December 11, 2016

India: Are we ready to trade personal freedoms for cashless nationalism? (Sagarika Ghose)

The Times of India - December 11, 2016

Are we ready to trade personal freedoms for cashless nationalism?
by Sagarika Ghose

Don’t eat beef. Don’t shout slogans. If you’re a girl, dress ‘decently’. Learn Sanskrit. Sing the national anthem before movies. Do yoga. Snatch up a broom and sweep. And now go cashless, stand in long queues and prove you don’t have black money. The list of dos and don’ts emanating from government and law courts these days is seemingly endless. Is nation-building, NDA style pushing too hard at personal freedoms?

So far though citizens don’t seem to mind. It’s been a month since demonetisation and there’s no end to the cash crunch. Yet there’s no glimmer of the angry riots that even the Supreme Court had warned about. So has PM Modi achieved a historic mobilisation by converting every Indian into a soldier for honesty, a worshipper at the economy-purifying ‘yagna’ as he called it? Or has the government blundered outrageously?

If massive crowds at UP rallies or the rapturous welcome at Jayalalithaa’s funeral is anything to go by, Modi continues to be Neta No. 1. All over the world voters seem seduced by the rule-breaker. Weary of a discredited political class that breaks its promises, the lure of an individual who stands forth as a system-changer is high. Strongmen triumph when rules and processes are considered rotten to the core, when the ‘sab chor hai’ mentality prevails. Thus, an ‘outsider’ prime minister like Modi, who does not play by the old rules is bound to be appealing, particularly to restless youth and an impatient middle class. The question is, does the rule-breaker remain alluring if his governing style restricts citizens’ rights?

A blitzkrieg of rapid-fire campaigns is Modi sarkar’s governing style. First, heads of Saarc countries were invited to his swearing-in, signalling an energetic new stab at South Asian cooperation. Then came the high-decibel Swachh Bharat when the PM and other dignitaries seized brooms. Then Saarc forgotten, we lurched with scorching speed into Yoga Day when the nation was put through its surya namaskars at a spanking pace. Without pause for breath the government next unveiled Startup India, Smart Cities and Digital India. And now we’ve rushed overnight into the gargantuan note-change exercise.

Almost every Indian has been affected by the ‘patriotic’ crusade against black money and Modi’s anti-corruption cry has become the dominant narrative. If demonetisation does not backfire, Modi would have snatched the anti-corruption plank from the Aam Aadmi Party and the pro-poor plank from Congress.

A startled Opposition has been forced into reactive mode. They’ve had no time to build an innovative, competitive narrative. Instead, they’re only reacting to every new agenda that Modi is tirelessly setting almost every week. In the process of setting these frenetic new agendas, hard questions like how many toilets have actually been built, or how many startups have emerged, or whatever happened to smart cities have been forgotten. Does anyone remember Swachh Bharat anymore?

Forget minimum government, suddenly the NDA seems like a leviathan. A big 1970s-style socialist government whose every new initiative is bringing ever more layers of officialdom, inspectors, permits and rules. Demonetisation has already been criticized as expropriation, a move that takes away the fundamental right to property, since legal personal cash is after all private property. It is also a campaign that sees every citizen as a possible hoarder of black money unless they prove otherwise. The burden of proof of innocence thus now lies on the citizen, because citizens are considered guilty until they prove their cash is legal. For the moment many may be willing to tolerate these serious incursions into personal freedoms for the sake of nation-building. But for how long?

The benefits of yoga are undeniable, but should every Indian be compelled to do yoga as national duty if he doesn’t want to? PM Modi recently praised a Surat couple who chose a low-cost wedding. But do citizens not have the choice about whether they want meagre or extravagant marriages? Can citizens in a democracy be forced into austerity as a moral command?

Demonetisation is no longer about a rational economic debate over whether any potential gains are worth the pain. It’s now about a Supreme Leader appealing to people to sacrifice for Bharat Mata. In the 1990s, BJP used religious nationalism and the mandir-masjid issue to consolidate the Hindu vote. Now, a populist appeal in the name of kala dhan seeks to create a new generation of ‘cashless’ patriots.

If it succeeds, Modi is virtually assured of re-election in 2019. If it doesn’t, it may only confirm yet again that there are no shortcuts to nation-building, especially in a country with sharply different levels of income. The jury’s still out on whether citizens will tolerate compromising on personal freedom for the sake of cashless nationalism.