“ ‘Tis nobler in the mind…”

Looking at the objective third party facts that seem to be emerging, it doesn’t seem like Prime Minister Modi’s gamble of demonetization has paid off in terms of the black money conundrum. It has so far produced arguably mixed results on the fronts of black money, preventing corruption or counterfeiting. Further, there is a quantity of anecdotal evidence and data on lost jobs, micro and small sector troubles and the return of thousands, if not lacs, of rural migrants back to the homestead, in distress. Given that, it seems to have become quite the puzzle as to why poor Indians aren’t up in arms against demonetization.

Hamlet once questioned whether
“…Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind
To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take up arms against a sea of troubles…”
That, Hamlet, depends entirely on how you frame the argument, as Sir Humphrey would tell you!

The entire narrative of demonetization has been masterfully constructed by a skillful communicator to ensure that the outcome is less relevant than the act itself. Firstly it was pitted as an act against black money, and against black money hoarders. Very few people living in India can argue against the scourge of black money and the fact that it has always been seen as the victory of the rich and powerful amoral few against the vast majority of law abiding middle class and poor citizens. Thus the argument that it will lead to the downfall of these hoarders has met with a frank schadenfreude from millions of humble citizens who hoped to see the mighty tremble before the law of the land.
Secondly, the PM spoke about it as his move and not that of ‘this government’. It was “I, Narendra Modi”. Much as some of his party members may resent the absolute power that implies, it also makes the act more relatable and heroic. It is not a formless institution, the BJP, which is vowing to fight against corruption and dark powers, it is one man. Institutions can be and are seen as venal, subject to outside influence. But when it is one man pitting himself against forces older and superior, it becomes the stuff of mythology. Irresistibly, David vs Goliath!

Thirdly, the PM spoke about the possible danger he faced – “they could try to assassinate me, but I will not retract the move”, he cried. And he also spoke about the fact that if it didn’t work, he would renounce his post and move away with his ‘bori’. While there were no public threats to his life, his claimed willingness to risk his life serves to underline his authenticity. And his willingness to renounce it all turns him into a saint, and one who is disinterestedly working for the good of others rather than to line his own pockets, as many Indians have come to expect of their politicians.

The final masterstroke was exhorting ordinary Indians, the poor and the middle class, to join what was tantamount to an almost holy war against venal forces.  Indians have always believed in ‘No pain, no gain’. So the inconveniences, the standing in lines and the many days of going without money to pay for basic goods and services was turned into the common man’s ritual purification through which he proved his moral cleanliness and superiority over those who complained, a sacrifice he made for the greater good. It became a nobler act to stand and suffer in silence, rather than take up arms against this sea of troubles, because the cause was far greater than minor inconveniences!

In Indian philosophy, morality is never black or white; it is the context and imagery around an issue that determines its morality. If Arjuna were to kill his grandfather when he was unarmed, in a fit of pique – would that still have been considered moral? Or was it the context of the war in the Mahabharata, which pitted grandnephew against granduncle? The PM understands this basic truth of the Indian psyche extremely well and thus has turned demonetization into a Satyagraha. In a Satyagraha, even if you lose, there is no indignity or defeat, because taking up the cause is worth far more!


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