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Across the aisle: The Unravelling (theindian express)

The phrase of the year 2016, at least as far as India is concerned, was ‘surgical strike’. The Oxford dictionary’s word of the year, post-truth, was largely unknown to Indians. I confess that I had not heard the word used in conversations or lectures before it was declared as word of the year.

Surgical strike is simple, easy to understand and, above all, indicates that brain and brawn have combined to produce results. It also hints at qualities such as team-work, meticulous preparation, precise execution, desired outcomes, and success. Although I bristled when the phrase was first used officially to describe the cross-border action on September 29, 2016, I had to grudgingly acknowledge that the choice of phrase was politically astute.

Unfortunately, a cross-border action is anything but a surgical strike. It serves to restore balance between two border guarding forces that stare at each other night and day, but does no more. It inflicts few casualties on the enemy. There is no damage to vital military assets. It does not alter the status quo. The Indian Army knows this, yet for some reason they played along when the government — and especially the Defence Minister — went to town crowing about the surgical strike that would teach a lesson to, and put an end to all infiltrations from, Pakistan.

Has anything changed?

2016 began with a terrorist attack on an Air Force base at Pathankot. Since then, there have been more attacks:

02-01-2016: Air Force station, Pathankot

18-09-2016: Brigade HQ, Uri

29-09-2016: ‘Surgical strike’

02-10-2016: Battalion HQ, Rashtriya Rifles, Baramulla

29-11-2016: Corps HQ, Northern Command, Nagrota

There is a pattern. The targets are military establishments. A small number of FIDAYEEN carry out the attack. They infiltrate at night and carry out the attack in the early hours of the morning. They are able to penetrate the perimeter security. The FIDAYEEN are prepared to die.

In Jammu & Kashmir, the situation on the ground is worse than it was last year. Until December 5, 2016, the comparative picture of deaths was the following:

Surgical strike on cash

As the surgical strike across the LoC was unravelling, there was another on November 8, 2016. This time it was on currency notes of the denomination of Rs 500 and Rs 1000. It was a strike, as proclaimed, to end counterfeiting, terrorist funding, and black money and corruption. The ‘inconvenience’ to the people was to last a few days. The expected ‘gain’ was huge: apart from putting an end to black money etc., the government expected to get a bonanza of Rs 3,00,000 crore in the form of a special dividend from the Reserve Bank of India.

As it turns out, the surgical strike on cash has unravelled faster — in less than a month. The queues outside banks and ATMs are still long, banks run out of cash within a few hours of opening, and most ATMs are dry and non-functional. All major markets remain closed or severely crippled. Retail business is down by as much as 80 per cent. Farmers have no cash to buy seeds or fertilisers or hire labour. Millions of people have been deprived of their daily wage or income for a month.

The unkindest cut — for the government — has been the virtual admission by the Revenue Secretary (and by the Vice Chairman, NITI Aayog) that nearly all the demonetised notes may be returned to the banking system! He did deny and clarify, but the correspondent stuck to his guns and quoted his exact words. If nearly all of the Rs 15,44,000 crore, by value, of the demonetised notes will be deposited in banks and post offices, why did the government embark upon this ill-conceived adventure that has severely dented the economy and affected the lives of millions of people?

No objective achieved

– Has the surgical strike on cash ended black money? There were at least two big, fat weddings recently and, presumably, they were conducted on shoe-string budgets! Huge caches of new Rs 2,000 notes have been seized from many persons (Rs 10 crore in Tamil Nadu!).

– Has the surgical strike ended terrorist funding? New Rs 2,000 notes were found on the bodies of two terrorists killed in an encounter in Bandipora on November 22.

– Has the surgical strike ended corruption? Within days of demonetisation, arrests were made for giving and taking bribes — in new Rs 2,000 notes — in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal and Karnataka!

– Has the surgical strike ended counterfeiting? Wait for a while and the first fake Rs 2,000 note will surface.

– Has the surgical strike got a bonanza for the government? RBI put an end to that pipe dream when, on November 7, the Governor said: “the withdrawal of legal tender status does not extinguish any of the RBI’s balance sheet (liabilities). And, therefore, there is no implication on the balance sheet as of now.” Asked if the RBI would transfer its gain to the government, Mr Patel said, “That question does not arise as of now.”

After he said that, he dealt a final blow by lowering the estimate of GDP growth in 2016-17 from 7.6 per cent to 7.1 per cent!

This is not how 2016 was supposed to end: a grave situation on the border and mounting casualties, immiserisation of the poor, and a severe blow to economic growth. The government claims there will be a ‘new normal’. Many will believe that the ‘old normal’ was better.


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