Modi is an unstoppable force – and that’s India’s great modern tragedy

Demonetisation is an extreme policy of a prime minister who no longer feels constrained by his party – or answerable to parliament. Sadly, there is no formidable figure or orgsanisation that can take him on, writes Kapil Komireddi.

Last month, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, declared that 500- and 1000-rupee notes would cease to be legal tender within hours. His announcement rendered almost 17 trillion rupees worth of cash – in a country where more than 90 per cent of all transactions involve cash – worthless.

The prime minister justified this drastic action as a bitter but necessary remedy for the sweeping affliction of “black money” – wealth amassed through illegal means – and, as if to inoculate the measure from criticism, added a national security codicil: it would also invalidate the vast amounts of counterfeit currency allegedly channelled into the Indian economy by sponsors of terrorism operating from Pakistan.

Yet no Pakistani could have engineered the wave of misery that has washed over India in the month since Mr Modi’s speech. Demonetisation, unlike any war or calamity in living memory, has exposed people in every corner of India to intense distress. It presumes that every Indian in possession of the banned notes is a criminal. The only precedent for such all-encompassing agony in India’s republican history is the “mass sterilisation” drive pursued by Sanjay Gandhi, the son of prime minister Indira Gandhi, as his mother declared a state of internal emergency, suspended the constitution and imposed a horrific spell of dictatorship between 1975 and 1977. Thousands of men were subjected to forced vasectomies as part of Sanjay’s fantastic bid to put an instant curb on India’s population growth; hundreds died in botched operations.

But even then, the terror was restricted to some parts of India.

Today, the pain is distributed evenly across the country’s immense land mass. The tales of suffering are harrowing. Farmers in rural India can’t sell their produce. Patients are unable to pay for medicine. People who moved from the decaying countryside to make a living in India’s burgeoning cities – as servants, cooks, cleaners, chauffeurs and construction workers – cannot feed themselves or send money to the families they’ve left behind because they do not have bank accounts and cannot “whiten” their “black” earnings. Even the bank account-holding urban middle classes are desperate. The deadline for depositing the banned notes expires on December 30, and there is roughly one commercial bank branch for every 12,500 Indians.

The queues outside the banks evoke the lines outside the supermarkets in Ceausescu’s Romania. Dozens of people have died in the long, tense wait to renew their money. Those who make it to the end discover that the banks, like the stores in communist-era Bucharest, are understocked. By some estimates, it may take the presses of the Reserve Bank of India, working non-stop and at full capacity, more than six months to replace the abruptly withdrawn currency. The original ambitions of the demonetisation scheme – eliminating black money and combating terrorism – have fallen by the wayside. Indians in possession of illicit cash clearly beat the chief aim of demonetisation by finding ingenious ways to deposit their cash; those who could not dumped their cash in landfills, denying the central bank the colossal receipts that Mr Modi had promised it.

Mr Modi, rather than accept the failure of his policy and reverse course, has shifted the goalposts. Demonetisation is no longer about eradicating black money; it is, says Mr Modi, about making India a “cashless” society. Emulating Mao Zedong’s exhortation to the Chinese to make the Great Leap Forward, Mr Modi now urges his compatriots to “go digital”. Without a hint of irony, a loyal member of Mr Modi’s cabinet has called the entire exercise India’s own “cultural revolution”. It’s as if the politician hailed only two years ago as the antithesis of out-of-touch elites has completely seceded from the real world and taken up residence in a virtual reality of his own making. This, lest we forget, is a man who continues, in defiance of incontrovertible evidence, to insist that demonetisation is a wild success because respondents to a survey held exclusively on his personal smart phone app said so.

The docility of Mr Modi’s MPs, many of whom are said to be livid in private, has profound implications for the health of Indian democracy. Unlike most Indian political parties, Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has traditionally been a democratic institution. There is nepotism in the BJP, but the party is not owned by a dynasty. In theory anyone, so long as he or she subscribed to the sectarian ideology of the party, could rise to the very top of the organisation. Mr Modi’s own story – from tea hawker to party nominee to prime minister – is the best proof of this.

But under Mr Modi, the BJP is undergoing a kind of Congressisation: the process by which it becomes subservient to one figure.

The Congress party originated as a forum for Indian voices in British India’s governance before being reshaped by Mahatma Gandhi as the principal platform for resistance to British rule of India. Its organisational reach was so deep – it had a presence in virtually every village of India – that, after independence, it became the default party of government in India. Despite this monopoly on power, Congress remained a deeply democratic institution in the early decades after independence. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who towered above every other Indian, was not above the party. It was Indira Gandhi who presided over the erosion of Congress’s internal democracy and, through the 1970s, transformed Asia’s largest political party into a family fief. Her path was paved by the obsequiousness of her own colleagues. As the historian Ramachandra Guha has observed, the cravenness of Mr Modi’s MPs and cabinet today is eerily reminiscent of Congress MPs’ abdication of their duty in the age of Indira. After seizing absolute power in her own party, Mrs Gandhi proceeded to stamp on Indian democracy.

Another bout of dictatorship may not be possible today – but the BJP’s meek surrender in parliament to the prime minister has emboldened Mr Modi to treat Indian democracy with contempt. Parliament under his reign has become a virtual spectator.

Cabinet has morphed into an imperial court, where ministers fawn before Mr Modi rather than challenge him. Demonetisation is the most extreme policy of a prime minister who no longer feels constrained by his party – or answerable to parliament.

Mr Modi is not a dictator: but a prime minister who regards his party’s parliamentary majority as a personal mandate to bypass parliament is far from being a democrat.

India’s tragedy is that there isn’t a figure – or a party – that can take on Mr Modi. The opposition has rarely been more fragmented. But if demonetisation cannot prompt unity among the opposition, what can? And what else is the man who is incapable of acknowledging the catastrophe before his eyes capable of?

The BJP, always a regressive party, has ceased to be democratic. It is now a pliant vehicle for the reckless fantasies of one man.

In 1977, when Indira Gandhi ended her dictatorial rule and called a general election, the opposition at the time – comprising secularists and Hindu nationalists, socialists and capitalists – united against her. They crushed her.

That collaboration, though it did not last long, ought to be the model for today’s disunited opposition. Resisting Modi: every difference should be subordinated to this patriotic purpose.

Kapil Komireddi, an Indian journalist, has written from South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East