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Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is India's foremost conservative writer and columnist
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The ingenuity of money launderers, a bet won, and some observations

WHEN THE DUST settles, the ATMs start functioning again and the social media posts about the desperate plight of the neighbourhood liberal’s maid and maali ceases, it may be worth collating a list of the most ingenious ways that those who were caught on the wrong foot went about their laundry.

The most familiar one was, of course, the payment in advance of cash to employees. The drivers in our locality spoke about how the masons, carpenters and plumbers engaged by the builder who lives in the locality were paid two years’ salaries in advance. The other common trick that worked with the connivance of bank managers or petrol pump owners was to quietly exchange the new money paid by many customers with old notes at a discount ranging from 15 to 20 per cent.

Politicians, I am told, simply disbursed their money for parking to their trusted supporters, who in turn went about finding parking spaces in either Jan Dhan Yojana or other accounts.

The most imaginative strategy was adopted by the consortium that chartered an aircraft to fly from Hissar to Dimapur with trunk loads of old cash. The destination was Nagaland because, under the terms of some old agreement, certain tribes in the state are exempt from Income Tax. There are some other categories of people who too are exempt from this tax, but it’s best not to give people ideas.

Of course, those who accepted dirty money for safe custody and conversion will expect a service charge and parking fees. But it is also likely that there will be people who when asked to return the principal will feign ignorance. I know these likely instances of gaddaari will be impossible to quantify, but economists studying the consequences of this huge exercise may find it worthwhile to estimate the quantum of unintended redistribution of wealth. The beneficiaries won’t be found among the middle classes or Income Tax payers. They will be those who probably have the greatest need.

I HAPPILY ACCEPTED a new 2,000-rupee note extracted from the economist and pollster Surjit Bhalla for a bet I won on the outcome of the US presidential election. I will share the winnings with Odisha MP Jay Panda, who was my Trump partner.

When we took that bet a week or so before November 8th, neither Jay nor I imagined we would be a thousand rupees richer. However, because Surjit kept vehemently insisting that Hillary Clinton would enjoy a “landslide victory”, both of us thought it would be fun to question his astonishing over-confidence.

Now that the election is over, pollsters are agonising over the results and dissecting their own inability to predict the outcome. The most common explanation centres on ‘shy voters’—the guys who didn’t want to reveal their voting preference because they were wary of the reaction.

What this suggests is something deeply disturbing. It would seem there are groups that are certifying authorities of ‘respectability’. Anything that deviates from that norm is automatically portrayed as vile and prevents people from speaking their mind. This phenomenon was dubbed the ‘social desirability bias’ and witnessed Donald Trump doing better in online polls than ones which involved engaging with an interviewer.

Is there a ‘social desirability bias’ at work in India? Maybe not in the big bad world but certainly in the English-speaking world. And almost certainly in the echo chambers of the media.

AS WE APPROACH Christmas, the hoary battle between ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Seasons Greetings’ or ‘Happy Holiday’ has resurfaced. I have found ‘Seasons Greetings’ cards (or email messages) silly and meaningless. Maybe it is because I spent a very long time living in what was then a Christian West (alas, it has become too secular for my taste) that I don’t balk at saying ‘Merry Christmas’. It doesn’t remotely challenge my very pagan faith, nor does it suggest being infected with cultural imperialism. It actually reminds me that, in a very personal sort of way, Christmas is a time for family, friends and some uninhibited gluttony.

TUCKED AMONG my notes, I found this passage from Thomas Carlyle. Amid the kerfuffle of demonetisation, it has a relevance: ‘When the ship returns to harbour with the hull battered and the rigging torn, before we assess the blame of the pilot, before we award the verdict of posterity, let us pause to enquire whether the voyage has been twice round the world or to Ramsgate and the Isle of Dogs.’

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