Thursday, December 15, 2016

Demonetisation and Making Indians

Massimo d'Azeglio is usually credited with coinage of the expression "We have made Italy, now we must make Italians" (though scholars have now indicated that he never did write this, and the expression originated only later in the current form). Whoever said this, this represents what we may call the 'problem of Italy' - a new nation state without the corresponding sense of citizenship and belonging. Indeed, most of Italy's modern history is marked by disunity, between North and South, between the Left and the Right, the Industry and the Peasantry and so on. The existence and implausibility of the Nation State in Italy, something that the expression of 'making Italians' indicates, have been the basis of much discussion, not just in academia but in politics: It is no surprise that 'making Italians' was appropriated and popularised by the Fascists who took the project on themselves.

In context, one has to note that d'Azeglio, the Poet, Hero and Statesman of Risorgimento Italy, did write something in his autobiography (which will eventually morph into the current form) about making Italians of Character. This statement did indeed, by definition, accept the existence of Italians and Italy, rather than the later, 'making Italian' expression. But the later expression, if vindicated only with a retrospective justification, also shows what we may call the 'problem of nationalism', the need for reconciliation of the political idea and state-making with the ideal of community and individual identities. There is only a fine line between the idea of 'making Italians' and of fascism, the passion for education and the terror of a 'national community' that Nazis would speak of later. In case of Italy, this 'making' project would soon become a quest for 'greater Italy' and what may have started as an enterprise to include would, in no time, turn into a quest to exclude. No wonder that scholars would track down the origin story of this quote - of making Italians - not in 1860s Risorgimento Italy, but rather to 1890s and Italian defeats in Ethiopia.

And, that is perhaps appropriate, as Ernest Renan pointed out that a 'nation' was built often, not upon celebration of victory, but rather by the solidarity of common suffering. At good times, it is usually a scramble for profit and perks, but only suffering, defeat and disasters of various kinds, can bring people together, only if in the memory of happier days and past glories. We have some historical corroboration: The path to United States was forged through the calamities of the Civil War, for example. Against this, the curious optimism of the post-colonial nationhood, woven around the assertion of liberty and self-determination, the Wilsonian ideal, was pitted.

This may, at this point, bring us to the 'problem of India'. Here, a nation was made, on the presumption of its ancient heritage and origin, but with a cultural unity that was challenged, in equal measure, by linguistic fragmentation and political disunity. The origins of the new nation was marked by suffering - the immense, genocidal tragedy of the partition - but this suffering divided, rather than united, the people. The state that emerged was closely modelled on the Imperial model, keeping its symbols and ceremonies, its Civil Service and the customs, juxtaposing a distant, elitist model of administration with the political ideals of the Republic. In this new formation, 'making' Indians were not an urgent task: They were already made, it was assumed, and the independence was the fulfilment of a 'tryst with destiny', an end in itself. A powerful modern state emerged, with Republican rhetoric and Democratic institutions, with the struggles for self-governance culminating merely in an Indian Raj. The obsession, as it emerged, was with the place the new nation may occupy in the world of nations, rather than its own nation-making.

Indeed, India was an idea, as some apologists of this lofty vision would say: An idea that meant to define the ideal and illuminate the path, and gradual prosperity and education was to include the excluded and bring the marginalised to mainstream. The Indian state, solid, enlightened and powerful, was to guide the lives of its citizens, deliberately and comprehensively, overseeing it from the commanding heights of the economy and through a moral presence in every aspect of the society. It is a kind of paternalistic nationhood, built around prosperity and progress.

We live at a time when this vision is challenged. The ever-expanding powers of the state hijacked by a lumpen-elite, the vision of progress degenerated in a morass of corruption and the citizenship morphed into a confusion of everyone for himself, the Indian nation now faces the existential questions that were postponed. Time for a Cultural Revolution, some would believe, and accordingly, one was indeed made, an overnight cancellation of 86% Indian currency in circulation in a country where more than 90% transactions are in cash. It is a perfect storm of economic upheaval, political action and cultural shift, brought about by deliberate and authoritarian action, with complete disregard of the protocols of Cabinet Governance and Parliamentary procedure. This meant suspension of basic economic rights - the ability to withdraw own money from a bank account - for the vision of a organised, digitised economy. It was not only Mao who was capable of an utopia!

This thing then should make Indians. A collective sacrifice, going about with little to spend, queueing up in the banks for hours, with the greater good in mind is an way to build the nation. It is only fitting that the goals of this great enterprise shifted, quite swiftly, from controlling the black economy to curbing terrorism to creating a digital economy, and in fact, in most cases, to all of the above or whatever is most attractive at a given point. But, again, as it appears now, this is one of those calamities which divides, rather than makes, a nation. The demonetisation meant an organised transfer of wealth to the poor, who used the cash, to the wealthy, who stand to gain most from increased liquidity of the banks and lower interest rates on borrowing. Years hence, people would possibly look at this demonetisation exercise and use a Churchillian expression in the reverse: Never has so much been stolen from so many by so few!





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