It was not a coincidence that PM Modi kept bringing the reference of the twenty first century and India’s promised rise in it during his fifth address amid the coronavirus crisis. In order to understand what actually is driving both the twenty first century and India’s aspirations, we will take a detour before coming to Narendra Modi’s address of May 12, 2020.
While everything seems to be suffering from this great pandemic, there is something that is thriving almost in a manner as if it’s not only laying but also legitimising a perfect foundation for its existence in our future. Twenty first century is indisputably the age of technology, and the global pandemic is only confirming this in very powerful ways.
The single-most powerful invention was the availability of smartphones which completely changed the way an individual interacted with their world. There seemed to a be world in hand at their command. Mobile phones didn’t just provide entertainment but also became a total interface of the real world as administrative, legal, social, political, personal and economical demands could now be met with the use of mobiles.
No longer one needed to be in line to get their official documents done or wait in queues at supermarkets to buy groceries. With social media, a new feature of this shared artefact appeared in the form of participatory cultures where public could shape opinions of legal, social, political and public kinds. It is this radical and heightened potential of individuals which the mobile phones single-handedly distributed among the masses, more than any other product imaginable.
However, the single-most important contribution we need to consider here is perhaps the way in which digital structures reimagined capital circulation and re-distribution. Much of the confidence behind Modi’s vision of “Atmanirbhar Bharat” definitely comes from the resilience of these digital structures supporting global economic exchanges even in near-breakdown situations.
This is exactly what is meant by Mr Modi’s third Pillar of Atmanirbhar Bharat: “to develop our systems which are not based on primitive structures of a bygone century but on a sophisticated network of technologically driven organisations.” These technologically-driven organisational systems are in fact what are laying legitimacy for advanced technocratic systems as we move into the twenty first century, without which any vision for self-reliance (atmanirbharta) is baseless.
It is as if these very systems are going to determine the very being of humans. Access to these systems thus becomes crucial to understand the issues of citizenship, law, state and government in this new century. Hence, as new systems and structures are being deployed, established political structures are worthwhile to consider how notions of governmentality themselves are bound to shape.
Neoliberal reforms in India had already produced a swelling middle class whose eyes shine with promises and opportunities of the new age and who are also in great numbers as users/actors embedded in these technological systems. Traditional barriers of caste, gender and religion seemed to loosen up to a certain extent for these users, and technology provided both an ease and charm for their renewed status.
The reliance on technology for promoting ease and efficiency is perfectly compatible with more authoritarian controlling characteristic of recent trends in populist democracies. Partha Chatterjee had reminded that considering the fate of populism in India that “The more authoritarian forms could deliver quicker growth but will involve high costs in terms of coercion, violence, and the stability of the state. The more democractic forms will be slow and messy but could afford greater flexibility and the possibility of course correction” (Chatterjee, 2017).
Demonetization brought the authoritarian face of the BJP government way before many issues that have come lately. But as is becoming more and more clear, Demonitisation was not exactly meant to bring back black money, as was the received wisdom among the public, neither was it a way to crush minorities by squeezing out money from them as many communal sections continued to believe.
Demonetization has been among the most severely attacked policy decisions ever in BJP’s term so far, and the government could not have gone ahead without anticipating a similar outcome if the benefits were not equally substantial for the government. The most important outcome of Demonetization was the absolutely humongous rise in the users of digital banking in India.
To place things in perspectives of how important this online payment economy is, we should look at “RBI’s annual report, the number of UPI payments in 2018-19, at 535 crore, for the first time surpassed the number of debit card transactions (441 crore)… to put the growth of UPI transactions in perspective, the first half of 2019-20 has already seen a higher value of transactions completed on the platform than in the entire year of 2018-19! (Bhargava, 2017)” Similarly a report in Livemint showed that “in October 2019, transactions via the three-year old instant payments system UPI recorded a new high of 1 billion” (Nandi, 2019).
