Indian government’s demonetization step – an object lesson in today’s world

All Writings, Government, Individual, Society / Monday, May 15th, 2017

In the life of a nation, there come times when landmark decisions are made.  The decision itself stands to define the future course of that nation.  As it is, we are now part of the global whole and therefore, significant decisions create waves that easily go beyond national borders.  The ideas of governments, their ambitions, and specific information about daily events and trends over periods of time are noticed by governments and interested individuals and organizations far away.  The practical solutions emerging in one part of the world could stand to be applied as is, or made to work well with specific, localized modifications.

The step to demonetize high value Indian currency notes of 500 and 1000, came as a shock to the system.  It also came as a shock to a lot of people.  The sheer volume of the demonetized currency was enormous – roughly 86% of all cash in the country!  In the peculiarities of the Indian economic and social system, this one step would be understood gradually.  It is quite usual to find articles that take one aspect of the impact, then criticize or commend the action of the government; perhaps even written with a for-or-against mindset.  As time passes by, it is truly an examination of human behavior, thinking, attitude, foresight, beliefs, affiliations, loyalties, ambitions, and objectives…as exemplified in speech and actions.  With such a major move, there may be certain insulated parts of society, but no one can/should escape the effects.

Changing the way people look at money
Changing the way people look at money

The story of the Indian society has been one of prolonged inequality.  While cultural and social differences persist at the level of beliefs nurtured by upbringing, the economic difference has existed for reasons that can still practically be addressed at the material level.  One cannot truly blame the poor, hardworking people who can do simply nothing to match the wealth and success of some other individuals.  The aspirations of the poor are crushed even more by their new ability to behold in greater detail, the elusive riches and comforts of the rich and the super-rich.  Time has gone by, generations have suffered, and the hope of change has simply been beaten into the hard, barren ground of the Indian social inequality.

The persistence of inequality that should have been addressed powerfully in the past, has brought with it the rise of mindsets and issues that have gone deep into the psyche of the general society.  Attitudes and beliefs have become hardened.  Of course, there are deep reasons for the same, but those reasons persist due to the ongoing inequality; education, works, noble behavior and such have not been as effective as one would have hoped.  Those reasons include a tremendous mixture of religion, superstition, objectivity, experience, and a mix of modern and ancient systems of thought.  Demonetization symbolically presents a significant landmark, not the beginning or end of this journey!

If that visible economic inequality could have been countered by some means, the evidence of “social rebalancing” would have gradually worked to affect those mindsets.  As it is, instead of old mindsets changing, they became only further set with the passage of time.  The shock to the system created by demonetization would easily have been absorbed, and quite frankly, not needed if the inequalities ceased to exist with the passage of time, especially since independence in 1947.

With a little time to observe one can see, there is an attempt to make a systemic and ideological change regarding the wealth in the Indian society, for wealth seems a common denominator of status and security in society in India and across the world.  The implications are practical and far-reaching.  Such tremendous differences in economic status have existed between the rich and the poor, and it had little to do with merit or hard work of the individual in many cases.  Without delving into religious or political convictions, the common currency of a country is a common factor that unites people.  The same currency note has the same value for all the people, regardless of all other differences such as gender, age, education etc.  To a teacher, or a judge, or a cobbler, or a beggar, or a toddler each respective denomination note has the same value.  Upon demonetization, every individual currency note of 500 and 1000 lost its intrinsic value per note, equally.  It was assumed that those with illicitly gained prosperity would lose more than the poor, and it was true where the prosperity was in the form of cash hoarding.

One could think of a change toward insistence on technology and digitizing payment methods, as a means for stricter control over taxations and surveilling all transactions.  This would be an example of short-term practical implications, after effects of demonetization take hold.  These would be merely the primary effects, and yet these require adjustments in views and practices.  It has to be said, the confidence of the people has been shaken in that, a legal tender, a promise from the RBI Governor as stated on the note turned meaningless overnight at the behest of the government.  If the same logic were applied by private citizens to other documents that certify marriage or property rights or ownership of vehicles, no written promise would hold any meaning any longer!  As long as anarchy and lawlessness does not take over society, this is not the case.  Conversely, thinking people could sense the possible rise of authoritarianism.  We would ideally want to stay away from either extremes.

The same currency note has the same value for all the people, regardless of all other differences such as gender, age, education etc.

