Contradictory statements issued in quick succession by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on one hand and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley along with Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta Das on the other, in regard to the permissible non-penalty cash deposits in banks, has raised a pertinent question: Whose word should the people of India believe?
The question gains importance in lieu of the recent demonetisation move by the government as it is unclear how the Income Tax department is going to pursue the deposits made by individuals under the Jan Dhan Yojana and in other dormant or non-existent accounts; including those opened for women.
Consider the following contradictory statements on the deposits:
While addressing a public rally in Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh on Monday, Modi, in his characteristic style, asserted: "Kuch afwah failai ja rahi hai, grahniyon ko bhadkaya ja raha hai...Meri matayen, bahane jab tak tumharaa ye bhai zinda hai. Meri mayaten, jab tak tumhara ye ladla jinda hai. Aap viswas kijiye aapne kadi mehnat karke jo panch pachas rupeya bachaya hai, uspar ek bhi sarkari officer ankh bhi nahi laga payega. Aap himmat ke saath bank me jama karwa dijiye, khata khulwa dijiye, vyaj bhi ayega. Mera Income Tax department aisi mata bahno ko puchega nahi ki ye dhai lakh rupa aya kahan se. (Rumours are rife that housewives are being provoked...My mothers and sisters, till such time this brother is alive, my mothers till such time your beloved son is alive, you have faith that the money you have saved by hard work...collecting five, fifty rupees...no government official would look towards that. You just show the courage to go to the bank, open your account and deposit it. You will get interest as well. My Income Tax department will not ask such mothers and sisters where did you get the Rs 2.5 lakhs from.)"
Contrast this with what Das said a day later on Tuesday. He claimed that all deposits were being closely scrutinised by the government and that those forcing the poor from across the country to make deposits – whose accounts were opened under the Jan Dhan scheme – particularly need to be beware.
After establishing that a "close watch" was being kept on the Jan Dhan accounts, he mentioned that in spite of an upper limit of Rs 50,000 on deposits, several instances were reported where Rs 49,000 were added to such accounts. These persons, according to Das, would be questioned and an investigation would be opened as per due provisions.
On Saturday, Jaitley too had focused on the spike in Jan Dhan account deposits, adding that they were being closely monitored by the revenue departments, including the Income Tax department.
Das' statement, which appears to be in contravention with Modi's assurance, is bound to create confusion, even panic among people at large; especially at a time when rumour mills are already keeping people on their tenterhooks.
The huge crowd that gathered for Modi's rally, applauded his stand against black money and cheered following his assurances to the poor and women folk. The rally comprised mostly of Jan Dhan account holders. Any deviation by Modi's bureaucrats on his assurances would not be taken kindly by people in these testing times.
More so, those who thought that they could bear the daily long queues to exchange Rs 4,500 per day have been deterred by the latest development. The government has now decided that if you have exchanged the notes once, then you are not at liberty to stand in the queues again to exchange the now demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes. To ensure this, the government has decided to put indelible ink on the finger of the person transacting, just as is done during voting in the elections.
The government's decision to restrict repeat exchanges by the same individual comes following a feedback, as explained by Das, that the crowds at banks were not thinning because the black money hoarders were sending their people from one bank to the next on a daily or even hourly basis, to convert their black money into white.
Whatever be the rationale behind the government's move, it will surely add to the load of the already over-burdened banking staff, potentially unleashing even more chaos in various parts of the country.
Even if the government has strong reasons to back its latest measure, the fact remains that a portion of black money was coming in hidden among other valid bank transactions – thereby defeating one of the main aims behind the demonetisation move.
Besides, there can't be any empirical data on how big of an army of retainers or daily wagers a black money hoarder can deploy to exchange his otherwise invalid notes, and how big that amount can be, even if he continues to do so till the 30 December deadline.
The collateral damage in terms of the suffering of some genuine and needy people bearing the brunt of this move would only be known in due course of time. The consequent chaos and bad publicity would not endear the Modi government to the people, who have broadly supported its bold demonetisation move so far.
In his opening statement, Das said that the prime minister and the finance minister, along with other senior officials, had reviewed the situation. He effectively said that whatever he was saying at the press conference came after the deliberations and decisions made at the high level meet.
On Saturday, Jaitley had said that there was no bar on people standing in queues for a second time, but had added that ideally he or she should deposit his money in bank accounts and withdraw through cheque or ATM.