On November 8, 2016 at 8pm India changed. We were told by our Supreme Leader-and-Supreme International Tourist the following, and I paraphrase:
At the stroke of midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life, restricted freedom, unending queues and a government which keeps changing goalposts. A moment comes which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, then an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity. Where we will shun ever holding currency in our hands. So what if some of us (merely 19,702 villages) have no electricity or roads or food or potable water or bank accounts? You must simply pray to the altar of Modi and imagine that you have all this – and access to your own money.
The actual speech was of course far less riveting, but this was the essential gist of it.
Since I have little faith in the government – with good reason it seems – and had exactly Rs 2000 on me, I went and stood in the Citibank line on November 10 to withdraw the promised money we could in Rs 100 notes. I have since stood in the line again last week to withdraw Rs 100 notes to pay for parking, my gardener who said he would like some money in cash, the part-timer who needs at least Rs 1000 in cash every month to pay the rickshaw chap who takes her children to school – and simply because I like having at least some cash on me. In total, I have spent 6 hours standing in line. Thankfully, it is winter in Delhi, so queueing up from 9am while being a little nippy isn’t unpleasant.
But the offshoot of Modi’s ridiculous currency plan, which I don’t think even he understands fully, is that he has finally brought urban India together – although there has been a change in mood from the first time I stood in line till this time.
The first time, there were two lines at Citibank. One for Citibank account holders. The other for non-Citibankers who had come to exchange their money. At 9am, the Citibank line had around 50 people standing, with me being the third woman in it. By 1pm when I entered the bank, there were easily 150-200 people in it. Everyone around me, seemed to be in a relatively good mood. Laughing at our lot in life, resigned to the fact that we had to do this – and not cribbing as a result. I read 4 newspapers and started a book I had been meaning to.
I met a young couple in their Twenties, who’d brought their son along because they had nowhere to leave him. So he either sat on the lawns surrounding the bank and scribbled in his colouring book, or kept running amok. At one point he ran into the bank, only to be guided out.
There was the self-proclaimed class monitor who was at the back of the line, but kept pacing up and down telling people to stand straight and in line – till he was ticked off and asked to go mind his own business. There was the lady in her 60s who tried to sweet talk people and cut into line. There were men discussing their stocks and shares. Other men who asked what book I was reading. Others who laughed when I told them they must remember to vote for Modi. It was all happiness and grudging joy.
The non-Citibank line though was far from merry. There were daily labourers, two women in ghunghat who looked petrified of the men around them, plumbers, old people who seemed utterly confused, most couldn’t speak English and needed many of us to help them fill in the deposit/exchange form which was written in English. It was horrific and frankly very depressing.
Three weeks down the line – pun intended – when I went to queue up at Citibank to withdraw cash on payday for my staff and for myself, things were a little different. The government had backtracked on its word that people could exchange their old Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes till the end of the year. There was now no non-Citibank line. There was a line for women, though. And since in good old North India women tend to stay home and not venture out to do menial tasks, there were only 4 of us women in line. The other line of men was already close to 60 people at 9am. The man at the front of the line had come and stood there at 4am. No one was laughing or chatting. People looked angry and displeased.
When we walked in, we found out that contrary to what the government had announced, the daily withdrawal limit was Rs 10,000 not Rs 24,000 because the bank had not been sent enough currency. The bankers also told us that within an hour, they’d run out of money. So that snaking queue outside would be told to go home. I didn’t envy the bank staff this duty.
It’s good to remember that our Prime Minister, his Prime Friend and our Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley and His BFF Amit Shah have no use for cash. Their households run thanks to taxpayer money. The petrol in their cars, the salaries for the plumbers and sweepers who may not have accounts, their groceries – they don’t pay for that.
A large part of that money which didn’t reach the bank for the ordinary taxpayer, was paid in cash to government workers and Parliament staff on pay day. Till now, not one BJP minister has visited a bank queue or a bank. They have of course given many interviews telling us that things are A-OK in India and there are no queues or people facing any difficulties.
Because in India some people are more equal than others. And seemingly more deluded than others.
Modi seems to believe in what his role model’s father told India at Independence, “To the people of India whose representatives we are, we make an appeal to join us with faith and confidence in this great adventure. This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill-will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell, with or without currency (of course those of us in the BJP, may have inexplicable access to new currency, but let’s not get into that)”.