India: Are ‘Bhakts’ Only Hurting PM Modi’s Image

Anything without data is opinion, so let’s start with just that. As per the July, 2016 Market Update released by ILO (International Labour Organisation), while labour participation was firm at 55.6% FY15 and FY16, the share of organised salaried workers reduced from 18% in FY15 to 15% in FY16. While some may be self-employed, more than 80% share of the informal sector would cross the 90% mark, if one were to add the informal workers of the formal sector. Also, India has more young people (those aged between 15-29 years) than China.

Those unemployable or, employable yet unemployed, are a challenge. The India-KLEMS database on the RBI’s website says employment in India grew by a mere 1.4% CAGR between 1991-2011, and even lower at 1.2% between 2001-2011. Thus, economic growth did not boost employment.

A Credit Suisse report shows 1% of Indians held 58.4% of all the wealth in 2016, which is up from 49% in 2014 and 36% in 2000. The 5-Year CAGR till 2015 of wealth per adult being 3%, the rest 99% saw their share reduce in a stagnant bucket.

Akamai’s 2016 Q2 State of the Internet report shows India’s broadband speed is 3.6 Mbps vs. the global average of 6.1 Mbps and mobile internet speed is 3.3 Mbps vs. the global average of 11.8 mbps. So, 1.2 billion Indians transact digitally on such dismal speeds.

A Pew Center survey said only 17% Indians owned smartphones in 2015. As per Statistica, this was 23% in 2016. 23% Indians used mobile internet regularly as of Dec 2015, as per the IAMAI-IMRB report, which was expected to reach 30% till June 2016. Only 13% Indians use the three largest mobile-wallets. All of this data shows that digital-savvy, salaried, upwardly-affluent and less cash-dependent Indians are a minority. Those outside the organised economy, digital ecosystem, with lower and stagnant incomes and high cash-dependence, are the majority.

Since demonetisation of high-value currency notes was announced on November 8, ardent supporters of PM Modi, who are also for many reasons called ‘bhakts’ used illogical arguments, convenient positions and were insensitive in their conduct while showing their support and slamming anyone pointing out genuine inconveniences caused by the demonetisation announcement to the majority.

While I support demonetisation and PM Modi’s resolve, any impact on voters’ minds due to these illogical stances, is worrying. On-ground realities don’t matter, is the impression that these followers have been giving, which affects the government’s image negatively.

Demonetisation is a good start when it comes to an economy that is cleaner, more formal and digital. Although most of the black money is stored as gold or real estate and counterfeiters can source the new paper, Modi assured that action would be taken. However, every Indian has one vote. As someone who wants to see him get re-elected for a second term, I am concerned if these ‘bhakts’ are hurting PM Modi’s image in the minds of the majority. Local elections after November 8 showed that support for the BJP remains strong, but the real test will be in the larger state and central elections. So what have these ‘bhakts’ said or not said?

While ‘bhakts’ post adulation, they remain silent on the unorganised sector’s realities. Many workers got their wages for the month of December, in advance and, in old notes. Some were forced to do so, so that they could retain their jobs. One cannot argue in a labour-surplus country. While one can deposit it, warnings that surge in deposits can be investigated worries them. They don’t get documents as proof of wages. The owner may not help, since it may raise eyebrows on how they had so many notes. Many do not understand the limits below which Income Tax department may not investigate. The loss of work (and wages) for standing in line twice, is another thing in itself. Many in rural areas still keep savings in cash, because the nearest bank is a few kilometres away, so going frequently is not practical. Many migrants are at the mercy of opportunistic touts exchanging old notes for ‘cuts’.

With many merchants not willing to give change for the new ₹2000 note, many belonging to the lower-income group had to compromise on the change, since it was the only note they had. Workers of political fringe groups, otherwise vocal on Valentine’s Day, don’t seem to want to help such cases of distress. In fact, those alluding that the rural sector was unaffected should wait for the upcoming harvest season, since that is the real test of the systemic cash. Using correct “cash-demography” in surveys would be practical, unlike the recent mobile app survey that showed 90%+ respondents supporting the move, when only a minority own smartphones or are digital payment savvy.

Are digital platforms entirely citizen-friendly? Low-penetration and internet speeds aside, digital platforms have to be safe from hackers and other kinds of cyber attacks to help Indians go digital. To implement steps to make non-smartphones users (60% of all Indians) go digital will take time, so should they suffer till then? Quality standards have to be tightened, as there have been umpteen issues about services and products. After cancellations, many platforms lock you with credits valid only on their platform, which restricts your choices. One has to tackle the growing menace of digital terrorism as well. It also means educating people about digital money, in a nation where notes are coloured so that those who cannot read or write, can recognise denominations.

While ‘bhakts’ have slammed people for pointing out these gaps, most are yet to say how these gaps can be closed. They said buying Chinese fireworks during Diwali was an unpatriotic thing to do, as China backed Pakistan despite LeT/HuM/JeM. Post-demonetisation, ‘bhakts’ said ‘go digital’ is the future and to adopt it. But they forgot Paytm (India’s premier digital wallet) is 40% Chinese-owned. Using Paytm also benefits China. As a student of free-market economics, my point is illogical because I believe Paytm is a fantastic platform. But do ‘bhakts’ seem inconsistent too?

Their comparisons of long queues outside banks to those waiting in line to get the Jio 4G card or for Roadies, are illogical, as it compares smartphone users eager for the next-big-thing and enthusiastic youngsters going for a show with millions belonging to the working class forgoing their day’s earnings and savings.

If the days following demonetisation showed anything, it was that the Indian society is fast becoming self-centred. As long as they did not face a problem themselves, anyone else in a problem does not matter. Such insensitive behaviour create a bad image of those showing it, as well as those being defended by it. Following delayed treatments in private hospitals, ‘bhakts’ said they should go to government hospitals (as they were accepting old notes), or use cards.

In 2000, only 50% patients went to private hospitals as beds fell short in government hospitals. This number will have only risen since then. In 2011, private hospitals had 60% of the 1.37 million beds. Many poor go to private hospitals for this reason. Also, most private hospitals insist on cash, not cards. I faced it myself when my parents underwent treatments. While one can go to banks to change old notes, what about those not in a condition to travel? We struggled to get bank managers to visit our house to attest the signature of my bed-ridden grandmother. Even if someone stands in line now for such account holders, do bank managers have time to come home and attest signatures? The reaction to cases of deaths was more callous, saying that such incidents were inevitable in a large country or were conspiracies. I have seen both my parents being cremated at a young age, and I say nothing replaces the loss of your loved ones. This is not an inconvenience to bear for the larger national good, despite whatever these insensitive ‘bhakts’ may say.

While I support this move, I worry about any negative impact in the voters’ minds about Modi’s image because of what the ‘bhakts’ have been saying. Any windfall now should be used for public’s benefit accompanied by positive publicity, so that it overrides negative perceptions. It is critical that we understand our nation better, so that our arguments do not hurt the leader’s image!

Image Courtesy: Getty Images & MidDay

Originally published here –

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