Current affair about currency

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As Mr. Modi’s unexpected announcement on demonetisation proved, all the world’s a stage and everybody can play.

If politics were theatre, Mr. Modi plays the lead role with consummate aplomb. On Tuesday, the extraordinary announcement in which he demonetised what’s estimated to be 86 per cent of all Indian currency currently in circulation for the noble cause of rooting out black money and fake notes, he delivered the decision with such admirably confident gravitas that fans of the dapper, sonorous and undoubtedly charismatic Prime Minister went into overdrive. Their gleeful support for an astonishing financial policy decision that’s certain to have far-reaching near-, medium- and long-term implications was more in keeping with the adulatory clubs run by people who adore their movie idols (superstar Rajinikanth comes to mind) than thinking, educated citizens who vote in a complex democracy.









“We have made arrangements to ensure that citizens suffer the least possible difficulty,” Mr. Modi said in his reassuring way. An unverified WhatsApp message that received many appreciative comments said Big Bazaar was going to stay open till 10.45 p.m. that night, and would be accepting Rs.1,000 and Rs.500 notes till then. But I wondered how any of this could help pharma-dependent senior citizens caught alone at home late in the evening, women in labour with lower-income families carrying wads of carefully concealed cash to pay for medical exigencies in hospitals not run by the government, students in hostels far away from home trying to hail cabs to an exam hall or an interview today, or people on trains to unfamiliar destinations: sure, cashless is the way to go, but what about them? Forget students, I know many middle-class elders and women who don’t have credit cards.



And then there’s the poor Indian. The woman who works as domestic help at our home looks thoroughly bewildered. The talk on limits set on ATM withdrawals and quick resumption of ‘normal banking’ has no meaning for her. She has been saving money for her grand-daughter’s first birthday that’s six days away, and the baby’s paternal family wants a gift in gold, but she is not sure how she is going to buy it now or, for that matter, pay for bus tickets to get to her village for the event. The flower-seller down the street faces eviction from her one-room tenement in the nearby kuppam (tenement area) for non-payment of rent and wants to borrow Rs.1,000 but I find I don’t have ten 100-rupee notes to spare for her. Can we be sure that the RBI will be able to replace legal tender back to existing levels and make it accessible to all in the next 48 hours? Does anybody have any real answers yet?





‘Surgical strikes’ on black money will cause temporary setbacks and pain, but like bitter medicine, it’s good for us, we were told. I can’t argue with that. I make no claim to being an economist. Yes, I would like to see India rid of the pestilence that’s black money and fake currency notes as much as any other law-abiding citizen. But don’t you think we should wonder if the really big guns have cash stacked by the truckloads in their backyard instead of spirited away as bullion in the Cayman Islands or somewhere suitably James Bondish? Or if destroying printed legal tender at great cost would really solve the problem permanently? Nevertheless, if Mr. Modi is in fact on the road to a grand and decisive solution for an old and festering menace, I wish him luck with it. But I remain wary of the consumption of instant news without giving myself the time to understand its ramifications, or wait for explanations from those who do.



The prime minister’s exquisitely timed announcement left conventional media, of which I am admittedly a part, scrambling for purchase. TV channels scrapped readied programming and worked the lines to find ‘expert commentators’ on the drastic development even as Mr. Modi spoke. Print media had a few more grains of time to get its coverage sorted but most late editions could only report Mr. Modi’s carefully orchestrated views, leaving analyses for the next day.



It’s a sign of the times that the reams were, therefore, substituted with memes. Here’s a sampling of the WhatsApp forwards that flooded my phone:





Rs.1,000 and Rs.500 notes, hard-earned money for most of us, presented as goat feed in an aluminium basin of the sort used to haul cement in construction sites (the goat did not appear to find it appetising) and, in another version, as paper cones for spicy snacks; ‘jokes’ such as these: “Surgical strike on all ladies now that they have to declare all savings to their husbands tomorrow morning”, “C’mon — all the Sindhis/ Gujjus/ Marwaris out there — use your brains and give us a solution”, “Don’t worry, friends, I will accept all your Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 notes without asking any question... at Rs.12 per kg” and “Today anyone can drink and drive — the maximum fine will be Rs.100”. This led to much merriment and the laugh-till-you-cry emoji was used profusely.



People also shared official guidelines downloaded from the RBI’s website but anybody trying to rationalise the situation was, as dissenters of all sorts are these days, decidedly unpopular. Or they were frowned upon as damp squibs who didn’t know how to laugh when a good joke was being told. Either way, nobody wanted to be stopped from having a thrilling time.



News is a product now. It’s malleable, exciting and impactful at the same time. In the world of WhatsApp and other forms of social media, we can consume news as well as create it. That can make us powerful, happening and, yes, very witty. The days must pass and the dust settle before we experience what financial analysts are going to tell us soon. Meanwhile, what’s theatre without drama, right?

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