What is the most interesting aspect of the unprecedented experiment in demonetisation? In my view it has been the incredible patience of ordinary Indians. In an earlier column, I had asked the question whether people across the subcontinent would be willing to “queue up for country” in order to allow the prime minister to attain whatever policy and political objective he may have had in mind when he withdrew over four-fifths of the cash from the economy.
I guess the simple answer to that question, with whatever caveats one may wish to add, is ‘yes’. Recent opinion polls have shown that a large majority of Indians, over two-thirds of those polled, did say that they had been inconvenienced, that they had problems accessing cash, that they had found the going tough, and yet, an equal number also said that they thought demonetisation was a good idea. The support for the initiative has been overwhelming. No wonder the opposition parties have been unable to mobilise public frustration and anger against the government.
This is neither to suggest that people did not face problems nor to suggest that the exchange of cash was handled well. If you have stood in any of those ATM or bank queues you would know that the frustration and anger was palpable. Most people did get tired of standing, of filling forms, and so on. Yet, we have not had any significant reporting of violence, much less mob violence, of buses being burnt, banks being stoned, dharnas being staged, rasta-roko and the lot.
Sharad Pawar came up with a spurious explanation for this. He likened the silence of the people and their general acquiescence in the move to what happened after the imposition of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi in June 1975. It took the citizen two years to react and when she did, Indira was voted out, he said. He forgot to mention that Indira had put the entire leadership of all opposition political parties, save the CPI, in jail. Anyone who tried to mobilise against the government was jailed. This time round, all opposition leaders have been on television and in Parliament, protesting. They failed to make an impact.
So what explains this stoicism of the patient Indian? Economists have all been busy holding forth on the pros and cons of demonetisation without making us any wiser, for the move was political and deserves sociological analysis. Much of what economists have been saying is neither based on experience, since there is no precedent to what has been done, nor based on any theory for there is very little to go by. An important source for much theorising in economics is an understanding of human psychology—the response of homo economics to losing or gaining income.
The phenomenon of the citizen’s response to demonetisation ought to be the subject matter of research for sociologists, political scientists, behaviouralists and psychologists. Why were a visibly inconvenienced people so patient? What does it tell us about the psyche of the common citizen?
Addressing a media event in March 2007, Manmohan Singh made an interesting observation, ticking off his friend and former colleague, the economist Amartya Sen, on his views about the ‘Argumentative Indian’. Differing with Sen, Singh said, “It is not the argumentative nature that we must celebrate, but our assimilative nature, our consensual nature, our accommodative nature.” Singh would often draw attention to the incredible patience of ordinary Indians and their willingness to accept difficulties and seek consensual outcomes if they believed this was in the national interest.
It is that non-argumentative Indian who has stood patiently in queues to collect what is rightfully her’s—cash well-earned from hard work—in the hope that those who had not worked enough to deserve their ill-gotten wealth would in fact be punished.