2016, History & Hope!!!

This time of the year, the last week is usually a “feel good” week. There is celebratory mood around thanks to Christmas, holiday outings to look forward to and with a fresh New year coming up – a feeling of Hope. Had the year gone well, one is anyway happy and hopes that the good days continue into the New Year. If it had not, you want to quickly move on and again hope that the New Year brings some cheer. Was it Ghalib who said – ‘Umeed par Duniya Kayam hai…uska saath na chodo’ (Hope sustains this world, don’t lose its company!) So it is with fervent hope for Achhe Din (oops not the political type) that one usually steps into the New Year – year after year!

While there are 12 months, 52 weeks and 365 days to a year, when history is written a year is usually defined by what happened in a week or probably in a day.  And seldom have we realised when an event unfolds that it is history in the making. That is left to the wisdom of hindsight. For example, we now know that 1991 has been an important year for India. For opening up of the economy. For the end of license Raj. For unshackling the animal spirits. Yet, when the Industrial policy announcement was made in July 1991 by the Government, they were acknowledged by and large only as important “course corrections” considering the state of the economy by the media.  Then, they were not labeled historic.  The “Reforms” were always treated with suspicion and even in the Congress party there were many a doubting Thomases who derided the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and the Finance Minister Manmohan Singh. But today the rearview mirror displays that the reforms of 1991 have indeed left a positive trail in our country.

History is a great leveler. And at times more charitable than the present. So you find more eulogies on Narasimha Rao as a visionary, as a modern Day Chanakya,..,..  today than there were when he was alive. Or even when he passed away in the same month around the same date in 2004. Hence I was not surprised when Manmohan Singh in his last press conference as a Prime Minister famously said – “History will be kinder to me than the contemporary media!!!”

So likewise when history is written I do believe that 2016 will have a significant place in it for the one event which happened on the 8th of November – The Demonetisation of high value currency notes! We will know how the after effects of this move play out in the next few quarters. As I mentioned we live in eternal hope. So the hope is that we get over the pain caused by this move sooner than later and the economy is back in track by March/April.

But apart from this, if there is one thing for which this move will be remembered for in history, it will be for how Demonetisation changed some steadfast habits of Indians. As author Shankkar Aiyyar famously said in his book – Accidental India that almost all of India’s turning points like the White revolution, Liberalisation,…) were not the result of foresight or careful planning but were rather the accidental consequences of major crises that had to be resolved at any cost.  Similarly the cash shortage situation resulting out of the Demonetisation program in the initial few days was panning out to be a major crisis. (Some would say it is still, though I beg to differ looking at how ground situation has changed for the better) This made the buyers and more importantly the sellers think of carrying on with their businesses with no or less cash.

Today in a traditional market in Mumbai – the usual signboard which said “Credit Card and other cards not accepted” – has the word “Not” blackened out! Paan Walas sporting “PayTM Accepted here” is no more just a subject of WhatsApp jeers but a reality. Restaurants and other outlets no more scorn at you if you flash your credit card for small payments. At multiplexes, there was are big lines during the interval not for buying popcorn tubs, but for swiping cards in one solitary POS machine! Personally speaking I am left with more cash in hand than ever in the past few years! The expenses haven’t reduced mind you though I would have lived with that side effect!

So this change in behavior of using less cash and migrating to digital means seen in Metros and big cities which will also spread to small towns and villages in due course could again become one “accidental” after effect of Demonetisation. We all know the overarching benefits of a Cash less /Digital economy. Indians by nature are trained to be less transparent in terms of disclosures – in matters of income and expenses. If we are forced to shrug off this ingrained reticence and have now become more open to transparency (all digital payments leave a trail) I think it is one helluva big step for a country like India naysayers notwithstanding.

2016 has been a historic year when status quo has been demolished everywhere. Brexit, the ascent of Donald Trump and in India – the Demonetisation move. The underlying sentiment has of course been “HOPE” in all these of better times ahead.  With the ushering of another New Year, there is continued Hope. For, Hope is not just a good thing but is the “Best” thing! And isn’t it increasingly perilous to lose its company?

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“Hoping” you will continue to read my posts and provide valuable feedback – see you in the next year!

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Savour the Achhe Din!!!

In these largely agonizing days in India, a call to savour the Achhe Din would seem highly preposterous, isn’t it??? Well, wait a minute!

