Demonetization in India: The Political Economy of Waiting Time

Bhargav Rani

india-lineEverybody in this country remembers what they were doing on the evening of November 8. It is a day that not only etched itself into the annals of “world history” as a critical disjuncture in the political life of its hegemon but also crystallized our experiences of it as ineffaceable memories of a precarious time. Millions in the US and millions more around the world acutely registered the wave of emotions that overcame them as they witnessed an electoral rebellion unfold on their television sets. But for the billion odd citizens of India, November 8 brought with it its own parallel brand of historical consciousness, so much so that one couldn’t reasonably be expected to care about a Trump presidency continents away, whatever its implications be. The whole population of a nation woke up to find the very monetary basis of their everyday existence usurped – Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced that from midnight, currency notes of Rs.500 and Rs.1000 (approximately $7 and $14 USD) would no longer be accepted as legal tender. That is, 86 percent of the Indian currency was to be demonetized, turned into useless tokens of a misplaced economic vision, to allegedly crack down on black money. As the economist Amartya Sen succinctly puts it, “At one stroke the move declares all Indians — indeed all holders of Indian currency — as possibly crooks, unless they can establish they are not.”

The rhetoric informing this brash economic (political) decision was clearly laid out by the Prime Minister in his address to the nation that fated evening. The move is a concerted attack on “black money” and “terrorism” in India; it is a “war against corruption.” This rhetoric, however, while also feeding squarely into the Prime Minister’s fetish for a cashless economy, fails to contend with the profound economic and material implications of the move. Many economists and scholars have questioned the economic logic of a policy that presumes black money to be a stock of currency stuffed away in cushions and mattresses when only six percent of what constitutes black money in India exists in cash. Some have criticized the inadequacy of this measure in dealing with the economic processes generating black income or with the piles of black money in off-shore accounts, while others have questioned the legality of the policy’s implementation. While this article is not a study in the economics of the policy, it bears mentioning for context that India’s economy is predominantly cash driven, where around 45 percent of its GDP is produced in the informal sector providing employment to 80 percent of its workforce. Only 53 percent of the population even has a bank account, let alone credit cards. In effect, the Modi government is sawing at the neck to cure a headache.

This vast abyss separating the utopian presumptions of the policy and the economic realities of the people has been palpable in the immense havoc that it has wreaked across the country. Millions of people have flooded the banks and ATMs to exchange their old notes or to withdraw cash, resulting in aggravated crowds and serpentine queues running over a mile long in many places. Moreover, the new Rs.2000 note that the government has introduced into circulation, supposedly embedded with security features that deter counterfeiting more effectively, remain incompatible with the existing ATM technology, rendering over half the 202,000 ATMs in the country incapable of dispensing money. The recalibration of the ATMs is presumed to take over three weeks. Meanwhile, the agricultural sector has taken a serious hit, and over eight million workers and daily-wage laborers who earn their incomes in cash have not been paid in a month. Many small business owners have been compelled to shut shop, the domestic transport industry for goods and manufactures which runs entirely on cash has come to standstill thus affecting trade, millions are left without money for their daily expenses, and the entire cash-driven economy totters on the brink of collapse. Eighty two people have been reported dead either directly or indirectly due to the government’s brash economic move, some suffering from heart attacks while some committing suicide when faced with the prospect of losing their entire life’s savings. Whatever colors history may paint this fiasco in, perhaps the most enduring image of the demonetization move will be the endless queues of people caught in the precarious inbetweenness of an indefinite waiting.

In response to the brimming anger and resentment among the people, the government has resorted to a rhetorical maneuver that seems straight out of a morality textbook and which has gained surprising currency even among large sections of the working population immediately and adversely affected by the policy. There is no gain without pain. That the short-term hassles must be willingly borne to reap the long-term benefits to the economy. And the most scathing of the rhetorical response, the endemic condition of waiting that the move has produced across the nation is but a minor “inconvenience.” How could any self-respecting, patriotic citizen of this country dare complain about having to wait a few extra hours at the bank when what is at stake is the general good of the nation? So goes the argument. Journalists and activists have been quick and diligent to point out the willful ignorance of this rhetoric, that what the government strives to pass off as the “inconvenience” of the wait obscures the loss of lives, the loss of livelihoods, and the profound material impact that the policy continues to have on the people. However, this article stems from the perceived need to critique the state’s rhetoric of the “inconvenience” of the wait on its own terms as well, even while we remain acutely aware of its elisions and silences.

