It was about 8:00 on the morning of November 9 in Mumbai, India. I sat down with the internet to talk with my husband Stan in Kansas, where it was 7:30 pm November 8. Like many other now-shell-shocked Americans, he was watching what we thought would be the finally-final episode of America’s Got President. The look on his face said that even at that early hour, things were whirling into new territory.
Indeed, I found myself time-traveling—in a very “Hindoo” sort of way—when at that moment, my sister brought my attention to a headline on the front page of that morning’s Times of India. It read, “Wonder Fish Chanakya in Chennai Predicts Donald Trump Victory.” The article explained what had happened the previous day: “A fish in Chennai has thrown its weight behind Donald Trump. The event was organized by [a] Chennai-based NGO… Two boats bearing pictures of Trump and Hillary and carrying fish feed were released into the tank. Incredibly, the fish picked Trump’s boat on seven occasions… founder-secretary A J Hariharan said they wanted to capitalize on the curiosity surrounding the presidential race to raise awareness of malaria.”
And, wonder of wonders, much to liberal-horror, the soothsaying of “Wonder Fish,” just like that of Michael Moore, was coming true even as Stan and I were talking. (Unlike Chanakya’s fishy wonderings, Moore’s prediction of a Trump victory was based on well-founded calculations; on the other hand, Moore raised no awareness of malaria.)
However, people living in the Indian countryside were not waking up that morning with “Wonder Fish Chanakya” on their minds. Far from it.
The previous evening, coincidentally just before polls opened on the U.S. East Coast, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi had declared that two denominations of the country’s currency, the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, would no longer be legal tender. (The notes, worth approximately $7.50 and $15.00 at current exchanges rates, accounted for 86 percent of the total cash value in circulation at the time.) Indians had until December 30 to exchange or deposit their notes, but there was far from enough new currency in the banks or ATMs to meet demand.
According to a January Hindustan Times article, “Though cash situation is better, queues can still be seen outside several ATM kiosks, primarily due to withdrawal restrictions — Rs 4,500 per day and Rs 24,000 a week.”
This out-of-the-blue “demonetization”—known in Hindi as notebandi (bandi means shutdown)—was ostensibly a strategy to target corruption, black money and terrorism, but it was actually a reckless plunge toward Modi’s wildly unrealistic vision of a “cashless” Indian economy.
The idea of a cashless economy is going to be a hard sell in a country where for most people, there’s already precious little cash to be had, where only around 30% of the population have access to financial institutions, where majority depend on hard-cash transactions for their hand-to-mouth existence, where more than 300,000 farmers have committed debt-induced suicide, and where the richest 1% own 58% of the country’s wealth.
Under a new program introduced by the Indian government, by early 2015, 125 million new bank accounts had been opened (95% of which were opened with public banks.) Three months later around 72% of the accounts showed zero balance.
As one slum dweller named Priya once told me, “What else is there for us to do? We have to simply survive till the next day. That’s all.” It is folks like Priya, who were already being crushed under the weight of subsidized state negligence via badly targeted economic policies, who have been hit the hardest. This move will simply add another layer of hardship in the lives of India’s hungry children, women, men, farmers, landless laborers, daily-wage earners. For anyone living in india’s villages, the state handing them a digital Hindu-god-like transaction gizmo is like rubbing salt in their layered wounds.
As I sit here writing this piece, Stan brings my attention to an article by Steve Coll in The New Yorker, who is also drawing parallels between what happened in India and the United States on November 8.
Coll says that he recently traveled through three cities in India, and he is right in pointing out that the general feeling among Indian urbanites is that even though the introduction of notebandi might have forced them to stand in endless lines at ATMs, they still believe in the “goodness” of the program. They—especially the poor living in Indian cities—think the government was right to go after India’s rich, no-gooders who have all that “black money” supposedly stashed away under mattresses.
But they are wrong. Because just 5 percent of domestic black money is held in cash and the rest in other asset classes like real estate, stocks, bullion, foreign exchange etc. Modi’s action does not hold the other 95% accountable.
Here are a few everyday occurrences happening in the Indian countryside post-demonetization, all of which are taken from the incomparable Peoples Archive of Rural India (PARI):
“In Chikalthana village… Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of a cashless economy seems to have been realised. Nobody has any cash. Not the banks, nor the ATMs and certainly not the people queuing up in and around them in despair.”—P. Sainath.
“‘Demonetisation has wrecked the farmers,’ said Ramkrishna Umathe… ‘For about a week, sellers and buyers (of mainly soybean and cotton) have virtually deserted our market.’”—Jaideep Hardikar.
“After Narayanappa’s family returned to Bucharla in the first week of November, finding no work on the farms, they have had to stretch their savings to meet all expenses… the cash shortage in … Canara Bank that has shaken many families in the village is not the main concern… ‘We don’t have much money with us. All we want is some work,’ says Narayanappa.”— Rahul M.
When I was in Mumbai in November, I spoke to a few people about notebandi. One of them was an autorickshaw driver named Dinesh Gupta, who is married with two children. He said, “Bahut acha kiya. Aage jaake, humare bachon ke liye achha hoga. ([Modi] did very well. [This program] will benefit our kids in the future.” I asked him about his family. He laughs and says, “You know, six of us, including my parents live in a one-room home in a chawl (slum). We just put a curtain in the middle of the room. On one side of the curtain I sleep with my wife and kids, and my parents sleep on the other side.”
I asked Gupta if he had a bank account. “Only in name. I took out a 1.8-lakh ($2643) loan from the State Bank of India to pay for the auto. And it is only because I needed the loan that I even have a bank account. But there is no balance in my account. Where is the money to put in it? Whatever I earn gets used up just to survive.” He makes roughly 20,000 to 25,000 rupees ($294 to 367) a month and is the sole earner in the family.
