In search of remedies

The power of storytelling becomes crucial.

Sometimes news as a backyard creates a world of reflections, meditations on news, which are more profound than the event itself. Part of this takes place through the rituals of gardening, weeding, trimming that are the tasks of an editor. An editor not only evaluates script, he interrogates news. Interrogating news is often like interrogating power. The professionalism, integrity and competence required is quite demanding. One of the most interesting of editors is a recent friend who hinted that editing is often like the mythical cleaning of stables, leaving the editor brain dead. This essay is a tribute to the professionalism of such a man. I will call him X.

When the demonetisation project started, X quietly established a parallel between interrogating news and questioning policy. Both are narratives, which had to be questioned as narratives. The power of storytelling becomes crucial.
X warned against the narcissism of power. Policy, he hinted, becomes an act of navel-gazing. Is Narendra Modi admiring himself or is he looking critically at policy? Does he have a Manichean sense of the world? If so, X asked is policy based on trust? Does Mr Modi see it as a part of the social contract? Or is Mr Modi like Sanjay Gandhi so utterly determined to fight poverty that he eliminates the poor? Ironically, policy in empowering the state might disempower people.

My friend was deeply concerned with language. Language for him was both sign and symptom. It revealed both the arrogance of power and its ironies. The tenor of policy is overemphasised when policy trumpets out its targets. Black money and “black” people become targets. But is targeting an act of hygiene, of reform or does it smell more of vigilantism and a witch-hunt?

X felt one can sense this in the performative acts of a policy. If the PM announces it as a threat, plays demagogue and the citizens echo him like a well-meaning chorus, then it does not augur well for democracy. The language becomes didactic and politics becomes demagogic. The initial drama of demonetisation then loses out to doubt and confusion. The illiteracy of policy, the barrack yard of assumptions that accompanied its advance is lost. Policy inaugurates its speech with a megaphone instead of creating a quieter accompaniment of hearing aids.

What do ordinary people feel about demonetisation? One senses little of this in the initial drumbeat of policy. It created the new Pavlovian, policy patriots who beat out “yes” to anything the regime inaugurates. But there is little nuance and understanding in this group. It is the regime, right or wrong for the nth time.

As spectators, what we then confront is the noise of policy not against critiques but the silences of the first week. People are too busy salvaging money, handling day-to-day survival to resist, oppose or even write little editorials on policy. Meanwhile, the experts we hear, the editorials we read are of predictable sages who sound holier than the PM himself. While they write certificates of conduct for the PM, the ATMs become the nerve centres of the city. The problem of pollution moves to the background as people wait for hours in line. Suddenly lines fall apart in consternation as those waiting patiently discover that ATMs do not have sufficient money. Doubts accumulate about the great preparation and sink into the general tiredness of the day.

Suddenly one realises money means different things to different people. Different people read it differently. Black money makes little sense to the daily wage-worker. Many housewives who store money in little closets find themselves at a loss. They feel exposed and even criminal before the husband as patriarch. One discovers money is critical in small amounts. One needs capital with a small “c” for subsistence economies. Housewives, migrant labourers, daily wage and dhaba workers need small amounts of money, which dry up in the demonetisation sun. But there are a few stories about the difficulties of ordinary people. How do they manage, cope with such artificial shortages? The demonology of black money has no place for ordinary people and ordinary lives.

As the journalist hears different narratives, the uniformity of policy which one tacitly assumed so far is challenged. How does policy handle differences? How does one map a differential terrain of suffering? Does Mr Modi’s policy have a narrative for that?

How does Mr Modi and his experts look at ordinary people? He talks of kadak chai but do ordinary people figure in his mind? Where in his calculus do we evaluate or mourn the roll call of the unnecessarily dead people who died because the families did not have ready cash. Ready cash is the language of emergency, not of the black market. Ordinary citizens need small stashes to survive the everyday crises of economic life. Many people hoard cash with none out of the villainy that policy attributes to hoarders.

Time becomes another significant variable. One realises that the timetables of the government are meaningless. One also confronts the everyday suffering of daily wager and students. Humour gives way to the cynical as people realise that a lot of black money is already legitimate as gold and real estate, or reworked as savings. The storyteller begins asking whether the government has even done its homework. Is there a point of ending, or do people play the waiting game of lines endlessly? A bank official watching the lines was heard saying: “I do not see rich people waiting. All these are poor who turn up again.” One begins wondering whether the wrong groups are suffering. By that time one hears that the government has thawed, offering concessions to families who are planning marriages. Marriage without small change can be a heavy-handed affair. Sociology begins giving a different picture of the economy. The slick policy statements confront the sheer anarchy of streets. It is now the government that seems to be creating law and order situations. The inversion is ironic but the media does not mention it. It takes the Supreme Court to point out this simple fact, that people cannot keep waiting. Mr Modi has to realise that policy is not a magic wand but a muddy process that he has muddied further with bad homework.

Policy on the ground is demanding a different set of narratives. Mr Modi does not seem capable of listening to it. It is democracy that is sounding vulnerable. One needs a new kind of storyteller for such an epic. If policy does not produce such an ethnography, democracy gets weakened. It is this part that the media has been indifferent to. For X, an ethical editorship of news was a way of keeping the story open. Demonetisation desperately needs such a remedy.

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