  • New Delhi, Oct 1984 – The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated by 2 of her own body guards. Over the next few days, thousands of Sikhs get killed and their property burnt in Delhi in a violent reaction.
  • Chennai, Dec 1987 M.G.Ramachandran, the charismatic actor turned Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu died after prolonged illness at his residence. His death sparked off a frenzy of looting and rioting all over the state. Shops, cinemas, buses and other public and private property became the target of violence.
  • New Delhi & Parts of North India, Aug 1990 – The then VP. Singh Government decides to accept Mandal commission report which recommended 27% reservation for OBC candidates at all levels of Govt. services. Large scale protests erupted mainly in North India including self-immolation bids by students against co-opting the report.
  • Mumbai, Jan 1993 – Following the Babri demolition in Dec, 1992, what started as peaceful protests escalated into large scale communal riots in Mumbai between Dec 1992 and Jan 1993 where thousands of people died, properties looted and destroyed.
  • Thane, Mumbai, April 2001Shiv Sena Leader Anand Dighe dies in Singhania Hospital, Thane at a relatively young age of 50 following a cardiac arrest. As soon as the news of Dighe’s death broke, irate Shiv Sainiks went on a rampage in the premises of Singhania Hospital and set on fire the hospital.
  • Bengaluru, Sep 2016 – Supreme Court orders Karnataka to release of 15000 Cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. Immediate violent reactions erupted with burning of TN registered vehicles and destruction of public and private property.

In all the above, one can notice that while the provocations are different – from a leader’s killing to another leader’s own demise to a political move to demolition of a religious symbol to an adverse Supreme Court judgement that too in different parts of the country, the reaction of the people followed a pattern. Violence, looting, mob fury, vandalism,…,…. leading to many deaths and large scale destruction of property.

This proves that as Indians we are a bunch of gullible emotional people. We can get easily provoked into carrying out what are supposedly unlawful activities that bring disrepute to the country and also affect us economically.

In any country’s timeline there are defining moments. Moments which change the destiny of the country for the good or worse. Our country’s history since Independence also is replete with such defining moments – some of them which we can be proud of and others which push our heads down.

I reckon that the Demonetisation call of 8th Nov, 2016 would be such a defining moment in our country’s history when it’s scripted later. I am not here to pronounce this based on the economic benefits of Demonetisation. The erudite are already doing it with media abound with pieces hailing and trashing the move in same breath. And frankly it is early days yet. However something else that is monumental is happening in the country which is what this post is on.

Going back to what I elucidated in the beginning of the piece, in our country we get easily provoked. And the result of the same is there for all of us to see. In this context let’s look at what’s been happening since that eventful address to the nation of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 8th November:

  • Bulk of currency in circulation was withdrawn and we were told to go Banks/Post offices to withdraw/exchange the old currencies before Dec. 30th
  • Since then there has been serpentine lines in front of banks.
  • Banks have been woefully short of currency as RBI’s supply chain right from printing to distribution has not been able to cope up.
  • Banks when they had currency only dispersed high value 2000 rupee notes.
  • ATMs have not been mostly functioning and if working for few hours, could give us just 1 note of Rs.2000.
  • The rules of withdrawal and exchange have been changing by the hour and have been the butt of new WhatsApp jokes by the minute! In fact the exchange goal post of 30th Dec. has been brought forward.
  • Both the TV and print media have myriad stories of how Demonetisation has affected the common man in urban and rural areas.
  • There have been many deaths attributed to Demonetisation in many parts of the country. Every day there are updates on the death toll in the media.

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It’s almost a month now and still the situation is fluid. As one can see that this Demonetisation gamble by the Govt. has presented to us – public many, many opportunities to get provoked.  But the one difference is we that have not got provoked. At least up until now. And I hope I have not spoken too soon.

The resultant emotional outbursts leading to violent reactions for events mentioned in the beginning are sometimes quite spontaneous (though it is still difficult to explain the reactions so very violent) but many times orchestrated to further political interests. In this case (Demonetisation) also we have seen few political parties trying their best to spin things out of control and bring the Govt. on its knees. But just that this time around, few things have been different:

  • The common public of all hue – have not taken to damaging of banks, burning of empty ATMs, attacking Bank officers, setting on fire currency vans,… even when they have been driven to heights of frustration.
  • There have not been blackening of faces of BJP leaders or burning of effigies of PM or the RBI Governor!
  • For the 1st time in my memory, political parties had to go a large length to explain that they were not supporting any Bharat Bandh supposedly after reading the citizens’ Anti bandh mood!
  • For the 1st time again in my memory, no political party has given the Demonetisation move a communal colour so far. Otherwise in our country any decision from awarding a Padma Shri to constructing a hospital is given a communal tint by commentators and vested interests very convincingly.

For the above reasons I would like to believe that the benefits or otherwise of Demonetisation notwithstanding, this move will emerge as a defining moment in India’s history – where the public of India completely toed the line of its Prime Minister, shunned the rhetoric of others, remained unprovoked and went through the grind.

I am not sure if we as a country will display such great maturity in reacting to unfavourable events in the future. But for now, let’s savour the Achhe Din!!! Shoba De in her today’s column calls 2016 – Annus horibilis! No, Ms. De – for this significant change in our public reaction, 2016 is in fact Annus mirabilis!!!

Toon Courtesy: Satish Acharya

Also read my other post on Demonetisation – “Cash Mukt Bharat” here!