With demonetisation, Modi has gone where even Sanjay Gandhi did not

A psychoanalysis of policy is a definite requirement for Indian society given the traumas policy creates. Unfortunately, policy is an antiseptic word that conceals the deep disturbances it creates in the social fabric. Instead of being based on trust and deliberation as in a rational community, policy is often triggered by suspicion of the citizen and a deep hostility to the population in general. There is an overall stereotyping including blanket definitions of behaviour, a demand for sacrifice as a reified concept, which ignores the everyday suffering of a people. Suffering itself is read en bloc, lacking any claim to biography, ecology or storytelling.

Policies can be of two kinds, a top-down imposition which does not bother about people. An example of this would be Sanjay Gandhi’s imposition of family planning and urban planning during the Emergency in the 1970s. Sanjay Gandhi’s was the classic embodiment of a policy of poverty management which sought to solve poverty by eliminating the poor. He literally demonised those who resisted urban demolitions or objected to family planning. In fact, the history of policy was written twice. The targets were first demonised as recalcitrant to policy. In the second, policy was demonised for devastating the victim. In fact, family planning was set back several decades as a result of this. The policy changes of the Narendra Modi era follow a different narrative.

Plurality to uniformity

Modi’s canvas on demonetisation is wider. It is as if the government has conscripted every citizen to live though the experiment, make choices and articulate his sense of policy through instant media referendums. Citizens justify policy by saying the future will be better despite the sheer harassments of the short run. Yet there is a pressure towards policy patriotism which is itself a bit worrying.

Modi conscripts people into the act of policy through constant demands for acclamation. They become a blanket chorus saluting his policy without a possibility of dissent. He forces a differentiated plural world into an artificial grid of uniformity. Modi also created a Manichean view of the world, and he personalises it with icons of goodness and evil.

The object of policy overwhelms the subject of suffering. Policy rarely understands the individuality of suffering or the distributional nature of suffering as the poor get poorer and suffer more, and the rich watch with surreal disdain.

The social activist Ela Bhatt once observed, “It is the poor who need capital. They need capital to survive the day.”

Money has a different criticality in the daily-wage economy. Suffering is not central to the language of policy making. In fact, the jaded policy maker often constructs himself as a sufferer, a victim of the recalcitrant citizen as criminal. Such a set of assumptions allows for an undifferentiated narrative of impact.

Blanket uniformity

Four things become clear. Firstly, citizens are treated en bloc with uniform suspicion. There is no gradient of analysis and the ethnography of suffering lacks nuance. Suffering again is reified as the logic of sacrifice for the new flatland, a blanket future. Thirdly, intentions and consequences are not separated as it is assumed that good intentions lead to good consequences. As a result, irony, paradox, contesting narratives are erased from policy. Fourthly, oral narratives – in fact, the very phenomenology of suffering – are ignored.

A certain blanket uniformity presupposes that suffering is equal. As a result, no questions are asked about marginal groups. Cash is regarded as cash so the varieties of cash economy are erased from the analysis. The daily wage earner, the marginal migrant, the lower middle class and the affluent who have converted black money into gold or real estate and are sitting contentedly are treated en bloc. There is no sense of justice because the crime of the few creates a punishment inflicted on all. Both the distributive nature of suffering and benefits are presented as if they are for a uniform future. The nation and the society will benefit and each of these become black boxes without social differentiation. Biography and plurality are alien in this world of social uniformity where anonymity eliminates the individuality of experience.

Oddly as one individualises policy, making it leader-centred, one impersonalises the impact of policy. What we confront is society as a demographic black box without cultural variety, social strata or political economy. In fact, every citizen becomes a patriot or a criminal. It reminds one of the eras of the enclosure movement in Europe where every displaced peasant was treated as a poacher on his own land.

Blanket criminalisation

Policy creates a lack of discrimination twice. It treats everyone as alike in its demonic frenzy for reform but it also fails to create a measure for the differential nature of suffering. The attitude is almost economistic. In fact, as a friend said, “Policy is displacement but it never looks at who suffers, who gets displaced.”

This sense of Modiesque policy was once articulated by the economist Arvind Panagariya of the Niti Ayog at a seminar on urban issues sponsored by the London School of Economics. He stated calmly that suffering is always there and suffering accompanies any act of policy or development. It is the economist who decides who all shall suffer and when. All he has to do is create a rationale for it.

The illiteracy is enormous. Place is reduced to space and there is no sense of economic geography. A remote village, a migrant community and a rich neighbourhood are all treated as equal even though in Orwellian sense one knows that some are more equal than others.

In fact, Modi’s act of demonetisation looks whimsical and vengeful. Justice needs calibrations, a calculus of differentiation, which Modi’s policy does not have. Modi’s policy hands have to go beyond centralised hierarchies with standard uniform citizens to a panarchic model, which looks both at the problem and the populace in a differentiated way.

The ecology of panarchy has shown that policy problems need differentiated solutions where scale, not blanket size, is important. Each level of society demands its own panacea or at least its own placebo.

Instead of creating a broader basis for democratisation, what we have is a blanket criminalisation of India. Even Sanjay Gandhi’s imagination did not extend so far. Worse, what was seen as criminal intent in Sanjay Gandhi is read as policy objectivity in Modi’s monetisation reform.

As a case study, as a fable, the monetisation policy is an example of how not to think policy. The machismo of Modi and his kadak chai message should warn people that his tea might be kadwa (bitter) rather than kadak (strong). Wisdom demands that Modi understand that good policy like good tea demands nuance, patience, a sensitivity to taste and tongue, an aesthetics that our populist regime lacks. Modi’s ideas of policy might soon make the earlier Planning Commission appear like vignettes of vintage wisdom. This is one irony his regime may not survive.

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