the real world, the consequences of an economic downturn will be severe. As this report indicates, the impact may not be known accurately for a year or so.
However, we already know the costs have disproportionately fallen on the poor - those who do not have the means to go cashless - as opposed to, say, the middle class. Workers in the informal sector have lost jobs.
Which part of the government's analysis will help us compare the benefits (if any) of demonetisation with the human, financial and institutional costs that have been incurred?
A narrative that seeks to establish that all is normal is essentially designed to paper over the pain, and to subvert critical questions on who should be held accountable.
Also, that all is normal now will also be sought to be presented as evidence that demonetisation was, in fact, good policy. The narrative will also suggest that there are no negative consequences to the erosion of institutional autonomy of the regulator, Reserve Bank of India.
The power of the Indian citizen
This is the reason one feels that demonetisation was just an experiment to test the tensile strength of the Indian citizen. These tests started with the invasion of impropriety and excesses on campuses, communal incitement, harassment of artists, academics and thinkers, etc., and have now emboldened the government enough to be extended to the entire populace.
Normalisation narratives work exactly like the tale of the frog in a pot of water that's kept on fire. It is also a policy of willful erosion of public accountability, and to hoist upon the people, the concept of a saviour to counter all (real and imaginary) ills of society.
It is this kind of normalisation that also holds the threat of politically expedient escalation by not just lowering the level of scrutiny at present, but also for the future.
For example, if domestic politics so demands, a cross-border skirmish may not be out of the question. The same dose of patriotism will be fed to people and exhortations will be made to bear the pain while we embark on a project to uphold the nation's dignity.
Resist & revolt
We must resist this narrative of normalisation. Ask why our government thinks they can restrict how much cash we can keep, and how we can spend.
Even if one agrees that we should move towards a higher proportion of cashless transactions, demand to know why the government thinks it is okay to coerce us to do so.
Contest the smugness at the highest levels of the government that assumes that issuing daily notifications - where one contradicts a previously issued one - is par for the course. Because if you do not protest, you will be smothered.
In the seventieth year of independent India, we have been reduced from talking about progress, to deliberating how we will protect our culture of dissent, which is at the core of a democratic nation.
More people have access to greater information these days, but this is information powered by propaganda. Narratives that shape how people think are almost entirely political, with little space to step back and ask questions that matter.
We must reclaim that space.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen