On November 8th Prime Minister Modi took India and the world by surprise when he announced a demonetisation scheme that took 86% of rupee notes out of circulation with almost immediate effect. It is difficult to find a historical precedent of a country the size of India being thrown into a financial crisis by its own government without any warning or prevailing exigent circumstance for doing so other than the whims of its leader. Prime Minister Modi’s demonetisation gambit has led to economic chaos across India for the past nearly three weeks and shows no sign of abating. As bad as the cash shortage is in major cities, ground reports get progressively worse as you go into hinterland and away from the media spotlight, with rural areas almost being left to fend for themselves through barter. Economic activity has ground to a halt with consumers struggling to buy even the bare necessities, trucks unable to transport, farmers unable to sow their rabi crop, employees spending more time standing in line outside ATMs than working, and volatility affecting the financial markets. This was a true November surprise.
How does a Prime Minster make such a staggering miscalculation? I doubt very much he was expecting such a severe economic dislocation when he addressed the nation and subsequent changing of the goalposts by the government bears this out. At first we were told the disruption would be last a mere two days, shortly thereafter it became two weeks and finally the PM pleaded for a grace period of fifty days. Needless to say the implementation of the demonetisation scheme has been farcical with a daily litany of new rules issued by Finance Ministry and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) slavishly following suit, creating more problems than they fixed. The sub-plot related to rules governing withdrawal of cash for marriages could make for an excellent case study on bureaucratic obtuseness. How many new currency notes are being printed and in which denomination is a mystery, because RBI refuses to tell us, but the online news platform Quint reports that only 0.06% of the vital Rs 500 notes have been replaced so far. The new Rs 2,000 note is in greater supply but of purely ornamental value right now because of the shortage of smaller denominations to provide change. The level of incompetence has been a sight to behold. The ministers weren’t much better, proffering varied reasons for the necessity of the demonetisation scheme, leapfrogging from black money to national security to fake currency to the more recent one of transforming India into a cashless economy. Well, they certainly succeeded in the last cause, because they have indeed rendered most Indians cashless.
Apologists keep parroting that demonetisation was a brilliant idea, it was only the ‘implementation’ that had fallen short, conveniently forgetting the PM had won his mandated promising above all superior implementation and competence. But most crucially, a responsible government is expected to do no harm and maintain stability before doing anything else. Events, external and internal, will test a country’s stability and voters understand that, but a government pulling the rug from under a billion Indians and doing so inexpertly will not be easy to explain. The fallout from the demonetisation has been felt directly by every Indian, with the aam aadmi feeling the brunt in far greater measure. Financial insecurity pervades the land and has united the country in suffering. I never expected the Prime Minister to be much of a uniter, but he has clearly proved me wrong. For nearly three weeks India has withstood this national trauma, with every passing day the death toll attributed to the scheme mounting, and hardships continue. Prime Minister Modi and his government are testing the limits of the Indian people’s patience.
The PM is a shrewd political operator and a misjudgement of this magnitude requires an in-depth analysis of what precisely led to flawed decision-making. There is the political aspect to it as well as an institutional aspect.
Politically, the 2014 campaign promise of repatriating Rs. 15 lakhs of black money in every voters’ bank account has been used as an effective taunt since then by the opposition in state election after state election. It is the original sin, so to speak. Amit Shah’s attempt to explain away the promise as a metaphorical ‘jumla’ only backfired further. So before the most important state election of all in Uttar Pradesh, his adopted political home, it was reasonable to think the PM would try to do something that would free him from this charge.
The government claims months of preparation preceded the demonetisation and I am not going to take issue with that, despite ample evidence to the contrary. The one objective we know they spent much of the first half of the year on was the ouster of the fiercely independent RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan and supplanting him with a loyalist in the form of Urjit Patel, or as he has come to be known as in recent days, the Invisible Man. Once the Reserve Bank of India was captured in the first week of September it is clear that the march towards demonetisation began in earnest.
Indian Prime Ministers, especially those select few with single-party majorities, have always had grand visions of how they wish to transform India. Previous PMs succeeded during periods when they were able to surround themselves with capable ministers and aides who were able to speak truth to power. When this vital ingredient was missing from the governance mix PMs have tended to lose their way, even those with mammoth majorities like Pandit Nehru in 1962, Indira Gandhi in 1975, and Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. This is the institutional aspect that I referred to earlier.
As far as we can tell, in the decision-making process leading up to the demonetisation speech not one minister or PMO aide advised prudence or caution to Prime Minister Modi. Debate does not appear to be encouraged in the Modi cabinet, only one man’s opinion takes precedence. Shri Modi is said to prefer verbal presentations than written briefs, he’s not a details man, which is not unusual in political leaders around the world, but in such a case it is imperative he have a powerful and competent Principal Secretary who covers all the bases and makes sure nothing is missed, playing the part of a weather vane who forewarns of hidden trouble ahead. Unfortunately, the PM chose to divide the powers of the Principal Secretary between two men, in addition a National Security Adviser who is a law unto himself. The power apex of the Modi PMO is fractured and it reflects poorly on the PM when decisions are taken hurriedly and without a study of all possible ramifications. To put it bluntly, there is nobody in the Modi PMO or cabinet capable of speaking truth to power and that’s exactly the way the PM prefers it. So when the PM starts down the wrong track based on a half-baked idea there is no fail-safe in his decision-making process to warn him of the possible hazards ahead.
Secrecy is being used as an alibi to explain the government’s lack of preparation despite suspicious financial transactions by more than one BJP state unit in the weeks preceding November 8th. Even if we concede the need for secrecy, it cannot absolve the PMO, the cabinet and the RBI Governor from the responsibility of due diligence before putting the country through such an enormous change. It was incumbent on them to have asked pertinent questions of the demonetisation scheme before moving forward. How long will the disruption last? How long do we need to print the new notes? Are the ATMs ready to accept the new notes, especially the Rs 2000 note? How will this affect rabi sowing? How will this affect marriage season? How will this affect tourists? How will this affect the unbanked population? How will this affect the informal sector where 80% of Indians work? What is the worst scenario? How much will economic growth be affected? What is the long-term risk-reward of putting the country through such a serious economic dislocation? Could the financial infrastructure of the country withstand the pressure? Were the government’s administrative capabilities upto the task? Was there enough black money parked in cash to be worth going through such instability? How would the underground infrastructure that launders black money from Delhi to Mumbai to Dubai and Singapore adapt to the assault on their core interests? Did government legally have the power to execute everything that was planned? The list of questions can go on endlessly but the sense you get is this government does not waste much time on discussing the prudence of its actions in the normal course and did not suffer from much self-doubt in this case either.
Then there is the question of the PM’s intellectual temperament. His government has earned a reputation for bandying around official figures that on closer investigation prove to bear no resemblance to the ground situation. It is one thing to try to fool the public but quite another if you start basing your decisions on your own boosted figures. From the Prime Minister’s repeated exhortations on moving India overnight to a cashless economy it is as if he is describing a completely different India where everyone has a bank account, an electricity connection, basic education, and a smartphone. This separation from reality could be part of the reason he may have believed the demonetisation scheme would only cause some initial disruption and nothing more. The problem is that the India that exists in the PM’s mind bares little resemblance to reality. This delusion is a worry for us all.
Coupled with the incompetence of the RBI and Finance Ministry has been the reliance on private companies like Paytm and Big Bazaar as conduits of government policy, to their considerable profit. The stench of crony capitalism emanating from these relationships is apparent. It’s almost as if the common man is being coerced and herded into the awaiting grubby hands of these corporates as a direct consequence of government actions.
The PM’s greatest weakness is the myth of infallibility that he has created for himself, assiduously defended by his ministers, as a result of which he refuses to apologise for anything even when it is his interest to do so. It’s a lesson he perhaps learnt from his experience in 2002 and his rise since then has probably reinforced this instinct. Obstinacy can be an asset during trying times but more often than not it stops a leader from recognising his error and changing to a more successful course. In the case of demonetisation Shri Modi has refused to alter course and gambled his government on it. An unnecessary and unwise strategy. The PM’s inability to defend his case in Parliament is a major liability as was seen this past week when Manmohan Singh earned a decisive victory. It was a demoralising blow for BJP MPs to see their much vaunted general flee the field of battle without fighting back. A great speech inside Parliament is worth a hundred outside.
The PM appears to have been convinced by the prospect of garnering a windfall Rs. 3 to 4 lakh crore from hoarded cash that the government estimates would not be returned to banks and thus extinguished, whereafter a subservient RBI would pass it onto the government exchequer in the form of a special dividend, ignoring its own rules and generally accepted international accounting practices. In retrospect we can see why the Budget was moved up to February 1st a few weeks ago, positioning it just before the state elections. The budgetary windfall blinded the PM and his principal advisors to the gravity of the risk they were taking. They got greedy and therefore careless. Politicians will be politicians, but the RBI Governor Urjit Patel, who surely knew better, has no excuse for agreeing to this madcap scheme. The economic losses and suffering caused by this decision is likely to dwarf any fiscal windfall that the government gains.
Shri Modi has gambled a great deal of his credibility and political capital on the ultimate success of the demonetisation scheme. He may succeed in the immediate future by parleying windfall gains from demonetisation into election gains, but in winning Uttar Pradesh he may have lost trust of the rest of the nation. The trauma to the economy and the aam aadmi’s psyche will not be repaired so easily. The BJP’s obnoxious and unrepentant response to the genuine suffering of people, almost branding by association millions of people as black money hoarders will not be soon forgotten. Those harried souls standing in ATM queues across the country may voice support for Shri Modi out of politeness when asked on camera but their faces tell a different tale, with anger likely lurking just below the surface and 2019 may provide an outlet.
Arun Shourie knows how the PM thinks better than most and he explained in a recent television interview that Shri Modi has got into the bad habit of wanting to perform a ‘surgical strike’ every few weeks. This need for quick-fixes to long-standing afflictions like black money shows a lack of discipline and understanding of governance. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions, national change requires sustained, patient work and persuasion of the public day in and day out. But Shri Modi is not a patient man and he has an overwhelming mandate so he can make impetuous, poorly thought out decisions with little resistance from those around him. There was only one person who could have saved the PM from himself, and that was Raghuram Rajan. What an irony it is that it was the PM who allowed Rajan to be hounded out of office. Will Rajan have the last laugh? Only time will tell.