So Manmohan lived for his present, not India’s future? — Kanchan Gupta

Sunday, 27 November 2016 | Kanchan Gupta

As Prime Minister, he didn’t even bother to change the dressing of the maggot-infested cake. Theft turned into robbery and robbery into loot. His utterance may have been slip of a mind haunted by scams of his time

Ages ago there was a Hindi film called, Kasme Vaade, starring Amitabh Bachchan, Rakhee, Randhir Kapoor, Neetu Singh and Amjad Khan. I was in high school and have vague memories of watching the film with my classmates. But this is not about the movie so much as one of its songs, “Kal kya hoga kisko pata, abhi zindagi ka le lo maza”, which was quite a rage among kids on the verge of adulthood, or at least among those who thought it was fashionable to put on an air of nonchalance.

I had forgotten all about the film and the song till I heard former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speak in Parliament, which by itself was a wonder since I couldn’t recall the last time I had heard him speak from a public platform. He made four points that merit comment.

First, that he was not against the objective of the demonetisation announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He couldn’t have said anything to the contrary as that would have meant disagreement with the purpose of flushing black money out of the system. But frankly, that’s neither here nor there.

Second, while agreeing with the objective, he described the demonetisation exercise as a “monumental mismanagement”. We could give him leeway for this exaggerated assessment of the implementation process which, by all accounts, has been far less than smooth. After all, the Opposition and its leaders can’t be expected to gloss over the Government’s apparent lapses in the planning and execution of re-monetising the economy after demonetising high value currencies.

Third, and this is where Manmohan Singh’s statement in the Rajya Sabha began unravelling, he described the demonetisation of Rs1,000 and Rs500 notes as “organised loot and legalised plunder”. This truly boggled the mind. How exactly is rendering currency notes illegal and replacing them with new notes of an equal value, provided people can account for the money they have in their possession, an “organised loot and legalised plunder”?

More important, it ill behoves a man who as Finance Minister presided over possibly India’s worst securities and banking scam, and then as Prime Minister didn’t so much as lift his little finger in admonition as his Ministers emptied the public till right under his nose and on his watch, robbing the nation of hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees, to casually accuse another person who has a fetish for probity and integrity and ruthlessly imposes that fetish on his Cabinet colleagues, of “organised loot and legalised plunder”.

And, finally, Manmohan Singh scoffed at the suggestion that the problems being faced by the people were a passing phase, that things would settle down, and a better future would more than compensate for the hassles of the moment. Quoting John Maynard Keynes (he needed to remind MPs and the people of this country that he was not just another politician but an economist-turned-reluctant-politician, never mind the fact that the reluctant bit is not true at all) he squeakily declared, “In the long run we are all dead”.

So if in the long run we are all dead, why bother about unsettling the present for a better future? Why disturb the status quo? Why disrupt life as we know it? Why not let things meander and flow? Why not go with the flow? As the film song went, and Manmohan Singh might as well have broken into its rendition, “Kal kya hoga kisko pata, Abhi zindagi ka le lo maza”. Or he could have done a rendition of “Que sera, sera”, which would have equally served the purpose.

Manmohan Singh was not necessarily being superciliously smart or pointlessly silly. It is another matter that he quoted Keynes out of context. By reminding a disruptive Prime Minister who has smashed the status quo that “in the long run we are all dead”, he has sought to articulate the principle by which Governments have lived all these decades since India’s independence: Let the system be, just change the dressing of the rotten cake.

As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh did precisely that; his critics would say he didn’t even bother to change the dressing of the maggot-infested cake. Theft turned into robbery and robbery turned into loot. His utterance may well have been the proverbial Freudian slip of a mind haunted by the scams that shall forever remain his abiding legacy.

How the demonetisation will exactly pan out is anybody’s guess. We can only presume that Modi did his sums and got them right before embarking upon this humongous mission to cleanse India of dirty money and nudge Indians into going digital for their daily expense. For those truly inconvenienced by the sudden cash crunch, he has words of compassion and has urged them to hold on for 50 days, of which a fortnight has passed.

By January next year, things would have returned to normal, though the new normal, let us be clear, will not resemble the past. We will be increasingly using lesser physical money and the sooner we get used to this idea, the better it shall be for all concerned. Beyond the troubles caused by Modi’s disruption, there’s little at stake for the masses. For the corrupt who stashed away illicit funds in cash, the future no doubt is bleak. But frankly, beyond losing their ill-gotten money, they too have little at stake.

On the other hand, Modi has staked the future of his Government, his party and his own leadership by daring to take a step no other Prime Minister even dared think of. With Assembly elections coming up in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa, there’s this big question mark: Which way will the voters turn? Will they vote Modi as they are quite enthused by the idea of fixing the corrupt who have got away with their misdeeds with impunity and for far too long? Or will the disruption make them reconsider their options?

Opinion polls are fickle and do not always reflect the ground reality. So to take them too seriously can cause self-inflicted wounds. The mood, however, is firmly in favour of Modi. Whether that will survive the disruption, which is far from over, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Manmohan Singh has not done himself a favour by predicting a two per cent decline in GDP. In the event that does not happen (Rabi season sowing is on full swing and there has been a sharp increase in acreage being farmed for Rabi crops after demonetisation was announced) he would look utterly silly. He should have known better. But then again, he could just retort, “Kal kya hoga kisko pata…”

(The writer is commissioning editor and commentator at ABP News TV)


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