Why Atal Bihari Vajpayee Could Never Have Gone for Demonetisation

Modi’s true tribute to Vajpayee on his 92nd birthday would be to adopt his fine qualities.

5 min read
Hindi Female

(India’s former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee passed away on 16 August. This article has been republished from the archives.)

I support Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to demonetise old, high-denomination currencies. The decision is bold, historic and, in the long run, highly beneficial to the Indian economy. Even though it has caused temporary hardships to every section of Indian society and disruptions to every sector of the economy, it will eventually benefit the country in many ways.

First, it will make transactions easy, fast, and efficient, by removing unproductive intermediations and saving the most productive resource every human being has – time. It will thus accelerate economic activities, which means growth in both prosperity and employment.


Second, It will make almost all transactions transparent. Of course, transparency also casts a far higher responsibility on the government not to trespass on citizens’ privacy and not to misuse information available to it for narrow political ends or to allow its machinery to indulge in new ways of harassment and corruption.

Third, since both the above-mentioned benefits would depend on, and be made possible by, interconnected digital platforms, India will take a big leap forward to march ahead in the era of sunrise technologies.

In the 21st century, to be digital is to be future-ready. Demonetisation is going to make India future-ready, if it is properly implemented. And it is still a big “IF” as far as implementation goes.

Not Possible to Compare Vajpayee and Modi

One current topic of discussion, both in BJP and non-BJP circles is: Would Atal Bihari Vajpayee have taken the demonetisation decision? Assuming he had, how would he have communicated it to the people, and how would he have dealt with its political opponents? In other words, the thrust of this discussion is some kind of comparison between Vajpayee and Modi.

Comparisons, as they say, are odious. It is not possible to compare apples and oranges.

Thus, the answer to the first question − “Would Atal Bihari Vajpayee have taken the demonetisation decision?” – is a clear ‘No’.

Why? Because he simply could not have, even if he wanted to. The kind of coalition constraints he faced, both in his first 13-month term between 1998 and 1999 and also in his second term between 1999 and 2004, would not have allowed him to take a decision as sweeping as this, and, moreover, one fraught with the obvious risk of causing temporary suffering to the people.


Vajpayee’s Time Had Coalition Compulsions & Lack of Digitisation

Remember that Chandrababu Naidu, Andhra Pradesh chief minister and Telugu Desam supremo, has already expressed some reservations about demonetisation even though his party is a constituent in the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance.

Shiv Sena, another NDA partner, has done the same.

Modi’s NDA faces virtually no coalition compulsions. This was not the case with Vajpayee’s NDA. Without the absolute majority he enjoys in the Lok Sabha, even Modi would not have dared to take the decision he did on 8 November.

The other reason why Vajpayee could not have taken this decision is equally compelling.

The digital infrastructure now in place in India just did not exist during his prime ministerial tenure.

The ‘Aadhaar’ card scheme, with its unique e-identification, authentication and robust security provisions, came after 2004. It was a revolutionary initiative of Dr Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led UPA government, which has come as a boon to the Modi government.

Even though Vajpayee took some bold and farsighted policy steps to boost information technology and mobile telephony – he presciently described IT as “India’s tomorrow” – the growth of smartphones, mobile banking, online commerce and digital payment gateways, etc, are all post-Vajpayee developments.

These have hugely helped Modi. The inference is simple and obvious. What one can do with today’s technological enablement, one could not have done – one could not even have imagined – in the decades past. Similarly, what technology can further enable tomorrow and day after, no one – not even Modi – can do today.


Ludicrous for Modi to Blame Indira Gandhi

Precisely for this reason, it was untenable and unwarranted on the part of Modi to have criticised former prime minister Indira Gandhi for not showing the “courage” to demonetise high value currency in 1971.

“Had the decision been taken then, the country would not have been destroyed (seen ‘barbaadi’) like this,” he said recently.

It is ludicrous for him to blame the Congress government’s failure to take the demonetisation decision more than four decades ago for “all these difficulties we are facing now”. Even if Indira Gandhi had taken the decision in the early 1970s, its benefits would not have been even a fraction of what Modi’s decision can potentially bring to the Indian economy today and tomorrow.

Modi’s criticism against the Congress is also hypocritical. He has said that Indira Gandhi did not accept the demonetisation advice given to her because of her party’s need to collect large amounts of cash in high currency notes for contesting elections. He is right on this count.

However, can Modi and the BJP claim in all honesty that they never took black money to contest elections? As far as the political parties’ dependence on black money to contest elections, and also to conduct their routine activities, is concerned, the Hindi proverb says it all: “Iss hamam mein sab nange hain.” (Everyone is naked in this bathroom.)

Crucial Difference In Politics of Vajpayee and Modi

Therefore, the fight against black money, and the success of demonetisation in general, calls for national unity and consensus. For this, Modi needs to be large-hearted.

For instance, is it not obligatory for the prime minister to gratefully and adequately acknowledge the good work done by Dr Singh’s Congress-led government in unveiling the Aadhaar scheme?

Could Modi have taken the demonetisation decision had the UPA government not established the Unique Identification Authority of India under the visionary leadership of Nandan Nilekani, and had the UIDAI not so far issued more than 107 Aadhaar numbers to the residents of India?

This is where we see a crucial difference between the politics of Vajpayee and Modi.

Vajpayee, both in the opposition and as prime minister, sought to promote politics of national consensus with sincerity and exemplary commitment. He never indulged in unnecessary blame games.

Modi would help himself and the nation by adopting his fine qualities. That would be a true tribute to the ‘Ajaatshatru’ (a person with no enemies) in Indian politics, whose 92nd birthday his countless admirers will be celebrating.

(Sudheendra Kulkarni was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He tweets at @SudheenKulkarni.)

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