PM Modi has been addressing the nation through his radio program “Mann Ki Baat” for close to two years now, expounding on various matters of policy and governance. Of course, many might say there’s more boasting than info on the show, sometimes even bordering on propaganda. But the show, and its calling-in feature, are still unique ways of reaching out to citizens, and it has managed to garner a decent listener base. Moreover, being a radio show that is also available in app form, it manages to bridge the digital divide.
In his last “Mann Ki Baat” address, aired on the November 27, the PM spoke in some detail about demonetisation and its fallout. Filled with problematic rhetoric, the address is none the less special for one major reason, which we shall come to later. But first, let’s look at some choice quotes taken directly from the address:
“I appeal to you that we should make it our nature, our characteristic as a society, as a Nation that whether it be a celebration of a festival or any joyous occasion, we should keep the soldiers, the jawans of the military of our nation in our hearts and minds. When the entire nation stands by the armed forces, their might mutiplies a hundred and twenty five crore times.”
The address started with a ‘tribute’ to our armed forces who are spending Diwali and other festivals on the border and eventually went on to term the entire process of demonetisation and its consequent (severe) difficulties a ‘yagya’ (a grand sacrifice in Hindu tradition) that will make the country stronger and display its purusharth (manliness) and shakti (power). One can’t help but trace a link in this progression, especially considering how often our armed forces are brought up in debates and discussions regarding nationalism and government policies in this country – mostly to shut down dissenters.
“By misguiding the poor, enticing them through the vices of avarice and temptation, wrongfully pumping money into their bank accounts, or getting them to undertake some wrong activities, some people are trying to save their black money. I want to tell such people today – whether you reform or not is up to you, whether you respect and follow the law or do otherwise is again up to you; of course, the law will take its own course to decide on the requisite action; but, for God’s sake, please do not play with the lives of poor people.”
One wonders who is really scapegoating the poor through such rhetoric. Given the intense economic hardship that the move has resulted in, which the Government is doubtless aware of, one might be excused for thinking that such speech is particularly disingenuous. The PM also goes on to romanticise – and justify – the suffering of the poor, and cites a couple of examples to show how people are ostensibly finding their own ways of dealing with the demonetisation, leading to a cumulative positive contribution to society and the economy (and thus not-so-subtly justifying the entire process).
But problematic rhetoric aside, the primary point of interest in this address is how Modi explicitly states that demonetisation can be a step towards a cashless society, with the people’s support (thus, again, subtly laying the onus on the ‘people’):
“There is no possibility of things going wrong, but there certainly is an opportunity to grow. I invite you all. You can make a very big contribution in creating a cashless society. You can create a full-fledged banking facility on your mobile phone and there are many ways now to run our business without using paper currency. There are technological methods which are safe, secure and instantaneous.”
While acknowledging that a completely cashless society will not be possible for quite some time, Modi urges small businesses and local merchants to utilise the demonetisation to move towards electronic and cashless transactions. Citing Kenya’s successful adoption of the M-PESA mobile wallet system, Modi implies that similar systems in India (like PayTM, perhaps) will benefit both rural and urban areas, and help in eliminating corruption. He also calls upon the youth of the nation to educate those not so technology-literate in using these alternate modes of transaction (not so surprisingly, he refers to the youth as his ‘soldiers’ in this movement).
In a country that is still one of the most cash-intensive in the world, the soundness of such a move must be questioned. Even looking past the sheer volume of cash transactions in the world, India is still struggling with electricity penetration despite significant progress. Only 34.8% of Indians use the internet, and despite being the world’s second-biggest smartphone market, the actual rates of smartphone penetration in India, particularly in rural areas, are far too low (29.8% in 2016) to successfully realise Modi’s vision of transitioning to electronic transactions for quite some time to come. Moreover, this vision is heavily dependent on the certainty that a majority of the population has easy access to banks and bank accounts.
While the Government likes to tout the success of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) scheme, which was launched to provide easy accessibility to bank accounts and finance services for all sections of society, alternative, more in-depth studies show that the focus on sheer numbers has overshadowed the actual accessibility and benefits of the scheme. A significant number of these accounts have not been properly seeded, and nearly half of the subsidies promised by the Government have been misappropriated.
With this being the state of affairs, one must wonder whether this pipe-dream of a cashless society is merely more boastful propaganda created to downplay the potentially permanent damage caused by demonetisation, or an actual vision for the future of the country. If it’s the latter, it does not, at this moment, seem to be very well thought out (or implemented) – making either option not very appealing to the people who continue to suffer.