The implicit assumption in the state’s rhetoric that dismisses the everyday travails of the poor and the working classes as an “inconvenience” is that waiting is innocuous, that it is insignificant, worthy of neither value nor attention. This nonchalant dismissal of waiting as worthless is not surprising, for waiting, in its definition itself, pronounces its own insignificance. Waiting is always waiting for something or someone. To wait is to participate in a particular temporal relation, one that posits the meaning of the present as entirely dependent on the realization of an anticipated future. It is, thus, to deplete the present of any significance of its own and locate the possibility of its redemption in a future time outside of itself. Waiting can assume any meaningful significance only in retrospect, only if the waited-for comes to pass. Else it would be a pointless, unfulfilled wait. In that sense, waiting, in the present, always hinges on the brink of meaninglessness. And in histories composed primarily as a progression of events, the inbetweenness of waiting for the events has no place and no value.


But this dismissal of waiting as insignificant, while not surprising, patently ignores the politics of waiting and the labor inherent in waiting. The distinctive perception of waiting in our time is informed largely by the capitalist mode of production which has historically waged an unremitting war against waiting time. The is testified by the long history of technological advancements geared specifically towards facilitating faster methods of production, faster modes of circulation of goods and capital, faster returns on investments, and ultimately less time spent waiting for the realization of capital. And the “just-in-time” capitalism pioneered by the Japanese automobile industry in the twentieth century may be deemed as the apotheosis of this history. This cultivated antipathy towards waiting is internalized in our very mode of existence, distilled into our sinews as the capitalist “guilt” of wasted time, and it manifests in our own crusade against waiting time in everyday life. For in the relentless division and organization of our everyday lives in the service of efficiency, “time management” as we call it, waiting time is precisely that excess time, the time that remains, that which fails to be put to productive use. We have come to view time spent waiting as time wasted and we have come to regard our experience of it as irredeemably dreary. We strive feverishly to avoid any prolonged subjection to waiting, and if inescapable, we endeavor as best we can to wait on our own terms. In a society intimately attuned to the demands of capital, waiting is the curse of the wretched.

While, on the one hand, the distinctively oppressive quality of waiting, the mind-numbing boredom that it threatens us with, seems to have assumed a chronic stature in our time, on the other, the ability to escape waiting remains the sole prerogative of a dominant few, with the rest biting down the grind of the mechanized, dehumanized everyday in the hope of transcending into that few someday. In a capitalist, neoliberal world, if waiting time is a waste of time, the ability to escape waiting is not just privilege but power. It is an affirmation and fortification of class distinctions. Even in its most mundane manifestations, like the morning commute to work, waiting is steeped in networks of power. Some hop into their chauffeur-driven cars and dash across the city; some snap their fingers and hail a cab; while still some others wait patiently on the platform for the train to glide in. Some find their paycheck waiting for them in their bank accounts, some wait desperately for the next paycheck. Be it at the airport or the bus station or the pension office, how long a person must wait more often than not bears a broad correlation to her social standing, the power she wields in society.

At the same time, it must also be noted that the time of waiting is not merely an innocuous reflection of prevalent power differentials but is actively complicit in the ritualistic reinforcement of social and political demarcations and is itself a tool in the production of subjectivity in a capitalist society. That is, it is not only a mere consequence of capitalism that the poor will wait longer than the rich, but the mere fact that someone is made to wait longer is itself a violent assertion, a putting in place so to speak, that the person is poor and powerless in the system. In a society that disdains the time of waiting as wasted time and glorifies the ability to escape waiting as a marker of power, the ritual subjection of a vast majority of the masses to the ordeal of the wait is an everyday affirmation of their powerlessness. When this fact is appraised against the context of what the sociologist Henri Lefebvre called the concerted violation of the proletariat’s “right to the city,” where an increasing number of workers are pushed farther away into the suburbs due to the appropriation of the city by capital and its gated communities, the experience of the morning commute and the institutionalized ways of waiting that it perpetuates evince as the oppressive temporalities of everyday life.