When the implications of demonetization are seen through the vision of the government, one sees a totally different picture.  It is obvious, when decisions of such magnitude are taken, they would have an impact that reaches far into the future.  The development of the policy is one thing, and it is quite another for it to be executed, implemented, and then to be socially applied by communities and individuals.  The mindsets that have developed over so many decades and a culture that has evolved over centuries, cannot be undone and remade overnight.  Even different generations at present have faced these changes in different ways.

When the media shows the implications through the vision of an affected individual, dramatizing some things and showing uncensored reality in other cases, the picture is very different because the concerns are very different.   Also, the time-frame changes dramatically.  An individual would usually consider the impact of such changes in terms of days, weeks, or months.  It is quite difficult for him to see the impact in terms of national-interests or decades.  One can rightly sympathize with such concerns over short durations and over individuals, but the sympathy cannot determine what to do or not to do in the long-term interests of a nation; any democracy otherwise, will come to a halt then.  It also has to be admitted that, an individual easily disregards national interests when he wishes to put personal interests over respect for public property or payment of taxes as an issue.

It is rare and momentous when, ordinary people feel like a part of a massive movement.  It gives the otherwise disillusioned and unoccupied a sense of purpose, a sense of mission, and a feeling of empowerment.  Those of great intellect and passion also feel impelled to determine, where they thoughtfully stand on the issues.  It has historically proven to be times of great danger too!  Hitler and Mussolini too had popular followings.  The movement stands to head into unparalleled success, or disaster.  The leadership has to try really hard to preserve the  feelings of optimism.  The people have to try really hard to maintain a mixture of a sense of denial and optimism in the face of personal problems.  Both – optimism and denial – are then repeatedly challenged when, freedom of speech is exercised with responsibility.

The leadership has to try really hard to preserve the  feelings of optimism.  The people have to try really hard to maintain a mixture of a sense of denial and optimism in the face of personal problems.

The internalizing of problems

The case of India after the decision to demonetize shows, an action that can best be described as internalizing of problems.  It is not just the economic problems that are internalized; other social issues like inequality, capitalistic greed, corruption, fight against terrorism etc are also ambitiously sought to be internally checked by this “one-of-a-series of steps”.  The challenge is, demonetization is a bold step in a fluid situation with dynamic variables.  There are variables that the government can realistically control through policies and laws, and there are variables that no one can realistically control in the present day.

It would have to be said, not all issues emanate from or can be curtailed via demonetizing cash.

Soon before this decision was taken, in November of 2016, it was common to see an optimism for prosperity and good times in the people.  Though internationally the economic situation could be seen deteriorating, as in the case of EU countries affected by extended austerity or the rising US public debt, India was continued to be seen as a bright spot by the IMF.  After the decision was taken, a different kind of optimism arose in many people; the possibility of seeing this country transform at a fundamental level of how, business is conducted.  The evidence from elections suggests that, the people are standing with the government’s decision and intention.

Quite a lot of people were forming opinions, but one thing everyone could agree on was, this is a man-made situation.  Everyone could see a problem of implementation of the decision to demonetize, although there was near unanimity about supporting the intentions of the government.  It could rightly be seen as a super-party step, as the effects would reach beyond the rule of any one party.  Only if time is allowed to pass and the new system – economic, technological, social – can replace the old, could the true effects of demonetization be judged.  It is wise to see it presently as an unsettled process, moving toward a desired national destination.

We live in the uniqueness of time when, it is possible to see the daily suffering of one person in the context of historic, national and international decisions.  Since the difference in perspectives is so very vast and moving at varying speeds, it is difficult for anyone to keep both eyes on both things.  It is physically, mentally, and emotionally difficult; after a point it is impossible.  What is bound to happen is, as long as the situation continues with relative insulation from external influence, internally there would be those who can cope and those who cannot cope.  Despite the best efforts of corporations and the government, individual casualties at the physical, economic, and psychological levels are inevitable.

In the context of external situations

There are always situations developing with neighboring countries around India – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, and Nepal.  It’s natural to have agreements and disagreements.  Some situations of course, go far beyond diplomatic exchanges.  And it is also common knowledge, especially among soldiers at the border, how cases of instigation continue despite narratives of peace and efforts of diplomacy.  It causes the everyday people to lose faith in the “peace process”.  Many get so disillusioned over time, they think it naive to entertain hopes of any peace, and see such processes as mere charade.  What people in general rightly fail to understand is, how a step to affect the internal functionings of India could possibly do to produce peaceful results with the neighboring countries which have their independent systems.  The hope is, the effects of a changed mindset and government development programs will produce good conditions within the affected territory of India, and produce conditions favorable for peaceful relationships with neighboring countries.  Whether such a vision is naive or bold, time will surely reveal.

