When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that he’d be addressing the nation at 8 in the evening on November 8, there was a lot of speculation as to what issues he’d be addressing in particular.
The Kashmir valley has come to a standstill for nearly four months. A young boy has disappeared from a university campus after getting into an altercation with the BJP’s youth wing and has been missing for more than 25 days. Elected Members of Parliament from opposition parties have been arrested by the police. Home Minister Rajnath Singh was seen sharing the stage with gau rakshaks and making ludicrous statements like “humans and cattle share the same genes.” A news channel was blocked for a day by the Ministry of I&B, and then the order was put on hold when the channel challenged it in front of a court. A former army man committed suicide accusing the government of delaying funds due to him under the OROP scheme.
Indeed the number of issues that the country has been waiting to hear from the Prime Minister are endless. But just like his predecessor who he criticized to bits, Modi has maintained a staunch silence in the wake of all these happenings, so when he decided to address the nation, all eyes and ears were on him.
Instead, the Prime Minister decided to ignore all the issues mentioned above, and went on to demonetize 500 and 1000 Rupee notes in India, effective from the following day at midnight. He said that this move would help the government tackle the menace of black money and corruption. For flavour, he also added that it would aid in apprehending smugglers and terrorists. Banks would remain shut for the next day and ATM machines would not be functional for the next two. After which every citizen would be able to get the notes exchanged for those of smaller denominations from Post Offices and banks, or deposit the money in their accounts till December 30th. For the next 72 hours, railway and airplane counters, government hospitals, government authorized cooperative stores and milk booths, crematoriums and burial grounds, and gas stations would accept the 500 and 1000 rupee notes. He also announced the introduction of new 500 and 2000 rupee notes in the market.
The announcement sent many into frenzy, especially those with limited access to liquid cash in smaller denominations. With the rising inflation over the past few years, where the price of an average packet of cigarettes or an Uber ride costs 250 rupees, it wasn't surprising that a large number of people were in a possession of mostly the demonetized notes. Moreover, this comes at a time when bank details and debit card information has been severely compromised and accessible by hackers. Queues outside ATMs started growing, cars flocked petrol pumps, and paranoid housewives in Delhi were reported to enter shops and buy everything on display.
Modi fans celebrated across the country. Modi had soon replaced Trump and Clinton on most news channels. Hashtags such as #CorruptionFreeIndia and #ModiFightsCorruption spread across social media, even as opposition leaders and free thinking individuals (also known as anti nationals) raised questions about the motives and the manner of implementation.
The positive effects of this move (if any) will have to be seen in the long run, depending on the quantum of unaccounted money recovered and to what use the money is put for. But for now, the working class people are facing severe inconveniences due to the Prime Minister's sudden announcement.
It is also a huge political gamble for Modi. If implemented successfully, this move would ensure Modi another term as Prime Minister. However, if it fails, it is going to come back to haunt him during the elections in 2019, the same way Godhra did in 2014.
Modi came to power by promising to bring changes in policy. However, by and large, there have been no major policy change from the times of the UPA regime. Halfway through the tenure, a significant number of people view the government as a failure on all fronts. Prime Minister Modi has been facing criticism for being ineffective, and with the demonitization, he's ensured that every vote winner will be aware of the changes he can bring about. The changes need not achieve any significant results, or any results at all, but the average voter barely bothers himself with the details.
Economically, this move might have little significance. Economists and scholars have criticized it, stating that the government has displayed its lack of understanding about the very nature of black money, interpreting it as "hordes of stacked up cash", while black money refers not to a stock but to a flow which funds "black activities". However, politically, this seems like Modi's first step towards cementing his position as Prime Minister and the beginning of his campaign for the 2019 General Elections.
Many have proclaimed this to be a bold move by the Prime Minister. His supporters have termed it as the strongest move against corruption by any Prime Minister in the history of independent India; a rare display of courage. But as they say, only "fools dare where angels fear to tread".
Whether Modi is a fool or an efficient leader will depend on the efficacy and impact of this demonization, and awaits to be seen in the coming months.