And yet this everyday ordeal of the wait is an inescapable imposition, a necessary labor, that one cannot do away with. Without the labor of the morning commute and the subjection of the self to the oppressive experience of the wait, there can be no job, no productive labor, no wages. In a society where the worker has no ownership of the means of production, where the participation in the production process, however exploitative, is the only means of livelihood, waiting is a labor that must necessarily be undertaken and endured. For the vast majority of the poor and the working classes, waiting for the bus, waiting for the train, waiting for the paycheck, for the pension, are all everyday realities of life. But it is crucial to remember here that insofar as the labor power of the workers is also the ultimate source of profit for the capitalists, the waiting time necessarily endured for procuring wages is also a waiting time endured by the worker to enrich the capitalist. It is the waiting that is the inevitable labor that goes into bringing oneself to work every day, to produce the goods or perform the services that lead to the accumulation of capital. And yet, it is the time that is not compensated for by the capitalist. The labor of waiting is something the worker must undertake at her own expense. It is a cost that she must incur from her own disposable time. If we are to go by Marx’s assertion that wealth rests on the creation of disposable time, then waiting time is a taxation on the little to nothing disposable time of the already impoverished worker.

Thus, for Modi and his entourage to characterize the ordeal of millions of people queuing up for hours every day outside banks and ATMs in the hope that they may withdraw their own money as an “inconvenience” is, to put it mildly, a perverse distortion of reality. It not only belies the establishment’s contemptuous disregard for the labor that goes into the everyday lives of the country’s working classes but also ritualistically reinforces their perceived impotence by subjecting them to the most insidious of all forms of waiting – a waiting whose realization is incessantly deferred. Every day, innumerable people flock to the banks for hours in desperation, unable to go to work or open shop, only to be sent back at the end of the day deprived of their own money because of a banking establishment that is hopelessly unprepared for the responsibility thrust on them. What demonetization has brought about is a world that threatens to devolve into a Beckettian nightmare, as people find themselves inextricably suspended in a meaningless wait. But most importantly, at a material level, demonetization must be viewed for what it really is. Insofar as every hour that a worker spends waiting in queue is a cost that she must incur from her own hardly disposable time and is paid for by the now inflated labor needed to sustain herself in everyday life, what demonetization essentially amounts to is an indiscriminate taxation of the poor. Modi’s quixotic crusade against a specter of black money and his pipe dream of a cashless economy are being paid for by the preciously valuable time, money, of the working poor.

Perhaps the most insulting aspect of the government’s cursory dismissal of the people’s costly labor of waiting as an “inconvenience” is its patronizing, aphoristic call for patience. There is no virtue in patience if it means a jaded apathy towards the state’s uncompromising assault on its people. Nor there is any virtue in it if what it requires is tacit complicity in refusing the poor access to their own property, in refusing them a means to live. In the parlance of our time, patience is just a watchword for political docility. But the Modi government seems to have bitten off more than it can chew this time. In its cavalier dismissal of the endemic waiting of the masses as an “inconvenience,” it also fails to discern the incubation of its own undoing in these very mundane experiences of everyday waiting. For the apparent nothingness of waiting, its meaningless inbetweeneness, when allowed to be made conscious of itself, is also the kernel of revolutionary possibility, the rumblings of which we hear in the simmering anger and resentment of the masses in India today. A waiting that recognizes itself, that becomes aware of its own precarity of meaning, holds out a possibility, however minute, of distilling into a revolutionary consciousness that no platitudes on patience can suppress. If the whole demonetization fiasco is not quelled soon, the people’s patience for their Beckettian misery is bound to evaporate, and the Modi government, by forcing vast congregations of disgruntled masses out on the streets, has effectively organized its own opposition.


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