Demonetisation still hurts

Published : November 24, 2018 17:51 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s now infamous demonetisation drive may not be the most pressing issue for the people of Madhya Pradesh, who vote on November 28 to elect a new government, but it has definitely come to be regarded as the symbol of his government’s muddled policy-making. During a conversation with a cross-section of voters in Bhopal and the electorally significant Sehore and Vidisha districts, this correspondent found that there was near unanimity among people about the futility of the exercise. Many of those who suffered because of it, such as small traders and farmers, are sceptical about the Centre’s claim that it helped eject out black money.

At Rakoli village in Vidisha’s Gulabganj town, several people linked to farming activity recalled the “difficult days” following the note ban. “There was nothing to eat. We could not sell our produce as the market had dried up [of cash],” complained an elderly man whose sons are farmers. He was joined by several youths who agreed with the opposition's charge that the note ban was just eyewash to help big businesses convert their black money into white.

At Obaidullaganj, 37 km southeast of Bhopal, streetside vendors questioned Modi’s political sagacity, while mocking the note ban. They said nearly all of his arguments in defence of the move, such as it would help end corruption and exterminate terrorism, had fallen flat. Many of them asked why the poor were forced to queue up before ATMs for hours when loan defaulters were allowed to flee with taxpayers’ money. Interestingly, even those who identified themselves as BJP sympathisers were dismissive of the note ban.

However, many people said their critical stance on the note ban may not mean a negative vote for the ruling party, as unemployment, electricity supply and agrarian distress were the determining issues, and they would like to compare what the Congress and the BJP had to offer. 

“It is true that demonetisation was a mistake. But that doesn’t mean Modi did this deliberately to discomfort people. Such slip-backs happen. We will judge his government on its overall performance when the general election takes place [in 2019],” said a member of a group of youngsters at Shivaji Nagar in Bhopal.

In the hinterland, however, for the small shopkeepers and daily-wage earners, the ban remains a major trigger. “First of all we are still not sure what the achievements are of his [Modi’s] government. What is there for everyone to see is how loan defaulters were allowed to escape the clutches of the law and how daily-wage earners were almost made to starve during demonetisation,” said a small shopkeeper in Vidisha town.

Even as this round of Assembly elections draws to a close,  the Congress is pushing the note ban as the symbol of Modi’s failures. And since the country’s leading economists have already dismissed the drive, BJP leaders are scampering to cobble a valid explanation. This was also perhaps reflected in the Prime Minister's changing statements on the issue.

On November 16, during a rally in Shahdol, Modi tried to bury the issue saying none but the Gandhis was talking about it. “Is anyone in Madhya Pradesh crying because of demonetisation here?” Modi asked. “Only the Congress is crying. Only one family is crying. How much money they have lost due to demonetisation that even after two years they are unable to withstand its blow,” he added.

However, perhaps gauging the public mood, on November 20, barely four days later, at Rewa he described demonetisation as a “bitter medicine” to treat “deep-rooted corruption”. “We use poisonous medicine to eradicate termite. Similarly, I used the note ban as a bitter medicine to treat corruption in the country,” he explained to the crowd.

Whether he was able to convince the people will be known when the ballots are counted on December 11.

(Anando Bhakto was recently in Bhopal, Vidisha and Sehore)


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