IN the past, Mahatma Gandhi had experimented with this spirit of sacrifice and, now, Modi has tried it again. The results were astonishing and should serve to rewrite the rules of the political game.
There is an inclination to often treat every passing year as a terrible one. The terrible fire in Mumbai that needlessly snuffed out so many lives is likely to reinforce such an impression and trigger hope that 2018 will be far, far better.
The hope that 2018 will be a better year for each of us personally and for India is natural. The idea of betterment is ingrained in human psychology and without it both individuals and society will stagnate and, by implication, deteriorate. However, a desire to do better should not automatically prompt the facile conclusion that the past was terrible.
In hindsight, 2017 was a very exciting year for India. It was a year that was marked by disruptive change and it was a year when India’s underlying resilience was fully tested. It was a year that, as a country, we successfully negotiated and came out – if not smelling of roses – with a far greater faith in ourselves as a nation.
The evidence is quite compelling. The year began on a dramatic note, with every Indian and every institution of the state trying to cope with the after effects of demonetisation that led to the scrapping of currency notes amounting to some 86 per cent of the cash in circulation. This was a colossal challenge and involved the whole country. Every individual had to make adjustments – some big and others nominal – and this principle of adjustments extended to trade and manufacturing. How did the country cope with this jolt?
The answer is surprisingly positive. There was loud grumbling and even the loss of temper. In one or two places, local difficulties resulted in skirmishes and brawls. But overall, India coped with this bout of severe cash rationing with spectacular equanimity and even grudging humour. The Opposition, aided and abetted by economists, sincerely believed that the country would never digest a disruption of such magnitude and would revolt. It felt that the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election provided them the grand opportunity to tell Prime Minister Narendra Modi that Indian civilisation was wedded to gradualism.
The protests didn’t work. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the outcome of the UP polls took everyone by jaw-dropping surprise. The electorate, it would seem, not only accepted their own personal inconvenience, but endorsed it. The reason, gauged in hindsight, defied conventional wisdom. The verdict suggested that people were ready to accept personal inconvenience if it assured a better future for the nation. In the past, Mahatma Gandhi had experimented with this spirit of sacrifice and now Modi tried it again. The results were astonishing and should serve to rewrite the rules of the political game.
The quest towards a more rule-abiding country is the defining hallmark of 2017. There was a belief that something drastic just had to be done to roll back the advancing tide of venality and dishonesty. People weren’t exactly sure how exactly demonetisation would achieve such an objective. But, there was a vague realisation that those with large pools of black money – more often than not held in hard cash – would now have to either come clean or confront legal harassment.
The fact that 99 per cent of the cash wound its way back into deposits in banks doesn’t alter the picture or make the demonetisation process spurious. Today, the government has the requisite data to go after individuals guilty of evading tax. Whether the tax department does so clinically and without grace or favour is another matter. And the government will be tested on its political will. But, the data suggesting that India has managed to notch up an additional 78 lakh or more direct tax payers in just about two years is revealing. It suggests that for the first time in decades, there has been a rollback of the black economy. There is a definite turning of the tide.
Likewise, the rolling out of the Goods and Services Tax was accompanied by familiar confusion and many loud protests. Unfamiliarity with the new tax regime was one cause. However, what really drove the protests was the reality that in India, tax avoidance was a habit and at times a necessity. The money saved on not paying tax gave many businesses the real competitive edge in a tough market, where margins were traditionally low. The GST has attempted to bring Indian business in tune with modern practices that are globally accepted. Predictably, it has been resisted by traders and their collective pressure forced some dilution of the norms of compliance. But, the principle of tax paying as a feature of legitimate business has been established. That is a huge step forward.
Election results are transient. Today, the BJP is in a commanding position of having established its dominance in northern and western India. The Congress has shrunk to an all-time low, although it seems re-galvanised with the assumption of leadership by Rahul Gandhi. But, these equations can change, without necessarily changing the country. For example, the Hindu tilt that the BJP injected into politics has now been embraced by the Congress and even the Trinamool Congress for the sake of expediency. It is still too early to know whether or not this will become a pattern for future elections. Maybe after 2019 it will.
But for the moment, 2017 will remain the year India had change thrust on it. The country responded by embracing it. I believe that the changes will make India a better place to live it. In time to come, we will recall 2017 as a landmark year.
The author is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a Presidential Nominee to the Rajya Sabha.