After Demonetisation, there was a dramatic shift from cash to digital transactions not only through UPI but also through card transactions. Even though it took almost three years to stabilise the currency with public, Demonetisation entrenched digital capital well. Also, the nosedive in “cash has bounced back to its former stature three years since demonetisation. In 2015–16, currency as percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) was 14 percent. The next fiscal, it dropped to 10.3, rising once again to 13.4 percent. In 2018-19, currency with public stood at Rs. 20.52 crore, 14.6 percent of GDP measured at Rs. 1.40 Lakh Crore” (Punj, 2019).
This recovery also brought in a new surge as the Hindu reports claimed “three years since demonetisation, the level of cash with the public has grown faster than the GDP growth of the country, even as digital payments—especially those on the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) platform—have seen robust growth” (Bhargava, 2017).
The robust growth of these digital payment platforms is significant to understand relations and logics of governmentality that seem to have been ushered in by the age of technology. There is in fact a deep link between technocratic and more authoritarian forms of government, as will become clear. These links can be argued to have been placed within neo-liberal capitalism driven on the charm of technological invention as was the industrial capitalism on the charm of industrialisation. But here the only interest is to understand this link through governance in India, particularly as is becoming clearer in this crisis.
Modi’s reliance on technology, particularly digital banking for which Demonetisation seems to have been actually done, thus can also ensure him with the political mechanism of delivering economic relief directly to the people. This direct relation is certainly a new charm for the Indian public. But, of course, the danger of it can be that, given the first-past-the-post system in our country, the government can selectively employ direct transfer to create a loyal vote bank.
The efficacy of legally buying and securing vote banks through direct cash transfer became so much feasible that Congress has still not done away with NYAY, which is basically the same form of direct-cash governmentality. This new form of governance has become possible only with these secure digital and technological structures which are reshaping political procedures alongside a lot more things, but keeping a vote bank loyal with direct cash transfer only may not solve all our problems.
Still better than Congress, the BJP has been able to blend its feisty populist image well with these technocratic structures of governance. This was clear in Modi’s speech when he explicitly said, addressing the people:
“You have experienced that in the last six years whatever reforms have been done, it is only because of them that India is in a state where even after being in a state of crisis, India’s organisations are looking more efficient and effective. Otherwise, who would have thought that the money which the Indian government will send, that same money, all of it, will go into the pocket of our poor men and farmers directly. But this has became possible, that too when every government offices were closed, as were transport systems, Jandhan, Mobile, Aadhar, (Jam) this Trishakti, was only one reform, whose effect we have just seen.”
If there was an opportunity that Corona crisis offered to prove that Modi’s Demonitisation was going to be an excellent move, it is this very moment, given that a large section of people now receives direct cash transfer. It will not only increase party loyalty, but will also broaden its confidence by luring more and more people into its direct purchasing capacity.
It is undoubtedly clear that the PM was referring to none other than the reform introduced by Demonetisation. As indicated earlier, this is in fact a new brand of governmentality combining the authoritative characters present in populism and technocratic systems, which will, in the words of Narendra Modi, “make India Self-sufficient, with bold reforms”. In this, the eye is not on democratic “incremental changes” as Partha Chatterjee highlighted but on “Quantum Jumps”.
Quantum Jumps are in fact the first pillar according to the scheme of Self-reliant India Mr Modi presented. It is in fact this infrastructure that is poised to shape India’s entry into the twenty first century. But this quantum jump will become possible only if the BJP successfully administers direct cash to the people, it will generate a huge confidence in the government.
This form of governance in which citizens have a direct benefit transfer is becoming a trait of our political order. It is also catapulted in action after Kejriwal’s successful welfare politics which also relies on direct distribution of benefits to the population. In that sense, this represents a new shift in citizenship and governance.
Once the cash reaches ordinary masses, they can rely on the technological interface to temporarily relieve themselves, whether it’s booking tickets, having food, buying medical attention, etc. Again, the BJP might not distribute money to a large section of the Indian population. Distributing enough money to keep a secure vote bank is enough to bring back the BJP in power, and the government will also keep that factor in mind. It need not distribute money to all; once money reaches only a section, it is enough to generate sufficient support in Modi’s regime.