Demonetisation: Ambedkar App A Fig Leaf For the 'Revolution' That Is Not
NOVA SCOTIA, Canada: When Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently launched the BHIM (Bharat Interface for Money) app for digital payments named after Bhimrao Ambedkar, the saga of demonetisation entered a stage of farcicality. For, the political and economic goals of the present government could not be more distant from the economic and political philosophy of the greatest anti-caste revolutionary of modern India.
But then, tragedy and farce often go together as history shows us. Thus, the pain of demonetisation—more than hundred preventable deaths and the devastation of the informal sector and millions dependent on daily wages— is accompanied by the ludicrousness of gloating about banks flush with funds.
This is evident than from the two recent statements by the Prime Minister. First, he said in an interview: “now, people have voluntarily [my emphasis] come forward and deposited their money in banks.” And second, in his December 31 address to the nation he declared: “History is witness that the Indian banking system has never received such a large amount of money, in such a short time.”
So, the government forces its people, through possibly the largest exercise of its kind in the world, to deposit their high-denomination cash holdings after deeming it as not legal tender. Then it imposes restrictions on the withdrawal of new notes. Finally, it claims that people have done it voluntarily, and that banks are overflowing with money! What is this logic if not a cruel joke?
The root cause of this farcicality is the fact that the government wants to push demonetisation and digitalisation as a revolution—a revolution meant to benefit the millions of poor.
The revolution is conducted simultaneously on three fronts, economic, technological, and cultural. But either it falls between these three stools, or valorises the technological, thus ending up as technocratic. The ultimate implications are anti-people for the primary beneficiaries of digitalisation are big capital.
The avowed logic of demonetisation is economic. An economy of India’s size, aspiring to be the third largest economy in the world by 2030 cannot afford to have such a large black economy. It is estimated to be between 60-70 per cent of the country’s GDP. Even in a nation like Russia, considered to be a kleptocracy, the underground economy is only in the range of 40 percent of the GDP (while in the United States it is only about 8 per cent).
The consequences of such an overwhelming presence of the underground economy are devastating. Professor Arun Kumar contends that if it were not for the costs imposed by a black economy, India would have been A $8 trillion economy, and with seven times the per capita income of the present.
That is why the Finance Minister sees demonetisation as “the natural culmination” of India’s aspiration “to grow into a developed country.” And the Prime Minister asserts: “You must understand that we took the decision on demonetisation not for some short-term windfall gain, but for a long-term structural transformation.”
But the problem is that, as has been pointed out by scores of economists of all hues, demonetisation is hardly revolutionary from an economic sense for it does not seek to address the root causes of the generation of black wealth, and merely addresses its symptoms, that too a miniscule part in the form of cash.
It is true that the post-demonetisation drive by the government to unearth black money has led to the confiscation of more than Rs. 3000 crores of unaccounted wealth giving the impression that black wealth is being wiped out. This is a chimera for the confiscated amounts are a drop in the ocean of black wealth in the country. Further, these actions could have been undertaken even without demonetisation.
Yet a bigger illusion is the technological arcadia of Digital India and Cashless India that is sought to be inaugurated. It is an arcadia because all corruption will be eliminated here. But the farcicalness of the entire enterprise can only be understood when we realize that only about three per cent of Indians use credit cards, eight per cent have debit cards, 53 per cent have bank accounts, 35 per cent have Internet access, and only about 17 per cent have smartphones. That is why the government wants to push people towards cashless and digital transactions through various methods of coercion and cajoling.
Nevertheless, the fundamental barrier in moving to a digital India is not the scale of this digital divide. But the belief of the government that digital divide can be bridged by merely providing access to digital technologies.
Further, the adoption of such technology will automatically lead to economic and social development. This is a seriously flawed understanding of the place of technology in society. Here technology is not adopted organically from below in consonance with a particular stage of development but is para-dropped to magically erase the lack of development.
This kind of thinking is what has already led to the conjuncture in which more Indians have mobile phones than access to toilets.
