Cashless queues and a Million Pound note
Consider this very plausible rumour I picked up at the Times Lit Fest in Mumbai: Some Bollywood bright sparks are developing scripts around demonetisation in double-quick time.
One of them has, in a moment of inspiration, turned to the 1954 Gregory Peck classic, the Million Pound Note, to enable the storyline. The film is based on a Mark Twain masterpiece.
Oliver and Roderick Montpelier, eccentric millionaire brothers, spot Henry Adams (Gregory Peck) who has suddenly fallen on penury because of an accident. Unknown to Henry, the brothers place an unusual bet on him. They obtain from the Bank of England a Million Pound note and place it in an envelope. This is handed to Henry.
Oliver's wager is that Henry will be able to buy everything he needs, including luxurious accommodation, without the note ever being encashed. The mere existence of such wealth will obviate real expenditure. The magic of credit would suffice. Roderick's bet is exactly the opposite.
In the envelope, Henry also finds a letter from the brothers informing him that they will be out of the country for a month. There is an enigmatic instruction for Henry: during the period of their absence, he must live comfortably but try not to spend the money.
Mark Twain wouldn't write a story without clever twists. For instance, the note is hidden by the hotel guest whose luxury suite has been taken by Henry on the strength of his newly found wealth. Confusion follows. But in the end, Henry returns the Million Pound note to the Brothers having made a fortune from a mining company.
I realise that the mind does make cavernous connections. But even so, Bollywood scriptwriters have lots of work to do before they make Mark Twain's yarn applicable to the consequences of demonetisation. A comic twist being considered was: hundreds of thousands of swipe machines to be placed at every point of contact between man and money -- offices, courts, police stations. Bollywood needs to look beyond cinema: here is an idea for an endless TV serial.
By the time the film, or the serial, is mounted on the sets, the economic story will be stale. Who will be interested in the circumstances under which Reserve Bank Governor Raghuram Rajan was shown the door? Is it true that he was lunging at the fat cats responsible for non-performing assets which were causing banks to gasp for breath?
That Urjit Patel was promoted as Reserve Bank Governor hurriedly to protect the fat cats and, at the same time, to remonetise banks by other means -- demonetisation, for instance -- must rank as an unverifiable fact. Yes, he is yet another Gujarati at India's very top. But it would still be bad form to join critics who have pulled out a comparison from China. The Gang of Four dominated Mao's Cultural Revolution; a Gang of Five spurs India's galloping nationalism.
Even the Supreme Court has chipped in. Doors of cinema halls must remain shut while the national anthem is being played, presumably even in the event of a fire. Nobler to die standing than run like rats when the anthem is playing.
The economic consequences of demonetisation are evident, but it is this nationalism business which has been accelerated.
Never in history has a leader lined up a nation of a billion- plus population outside its banks, day after day for a month. Heaven knows how long these drills will continue. Surprising those choreographers of the national purpose have not suggested martial music or an occasional saffron flag at these venues. Such additions might be required to stiffen the people's sinews.
The belief was widespread at the earlier stages of the currency queues that Narendra Modi had mobilised the poor against the rich, the hoarders of black money, who would soon be exposed, then dragged through streets, their faces blackened. This was the common refrain I heard from Mumbai taxi drivers.
People are now beginning to see the light. Not only are hoarders, black marketers not being caught, but folks of their ilk or even the untainted rich are not even there in the queue. In fact, the queue as an equaliser has failed. Unless some new diversionary tamasha is quickly mounted, restiveness will grow.
Social upheaval or no social upheaval, Modi has already pulled off an incomparable feat. In the full flare of empiricism, he has been able to gauge the Indian's abject willingness to be mobilised behind a national cause, timid and docile. Tied to this is another reality: he has beyond any shadow of a doubt exposed the complete impotence of the political opposition, barring Mamata in Bengal.
Never will the opposition have a better opportunity for a counter- mobilisation than the one Modi offered them on the night of November 8. Here were readymade queues across the nation aching to find out whatever fate awaits them. There was not a single leader to stoke public anger, no one to harvest it. The weaklings, who pass for our opposition, preferred to deposit themselves in the well of the House.
For a people sickened by politicians, Modi does look like the leader they would willy-nilly look towards. But is he in control of the game he has started on November 8? Does he have a clue which way the ball is turning?
(Saeed Naqvi is a commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are strictly personal.)