In the modern context, on the larger scale there are “international groups of power” that have continued to exist, particularly after WW2.  A number of nations connect together for common interests, or on the basis of common history or ideology.  When such interests are sustained, it is commonly understood that these international groups will hold their cohesiveness during times of war and difficulties as well.  It could be said, due to the political divisions among nations in power-blocks, there is an unending threat to peace.  The peace we see is, a kind of an ongoing bargain and we don’t know when, old ambitions might be rekindled not to be put out by reason or fear.  So, it really has continued to be an ongoing process of making trade deals and treaties.  It is not the peace that comes from ongoing respect, admiration, and love.  Mankind has just not grown to such a mindset because, the pettiest of factors affect relationships between humans and among nations.

What happens in one country is known, even by the people of another country.  Very specific details used to become public knowledge over time, but now it is transmitted instantly even to the level of individual perspectives.  One person can live telecast his opinions or events to a worldwide viewership.  The intentions of the person or institution become of secondary concern, as people are carried away by curiosity or pre-existing notions.  Since, before the appearance of social media and independent news sources over the Internet, the public image of a country was protected and projected very carefully, the result now is that vast numbers of people are still experiencing difficulty in overcoming old ideas.  In the case of demonetization, people elsewhere are affected by the national government narrative, but there is sufficient independent news to offset any creation of glory.

Also, changes in policies of some countries has a much more far-reaching effect.  In terms of currency, India is not that country.  But in terms of trade and military interests, India is a country that has a global presence.  Aspirations in recent times indicate India’s ambitions, as defense expenditures and purchases of military hardware increased greatly alongside the demonetization processes.  So, while there have been ongoing attempts to reform the country from within, there are also attempts to make the country strong against possible, external aggression.

The ongoing and rapidly changing situation around the world such as with the 2 Koreas, Japan, EU, US, and Russia – each with its own specific internal and external effects – provides interesting context to the decision for demonetizing, especially the timing of it.

Attached to the ongoing processes after demonetization are, international goals and intentions.  Of course, any country that has similarities with India in terms of its underlying ideologies and shades of it – secularism, capitalism, democracy – would be interested in studying the outcome.  There is going to be a national outcome, but when the outcome will be broken down to the level of classes, communities, and individuals an incredibly complex picture is bound to emerge.  In terms of governance, administration, and policy implementation we are yet very far from the day and infinitely wishful when, specificity is possible down to the level of individuals.  Since it is desirable, individuals of the present day have taken it upon themselves to have a voice, especially if that voice represents a minority community.  How lamentably that seems to absolutely disappear at the level of great populations, nations, and the globe!  Money is used around the world, including cash, but little exists by way of unanimous consent to have an effective, equitable, global system.  Perhaps, it is still possible!

In writing these words, I do envision a time when national and political boundaries would melt away in the minds of the people.  Of the real boundaries that do exist as created by the separation of languages and geography, the boundaries created by politics are far less tangible and erasable.  If interests of power are proven to be the greatest reason for existence of such man-made boundaries then, by the Hand of the True One they will be dissolved, if they are not done by the hands of men.

The present day wave of materialism is bound to continue even more around the world, and demonetization only checks it at a material level.  It is the response of the people to changes in policy regarding wealth that checks it at a social, psychological, and spiritual level.  There hasn’t been a marked reform in the mindset of people around the world in how, money is viewed.  There are sparks of altruism in specific organizations, but the concept of money is so deeply set in the minds of people that to reform it is not possible to do within a short time.  In India, the concepts of transparency and accountability are being combined with the existing concept of money.  It is hoped, these can help to check the negative effects of corruption.  This effort and attempt is something the world can emulate.  Surely, it can be encouraged at smaller levels in societies that can maintain an ongoing process of transparency and accountability.  The world is too large to be driven in any one direction by the will of man, or even by the will of many men.

In India, the concepts of transparency and accountability are being combined with the existing concept of money.