Yet the prime minister emphatically states in launching the BHIM app, “Technology is not the treasure of the wealthy, but power given to the poor.” Here what is glossed over is the fact that the vast levels of poverty and deprivation that characterize India are not a result of not adopting advanced technology.
They are due to fundamental failures in building social and political movements focused on securing health, education and other basic capacities. This is what has ensured that India still languishes at 130 (out of 188 nations) in the Human Development Index.
Digital technologies are immensely useful for performing a variety of functions. But they do not operate in a vacuum. Scholars Thomas and Parayil show in a 2008 paper that the capabilities to use digital technologies as well as to convert the information provided by them into useful knowledge depend upon the individual as well as the social context.
A social environment plagued by illiteracy, ill-health and various inequities does not allow the thriving of these capabilities. By comparing Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, they demonstrate that such capabilities are higher in the former owing to its much higher human development indicators achieved through social and political struggles.
It is because of these achievements from a pre-digital era that Kerala has become the first digital state in India in 2016 and is leading the country in financial inclusion, a mantra of the Modi government. And it is the absence of such capabilities resulting from human development which leads to only 15 per cent Indians actually using bank accounts to conduct transactions (despite 53 per cent having bank accounts), the lowest figure among the BRICs nations.
Even on the cultural front, the revolution is a shaky. Demonetisation posits itself as a grand systematic change bringing about attitudinal and behavioural change. The prime minister’s speeches are replete with moral and religious imageries: “In God’s creation, humans are endowed with fundamental goodness.” But “With time, the distortions of badness creep in”.
Demonetisation is thus a “shuddhi yagya”, a purificatory ritual meant to cleanse the soul of the nation. He further alludes to Gandhi and Satyagraha. From Swachh Bharat to demonetisation, it will be an “India which is Swachh from all forms of filth.”
Yet the cultural revolution is contradictory. Even as a change in mentality is sought to herald a corruption-free society, ultimately it is technology in the form of digitalisation that will guarantee it. For, if a genuine cultural revolution were to take place, you would not need technology to eliminate corruption.
Gandhi’s Satyagraha was not based on digital cleansing but moral cleansing. In a genuine cultural revolution, you would not require material incentives in the form of welfare sops and lottery contests to bring about cultural change. The government resorts to the latter because it is unsure about its cultural revolution.
Despite these incongruities, and the immense suffering, there seems to be some legitimacy for demonetisation. Sociologist Sanjay Srivastava recently argued that the “most significant narrative that has gathered around demonetisation is that of the need for collective suffering on behalf of the nation” to purge it of its ills.
Since the economic measure has been couched in this cultural language of collective suffering, for which he finds evidence of support even among the poor, he asserts that it can only be countered culturally. While there is some truth in this, the cultural language still hides stark material exploitation inequalities, and the resources for cultural critique are severely depleted.
The measure of legitimacy that demonetisation enjoys solely arises from the fact that it is seen first, as doing something about corruption which was hitherto considered inevitable in India, and second, as (even if mistakenly) a tectonic shift to help the poor who are the bearers of the costs of corruption. That is why the entire discourse of the government is constructed on the binary of the poor versus the rich.
As the prime minister claims: “This is a government of the poor and works for the poor." And in a Digital India, an angutha chhap (an illiterate person using thumb impression as signature) who was mocked before will become empowered and his thumb will become his bank and identity.
But the truth is that in the poor have little to gain from this revolution as the fundamental sources of economic conflict and exploitation are left untouched here. The revolution sought is ultimately a capitalist one.
As a NITI Aayog economist puts it: It is only a free market [as if there is something like that!] and “rule-based capitalism — sans cronies and phonies — combined with a clean government that can transform India.” And among all politicians, “for now Mr. Modi seems the likeliest to” make a case for it.
The government and the Prime Minister very well are aware that despite demonetisation’s plebeian pretensions, it is not a people’s revolution for equality, liberty and fraternity, but merely one that seeks to deliver people further down the road of capitalist logic.
That is why to mask this, it has to take recourse to the farce of an app named after Ambedkar.
(Dr Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada)