I don’t think I can ever forget 8th November 2016. The festive season had just ended with Diwali, Kali puja and Bhaiya dooj coming to an end. I had come back from my evening walk and had switched on the TV. The PM had started giving his historic speech on demonetisation. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears……the PM was saying, ” Aaj raat 12 baje ke baad 500 aur 1000 ke note legal tender nahi rahenge.” A few days back I had withdrawn my pension in 500 rupee notes and on the morning of 8th November my wife had withdrawn her arrear pension in 500 rupee notes. My sister had arrived from USA the same day and from the airport she got a bundle of 500 rupee notes in exchange of her dollars. I was bewildered and I rushed out to the balcony. I could hear some hue and cry in the neighbourhood. People were taking out their vehicles to rush to the ATM counters. There was total despair and nervousness in the air. The citizens are totally helpless if there is a single party majority government in the centre. No cabinet meeting was held before this historic decision because in a single party government the PM’s decision is final. The news had not leaked out and was kept a complete secret. Most cabinet ministers were also taken by surprise. All of them pretended complete ignorance. Even if two or three ministers did know about this, they pretended ignorance.
From the next morning there was an unprecedented situation before banks and ATM counters. Hundreds of people thronged the doors of all the banks. Those who were lucky to get inside were handed over 2,000 rupee notes since the new 500 rupee notes had not come to the banks. All of a sudden 100 and 50 rupee notes became scarce. I found most of the ATMs shut with a “No Cash” board hanging in front. We were told that we cannot withdraw more than 24,000 in a week. However, in reality, most banks could not give more than 5,000 or 10,000. There was complete havoc since the banks were totally unprepared for such a ‘Tughlaqi farmaan’. People were standing for hours in the queue and elderly people were fainting in exhaustion. In the past Indira Gandhi had absolute majority in the Lok Sabha and she too suppressed the freedom of the press, right to free speech, threw people into jails without trial. She had ordered forcible sterilisation of citizens. In the next elections in 1977, people said good bye to single party government and brought a multiparty government. Indira Gandhi realised her mistakes and when she came back to power in 1980 she was a more mature leader. Her son Rajiv Gandhi had absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, but luckily for Indians, he was not autocratic by nature.
Even after this historic blunder, PM Modi never admitted that he had put the people of the country to so much of harassment for no ostensible reasons. His attempts to curb black money were ill advised and futile. All the demonetised notes came back to the banks by January 2017 and no black marketeer was caught. There was no let up in terrorist activities , as was claimed by the government and only 0.1% of the notes deposited in banks turned out to be fake currency.
Mrinalini, a family friend of ours, was a diehard BJP supporter who was elated by the note bandi. She told me that the days of corruption and loot unleashed on the nation by the Sonia Gandhi/Manmohan Singh government had come to an end and that the present PM was determined to reform India by his bold decisions and that he would catch all the dishonest tax evading people. She asked me to be more patient for a few months, when a marathon operation was underway, to catch all the thieves and dacoits! I was impressed by her loyalty to BJP but advised her to wait and watch because eminent economists like Amartya Sen, former RBI governor, Rajan, and Dr. Manmohan Singh had warned against this move and had forewarned that it would lead to unemployment and fall in GDP. After a few days Mrinalini told me that for her son’s admission in a prominent school, she needed to deposit 60,000 rupees in cash. She was running from pillar to post to arrange for 60,000 rupees in cash but found it a very difficult task, indeed, because 100 and 50 rupee notes were scarce and she could not withdraw more than 24,000 from the bank in 2,000 rupee notes. After a month when she contacted me again, her love for BJP had evaporated into thin air! In 2014 people of India looked upon Modi as a big saviour, specially for Hindus who could bring Muslim “appeasement” to an end. By 2015 his image of being a Hindu’ hriday samrat’, an incarnation of Lord Vishwanath, had started fading. People could see that good days, as promised by him, were no where visible, there was no uniform civil code or Ram temple, no talk of abolition of Article 370 since BJP had joined hands with a Kashmiri Muslim party who were opposed to abolition of Article 370, or adoption of uniform civil code. In three and a half years no Kashmiri Pandit could be sent back to Kashmir with honour and dignity. Not to talk of terrorists like Dawood Ibrahim and Hafez Sayeed, even petty law breakers like Zakir Naik and Vijay Mallya could not be brought back to India. A big country like India failed to get a seat in NSG and UNSC and also could not get a well known terrorist like the founder of Jaish e Muhammad, declared a world terrorist by the UN.
Today Indians are a disappointed lot. All their hopes of seeing good days have been dashed to the ground. The memories of 8th November 2016 are still haunting them.
(The author is a IAS Retd former Financial Commissioner J&K. Feedback to the author at 09748635185 or firstname.lastname@example.org)