Many held their breath until Narendra Modi appeared on TV on New Year's Eve to address the nation. And throughout his over half an hour long speech, the breath stayed in. Not least because one kept waiting for the characteristic "Modi surprise".
But the prime minister did not sound himself, and not just because he never uttered 'Mitron' even once. But also because his address sounded more like an apology for his 8 November demonetisation speech.
Modi praised the resilient Indians for weathering the demonetisation storm and the move towards a cashless economy - as if all of us had a choice. He claimed that the aam aadmi had accepted the "benefits" of demonetisation while the bhuddijeevi (intellectuals) had not. It appears that Modi hasn't yet recovered from the wide condemnation by economists and academics of his disastrous note ban policy.
That he still insists that the shadow economy thrived on Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes shows he hasn't understood the nature and extent of black money in the Indian economy, considering that 90% of the demonetised notes have already been turned in to the Reserve Bank of India.
In short, Modi's "address to the nation" raised more questions than it answered about his economic vision.
Why deliver a pre-budget speech two months before the budget?
Modi announced schemes for farmers, pregnant women and elderly. What was the urgency? Why could these schemes not be announced in one of his previous speeches, or by the finance minister in his budget speech?
What explains the sops for farmers?
Modi owned up 60 days worth of interest on farmer loans. But what explains the timing? The farm sector, as several reports have shown, has taken a huge hit because of demonetisation. By taking away their Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes, Modi has dried up the cash reserves of farmers, labourers, transporters, wholesale traders and small vegetable vendors. Distress sale of vegetables, fruits and flowers us being reported from across the country.
Importantly, Modi hasn't waived off farmer loans, he has only taken responsibility for interest payments for a limited period. Is this a tacit acknowledgment of farmer distress due to demonetisation and an indirect apology?
Are the schemes for pregnant women schemes old wine in new bottle?
Modi claimed that until now Rs 4,000 was provided to lactating mothers in 53 districts as a pilot scheme. He announced enhancing this allowance to Rs 6,000.
What he didn't say is that providing Rs 6,000 to lactating mothers is mandated by the National Food Security Act, 2013. Modi may have just decided to implement a scheme that he has ignored so far.
Easier loans for MSMEs, minor increase in FD rates for the elderly, rebate in housing loans
Apart from agriculture, the two other sectors hit really hard by the cash crunch are informal jobs and real estate. A lot of informal sector workers don't have bank accounts and are used to getting their salaries in cash.
There have been reports of largescale migration of such workers back to their villages and the shutting down of a lot of small factories due to the note ban.
Similarly, the housing sector, which thrives in the shadow economy, was already in a slump before 8 November. In the days since, it has gone into a free fall. Modi relaxed home loans for those purchasing urban houses worth Rs 9-Rs 12 lakh. Which begs the question: where can you find a house in an urban area that goes for this amount?
Is Modi, by announcing easier loans for small traders and prospective home buyers, trying to revive these sectors that his policy has pushed to the edge?
In his speech, Modi also made several claims that don't pass a basic fact check. Consider the following:
The farm sector has responded rather well to the note ban as the current rabi sowing had increased by 6% compared to the previous year.
Only, Modi forgot to add that last year was a drought year. In Marathwada and Bundelkhand, for example, the last two years were bone dry but this year both regions received more than average rainfall. Isn't seeking to take credit for such favourable weather patterns stretching it a bit too far, even for Modi?
In the wake of demonetisation, youngsters are leaving the path of terrorism to join the mainstream.
Firstly, all credible reports from Kashmir indicate that more youngsters have joined militant ranks this year than in the previous five years. Secondly, nobody has proved that demonetisation has had any impact on terror funding. To the contrary, new Rs 2,000 currency notes were found on terrorist killed in Kashmir on 24 November. Thirdly, what are you even talking about, Mr Modi?
On Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management
The BJP has always backed a monetary policy that contains fiscal deficit. Having announced so many schemes, that too just two months before the budget is due, it remains to be seen how they will impact the government's fiscal targets.
The reaction most keenly awaited will be of Arun Jaitley. If, like in the case with demonetisation, he has been out of loop on today's announcements as well, it would be interesting to watch how he recovers from this shock and balances his books.
Modi is the second big Sangh leader to quote Iqbal's verse 'Kuch baat hai ki hasti mit ti nahi hamari' this year. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had quoted the line in his Vijaydashmi address earlier this year.
After invoking Atal Bihari Vajpayee's "Insaniyat ka daayray main" in the context of resolving the Kashmir dispute earlier this year, Modi echoed the former prime minister again today. This time he quoted from his poem 'Geet Naya Gaata Hun'.
"Kaal ke kapaal par likhta hun mitaata hun, geet naya gaata hun (On the forehead of time I write and scratch out... sing a new song)," Vajpayee's famous words went.
Modi said, 'Kaal ke kapaal par ye ankit ho chuka hai ki janashakti ka samarthya kya hota hai (It's marked on the forehead of time: what the potential of the people's power is)."
Modi also made references to Lal Bahadur Shastri, JP Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia, K Kamraj and BR Ambedkar in his speech. Of late, Modi has repeatedly made references to stalwart leaders of yesteryear, all of who incidentally were once with the Congress, except Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, whose name Modi also mentioned. There have been accusations about the BJP and the RSS trying to appropriate politics and politicians that were never theirs.