It will be truly desirable if, governments can approach this and other issues with the intent of providing for the needs of their citizens.  If the step of demonetization can simply be understood as a strong step taken to establish a social equilibrium with the passage of time as-far-as the civil society is concerned, then it is a lesson to the international community of leaders.  Astounding levels of prosperity concentrated in the hands of few cannot be a desirable goal for governments or for societies, even if it is most desirable for ambitious individuals.  This goal is justified only if, the ambition and achievement later translates into an instrument of social welfare and betterment of other individuals.  Otherwise, it is an obvious foundation for later manipulation and exploitation.

We do stand in a position today at an international level where, it is possible for governments to collaborate unlike ever before.  The true enemy of mankind at this time, as far as international collaboration is concerned is, nationalism.  That old ideas need to be overcome and replaced by internationalism.  And if we are inclined to say even at this time of supreme communication technology and information sharing that, nationalism cannot be overcome, then a time like this is possibly not going to come again in many lifetimes yet to be!  Our answer is only in moving forward, while understanding and applying the relevant lessons from history.

How do these thoughts connect with demonetization?  In a very clear way!  Much of the narrative and institutional interest regarding demonetization confines itself to national interests, whereas there do not exist many ideas in the context of the larger, global picture.  Leaderships around the world have the best opportunity today, to expand their vision and think like multinational corporations (for lack of a better example), in uniting peoples of many kinds.  Even in the case of demonetization, if the same decision were to be taken with the Euro, the implications would be much more far-reaching than with the Indian Rupee.  The lessons; the precedent; the flaws and correctness of implementation; the attitude of the present government; the response from the opposition parties and from the judiciary; the social, corporate, and individual response; the ongoing processes to sustain the country’s path toward a future vision – all of this is bound to be available for examination to all the nations interested in studying this case.  The effects of demonetization are by no means over!

The path toward progress is paved with sacrifice and peace

Yes, this is the belief we can have.  It is not pleasing to messengers of capitalism and those promising prosperity.  It is not what fomenters of war and hatred want to hear.  Demonetization is an example where, a country made an internal correction instead of disrupting the functions and society of another country.  IF wealth truly were the goal, it would be possible to simply ignore everything and everyone and have an all-out conquest of a desirable land with natural resources!  Would it not be an option?  India has the firepower, but never has it shown the will to do so in its long history.  This is a remarkable country, and it has a living message for the world of today.

Demonetization is an example where, a country made an internal correction instead of disrupting the functions and society of another country.

Peace, pacifism, sacrifice all sound rather outdated to the modern man.  In fact, it would be considered utterly incoherent with the development of great Western powers.  The teachings of Christ so advertized, had they been applied, the West would not be what it is today.  Christ was the opposite of ambition and greed and violence!  None of the advancement of the West, none of its prosperity and its great kingdoms would have come about…and the world would have been very different!  Other great teachers have walked this earth – East and West – and we simply consider them weak, infantile, unrealistic, and naive for having pursued the paths they taught and walked.  It’s no secret, those great men have become the butt of jokes and subject of ridicule and mockery.  Their vision and words either get reserved into the extreme of great lectures on faith, or they get derision from those who see those as eccentrics and misfits in this world.

The act of demonetization is an example of an extreme action.  At the same time, we all see a very polarized world where extremes are thriving.  The expectations of the people are not fulfilled as desired, but there do exist less-than-physically-violent means to address issues that affect human society, yes, societies as large and complicated as countries.  The greatest reasons to support such a step as demonetization are the vision and the intention.  If there is agreement on the vision and intention, implementation can be refined.  It is also possible that an altogether different method of implementation could be thought of, one that the present Indian government was unaware of or it lies beyond the knowledge and means currently available!

A historic decision on demonetization – one of several taking place on the global scene that includes the U.S. election results, Brexit, and the French election results….all these decisions stand to redefine the world to be.  There are human inventions like money and politics that do not make sense unless one could study the origins and purposes of these ideas, and yet  in spite of understanding the ongoing struggles that happen due to the existence of these in the human world is deeply interesting.  A shock should at the very least, help people to reconsider their views.  It should also help to reveal the inner workings of their minds and hearts.  From the personal to the social, we are moving in the direction of the world to be and these times of change are also times of examination.  If peace, rather than violence, defines the times of the future it will only be by the combined will of humans to such an end.  A 100 or 500 or 1000 years from now, won’t it be interesting to consider the significance of the times we are living in, in view of the human efforts to reform society through ingenuity, courage, and a sense of purpose?  The bold step of demonetization will be remembered for as long as human history of nations is preserved.

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