But this sense of optimism, despite graded hardships, among both upper-and lower-caste Indians is palpable only in the cities, where around 30% of the population lives. Please read the report by PARI to get an idea of the terrible impact notebandi has had in the rural areas where most Indians live.
At the moment Modi was declaring notebandi, liberals back in America were sure they could discern the bright light of a Clinton victory at the end of that dark talent-tunnel of America’s Got President. But it wasn’t meant to be. Liberal America’s worst nightmare was about to come true.
Now, reeling from our own November 8 votebandi, the prevailing reaction has been, understandably, to organize, protest and communicate our revulsion to Trump and all that he stands for—which, of course, is mostly himself. But we can’t let the focus of our vision and action narrow to this one man.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course I believe that we really need to fight back against this darkness. But, by concentrating only on our various Trump phobias, we let the broader slide toward catastrophe continue.
As we all know, with a Trump presidency, it is almost impossible to predict anything. And it is this unpredictability that people were/are afraid of. I agree. But, what if Clinton had won? Would you agree, given her track record, that her highly predictable itch to get this country entangled into another war was very real? Would we have been equally afraid of that?
John Pilger pointed out recently in an article titled ‘The Issue is Not Trump, It is Us,’ that “Much of America’s aggression towards the rest of humanity has come from so-called liberal Democratic administrations — such as Obama’s.” Wouldn’t a Hillary presidency have promised to be an extension of Obama’s programs—including his extremely dangerous baby, the policy of assassination-by-drones program—which inspire the loved ones of the innocent victims of our drone strikes to take revenge?
The question is not how doomed we are now, here in the darkness of the new presidency. We always were, and will continue to be, doomed, until we stop using Trump for escapist entertainment—when we get over joking about the size of his crowds or his hands and seriously take matters into our own citizen-hands. After all, we are the majority in this country.
Obsession with Trump conveniently distracts us from holding ourselves and our own inactions accountable. The time for the left to join forces and build a strong opposition against the Democratic-Republican business-as-usual machine, and the whole fucked-up system in general, was yesterday, but it’s also now.
We have to acknowledge that the domestic and foreign policy decisions taken by our past administrations—Democratic and Republican, alike—contributed to molding the hate-driven, racist version of “change” that we all have to now confront.
Let us not lose sight of the fact that the Democrats lost because of the Democrats, and our own insular focus on the ideology of “lesser evil” voting. By the way, that lesser evil ideology works both ways. A woman I know, who’s in her late 80s, said that she voted for the “lesser evil” because of Supreme Court nominations. She voted for Trump.
When Notebandi Meets Votebandi
Coll was right in pointing out that it’s populism propping up Modi and Trump. However, it is important also to point out that their respective opposition parties—the Congress and the Democrats—were also a bunch of elites, but a different, more “liberal” kind of elite. Commonly, their elitism has always embraced supporting corporate power. And, now, as I pointed out last April, the lid’s off the petri dish and the chickens have come home to roost.
The two country’s traditional, religious (and by that I mean the white Christians in the United States and lower-caste Hindus in India), working class people, who have been drastically affected by economic trends created by elite politicians—past and present—are targeting their angst by simple projecting their leaders’ bigoted, nationalist rantings on sections of society more vulnerable than they are, with the elite in both countries too busy making money to notice.
I don’t see red (conservatism) and blue (liberalism) when I see the United States’ flag, but purple. We are living in an era of what I call conlibservatism. Where, a con-game is being played in the name of liberalism, and where only the elite are being served economically. As Paul Street correctly pointed out in a recent article, “Trump really didn’t win over working class America. Clinton lost it.” In their rhetoric, Democrats were all about the people, but in their workings, writes Street, they were all about “an ever-increasing upward distribution of income, wealth, and power into fewer hands.”
And when conlibsevatism is shaken with white religion, xenophobia, islamophobia, homophobia, narcissism, nativism, misogyny, economic exclusion, saffron ideology (orange being the color of Hindutva, or Hinduness) that makes for a deadly cocktail. “Make India Hindu Again” and “Make America White Again” are the banners now flying over our government institutions. But this is not the beginning of the history of the two countries’ capitalism-driven exclusionary agenda. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that if there is to be any chance of a meaningful recovery, it is incumbent upon us to reach back into the closets of our governments’ policies past, and acknowledge the domino effect that’s handed us Modi and Trump.
The January 21 Women’s March united people fighting on all of the political fronts that were under attack before November 8 but have since become even more urgent. The high-profile rebellion aims to persevere and grow, and will be augmented by less visible but essential actions like reaching out to the victims of a Trump administration within our own communities—the immigrant population, women, the Muslim community, those devastated by fossil-fueled floods and storms, and others. But whatever actions we take as a concerned citizenry must take into account our past inactions. Then the rest of the world will take us seriously.
There is a polite saying people use in India when asking you to accommodate an inconvenience: “Could you kindly adjust?” Those words have doubtless been heard millions of times in India’s banks and shops in the weeks since notebandi. But the crises that arose in India and America on November 8 are far more than inconveniences, and, no, please, let us not adjust to them. Let’s rebel.
This essay accompanies one of my meal designs for the project series “One Pound Capitalism, a Pinch of Democracy.” Please go here if you want a taste of that.
Priti Gulati Cox (@PritiGCox) is an interdisciplinary artist and a local coordinator for the peace and justice organization CODEPINK. She lives in Salina, Kansas, and can be reached at email@example.com. Visit caste, capitalism, climate to see more of her work.