Demonetisation And Gandhi


The entire demonetisation story has been parsed, discussed, analyzed and commented upon in detail, by its supporters and non-supporters alike. There is not pretty much left that can be contributed to the debate, however, I wish to attempt a Gandhian analysis of the move in the following paragraphs.

Why did I feel the need to take up such an analysis? Probably because, close to seventy years into our independence, India, as a nation has still not been able to detach itself from the Gandhian legacy, even when it has made an attempt. Gandhi has been furiously debated, loved and hated, but his impact on the Indian psyche has not diminished. The most visible proof of this is his consistent and continuing presence on the Indian currency (be it the demonetized 1000 rupee note or the newly minted 2000 rupee note, though he has this time chosen to look in the opposite direction).

The present political dispensation has made a valiant, but I would say a hollow, attempt to redefine Gandhi solely as a ‘crusader for cleanliness’. His preference for keeping one’s surroundings clean was the only thing that they could (rather wanted to) pick up as worthy of emulation. Gandhi, today, has been reduced to a poster boy for the “Swachch Bharat Abhiyan”. The reason for this might not be very difficult to gauge. The current political dispensation, visibly averse to Gandhian thought and legacy, would of course not want to have anything to do with that legacy, but Gandhi being so entrenched in the heart and soul of the nation, they also cannot be seen to be openly anti-Gandhi. Hence, this whole farce of Gandhi and the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan.

Howsoever may the political dispensation of the day like to believe that Gandhi is synonymous to cleanliness, we all know that Gandhi was and still remains such a cult figure that very few can legitimately claim to even understand and talk about him with authority. Although, each and every one of us might claim an expertise on him, yet more often than not we only succeed in misunderstanding and misinterpreting the man.

What I am going to attempt further, is thus, based on my limited understanding of the man and his thoughts and I do not claim that understanding to be infallible. However, I do want to make an effort to present my analysis, all the same. The most sacrosanct principle for the Mahatma, in my view, was the principle of non-violence. One clear example of the value that this principle had for him was the stand that he chose to take by calling off the Non-Cooperation Movement, when it was at its peak, in the face of one single non-violent incident. He stood through all the dissent that he faced at the time, and continues to face even to this day, but refused to budge from his stand. Violence, for him, did-not only mean physical violence but included all kinds of violence. I would like to quote some of his views on the relationship of democracy and violence:

“Democracy and violence can ill go together. The States that are today nominally democratic have either to become frankly totalitarian or, if they are to become truly democratic, they must become courageously nonviolent. It is a blasphemy to say that nonviolence can only be practiced by individuals and never by nations which are composed of individuals” (Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan, 12-11-38).

India, prides itself on being called the biggest democracy in the world. This word ‘democracy’ is used mostly out of habit I believe, without understanding the true meaning or import of this term. The term ‘democracy’ has a Greek origin. It is a combination of two words – Demos, meaning people and kratia meaning power. In effect, it means ‘power to the people’. Talking about democracy in sheer political terms, it has existed, in all practicality, as representative democracy, which means political power being exercised by a set of elected representatives (elected based on universal adult franchise in India). The majority party or a coalition of parties forms the Executive, helmed by the Prime Minister of the nation. The Executive, however, is constitutionally responsible to the Legislature. This is how the functioning of democracy has been envisaged in India theoretically, however, the interesting thing will be to understand how it is working practically, on the ground, especially in the recent times, in context to Demonetization.

The announcement of this completely disruptive move of demonitization was made by the Prime Minister of the nation on a particular day. The effect of this move was to suck out 85% of currency out of the system with effect from the midnight of that day. As India is an avowed democratic nation, the announcement was in the name of the masses, with a huge fanfare, convincing the masses that after a very short period of inconvenience of a few days (which was essential to face if anyone was to pass the litmus test of ‘patriotism’), they would be the utmost beneficiaries of this move. I don’t want to get here into an analysis of the legitimacy of those promised benefits and to what extent they have materialized or could materialize in the future, because many more talented and experienced people have already analyzed it threadbare. My focus here is on the practice of democracy in this case. This decision, as it soon unfolded, was taken in the most autocratic of manners with the immediate stakeholders and the institution responsible for monetary policy also mostly being taken by surprise (except for the very top echelons, who were co-opted into the decision, totally destroying the autonomy that is essential for the functioning of this autonomous institution). There was absolutely no need felt to be answerable to the Legislature, to which the Executive is constitutionally responsible. The move led to the disruption in the life of millions (most of them from the poorer sections of society), and hundreds lost their lives. But the interesting thing in all this is that this move is being hailed and projected as the most democratic move ever made, because it is being proclaimed to have been carried out in the name of the masses and for the whole and sole benefit of the masses. How further from the truth could one really get?

Coming back to the question of democracy and violence, is this not the practice of the worst kind of violence possible? If not, then what else can be termed as violence? But I don’t think we should be surprised by this act of naked violence. When acts like standing in a queue for withdrawing some pittance from your own account and standing up for national anthem at cinema halls becomes a proof of patriotism, then of course this form of democracy can be the only form that can be possibly practiced.

Mahatama Gandhi’s response to the practice of this form of democracy could be imagined to be something on the below lines:

“True democracy cannot be worked by twenty men sitting at the centre. It has to be worked from below by the people of every village” (Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan, 18-1-48)

But then, who cares about democracy, or for that matter, for the Mahatma anymore?

Nivedita Dwivedi is pursuing my MA in Elementary Education from Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

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