While the Modi government’s implementation of demonetization by declaring cash, specifically 500 and 1000 Rupees notes (which comprise 86% of the value in cash) to be illegal overnight, without prior notice, wreaks of the authoritarianism that reflects the current regime, the overarching ideology of demonetization by digital transformation reflects an authoritarian ideology at the heart of India’s accelerated liberalization since the 1990s.
This authoritarian ideology basks in the removed power of expertise, manufacturing claims, policy solutions, and program designs targeted at people (often with disproportionate effects on the lives of the poor), without consultation with the poor, and more poignantly, without consideration for the effects of the policies and programs on the everyday lived experiences of the poor.
That technology, connected to a free market, will deliver unfettered growth and uplift the poor into the liberating circuits of global capital forms the crux of this ideology, glossed up in slick advertising campaigns announcing a digital India captured in the “power to empower.”
Much like any ideology, the ideology of technology-driven transformations, is mostly unsupported, detached from tests of empiricism, and circulated in propaganda slogans “great leap forward,” “cash is corruption,” “digital wallets,” “smart economy,” and “cashless transactions.”
Promises of transformations of the Indian economy are set to Swades-like imagery and soundtrack.
While indeed technology has played modest roles in addressing issues of access, especially in India’s margins, it has also generated and reproduced inequities that reflect broader societal inequalities.
For a few anecdotal examples of successful information technologies for development, there are many more stories of unused computer kiosks in India’s villages that are gathering dust after the fanfare of inaugural publicity. The razzmatazz of digital narratives however, selectively advertises the anecdotal stories of miraculous transformations.
Techno-seductions of children in slums using Facebook or downloading music on their mobile devices become the celebratory narratives of techno-liberalism. For elite experts singing the glories of a technological revolution that unleashes transformations, technology uplifts the burden of the soul, pulling up the teeming masses from their backwardness and delivering them into modernization.
The latest fetish of technological miracles is narrated in the rhetoric of digital India. The seduction of technology promises to deliver India from the shackles that has limited the possibilities of growth.
Much like earlier examples of techno-fetish, this new fetish with the digital reflects the authoritarianism of technocratic ideology, removed from the empiricism of the everyday lived experiences of common people.
Ideology’s authoritarian function lay in its production of a monolith, a singular story that un-sees the counter-narratives that raise questions about the seamlessness of the story.
Techno-fetish relies on experts to manufacture and circulate the fetish, and in turn, produces a political economy that predominantly benefits the expert class, creating new markets, new opportunities for innovations, new managerial positions, and new opportunities for private-public partnerships.
The conflicts of interest written all over expert-driven programs remain un-interrogated. That the experts producing the knowledge which serves as the basis for particular technological solutions are also the ones in charge of developing the technological solutions and profiting from the new markets created by them often remains unexamined.
PM Narendra Modi recently roped in Nandan Nilekani of Aadhaar fame to bring his magic potion of digital transformations to the project of cash clean. Nilekani had earlier collaborated with and worked within the structures of the Congress government to introduce the miracle of Aadhaar, which produced its own margins, bringing about a systemic transformation that left intact the overarching inequities that constitute India’s social and corresponding digital divides.
For instance, policy formulations linking Aadhaar to the NREGA scheme produced disenfranchisements in India’s rural margins, with the rural poor without an Aadhaar card unable to secure jobs. The card, and its technology, had been marketed as the solution to corruption, to the leaky pipeline of welfare services, and to financial inclusion of the poor.
In the monolithic narrative of the miracles of the card, the stories of the poor who fell through the cracks because of the transformation, the poor that were suddenly pushed out of a welfare system meant to serve them, remained erased.
Demonetization is a logical extension of Aadhaar, of the digital seductions that have taken over the Indian narrative. India, imagined as a digital mecca, is pitched as an exemplar of the transformative power of technology, with the digital offering multi-purpose solutions to growth and development.
In the past 30 days since the launch of demonetization, the poor, who work daily to make a living and often depend on daily wages to make ends meet have been hit the hardest.
Accounts of deaths while waiting to withdraw cash, deaths while waiting to get treatment, and inability to meet the basic needs among the poor are subsumed into a narrative of “national good.” Since the implementation of demonetization, over 90 lives have been lost that can be directly attributed to demonetization.
Rural economies across the country have crashed as farmers are unable to sell their produce and purchase seeds for sowing. India’s large numbers of the poor who work in a cash-based informal economy have been left in the lurch, unable to make the day’s living, and paid at lower rates than their usual wages when they are able to locate a job.
Vegetable sellers struggle with wasted vegetables as there’s no cash for purchase. Farmers have stocked up supplies of produce that are going waste. Domestic workers are unable to find job, or are being offered payment in old currency. These hardships, however, are to be written off in the national rhetoric, aptly captured in the Modi government diktat “If you don’t have food, eat plastic cards.”
The authoritarianism that forms the basis of the techno-seductions of digital transformations is not only undemocratic in its erasure of the poor from how policies are implemented, evaluated and talked about; but also in its fundamental articulations of what constitutes the good for the nation. National development is framed directly in opposition to the everyday needs and struggles of the poor.
In this new version of digital authoritarianism, the poor are disposable bodies, collaterals in the imagination of a nation catalyzed in its upward mobility.
The further impoverishment, displacement, and death of the poor are written off as necessary byproducts in the narrative of development. The power of techno-seductions lies in the suspension of critical questions, and also in its fundamental suspension of empathy for the poor that formed a significant element of national discourses of the past. PM Modi’s callous statement about beggars using swipe machines depicts the empathy-deficit of this new authoritarianism.
Critics are chided with calls to reason. The new rationality of digital rationalism is at its foundation highly irrational. That cash forms a minuscule proportion of India’s black money should lead to the natural rational question regarding why the focus on cash. That the rich store much of their black money in bank accounts in tax havens ought to naturally lead to the rational question: Why not prioritize international regulations and treaties to force tax havens to declare bank accounts of the wealthy? That much of the illegal transactions carried out by the rich are done digitally, in squeaky clean environments, should raise significant questions about what is being done to address the primary sources of tax evasion. That India’s corporate elite, who led to the debt crisis of the nation’s public sector banks, had their loans written off, remains un-interrogated.
Reason, however, in this techno-centric authoritarianism is the first casualty. Tall claims of catalytic benefits are not backed up by warrants and evidence. One is quickly labeled against the interest of the nation if such questions are raised. To interrogate the limits of digital technologies, to examine critically the challenges to digital transformations, and to examine the inequities and risks that are introduced by integrating the poor and the margins into global financial technology networks is to be anti-development, and hence, anti-nation.
On Friday, M. Devaraja Reddy, the president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI), dictated to the organisation’s members “not to share /write any negative personal views by way of an article or interview on any platform regarding demonetisation.”
The façade of fighting corruption performs the veneer of propaganda work in mainstream and digital media advertising that seek to fundamentally transform India’s economy into a digital economy, creating new markets for banks, payment services, financial and insurance tools, consumer products, while at the same time fundamentally crippling India’s diverse and rich tradition of informal markets.
Startups such as Paytm, MobiKwik, and Freecharge are all set to leap into profitable digital opportunities. The money extracted from everyday users by financial technologies as service fees, costs, and taxes create are the sites of profit-making enabled by demonetization. That India’s policy frameworks on digital privacy and data protection are fairly weak remains obfuscated in the propaganda.
The authoritarianism of techno-seductions is reflected in the closed doors behind which transformative decisions are made, without public consultation and public engagement. PM Modi’s Adhia team worked in deep secrecy in planning the launch, removed from the reality of everyday people.
Nandan Nilekani and other circles of elite experts sit behind closed doors, consulting an authoritarian regime on strategies of digital transformation, far removed from the everyday struggles of India’s poor. That the poor are disposable and burdens to the imaginations of a “Digital India” is a key lesson that emerges from the narrative of demonetization.
At the end of the day, demonetization is an ugly but natural manifestation of the authoritarianism of a techno-seductive rationality that assumes its expertise through erasure.
(Cover Photo: A crowd waiting to exchange/deposit money at a bank in New Delhi. Taken by ROHIT RAJVARDHAN on assignment for The Citizen).
(Professor Mohan Jyoti Dutta is Provost’s Chair Prfoessor, Director, CARE, Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore)