Modi's New Year speech: Most critiques failed the reasoning test

Standing in a queue before a nationalised bank in Ramnagar, a small town near the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, I was cursing myself for not carrying enough cash before setting off on a vacation. I was clearly wrong to assume that one could survive largely on plastic money.

A few days before Christmas, the evening was darker than it should be and a stiff breeze was making a mincemeat of the woollens. It was then that I noticed something curious. The queue wasn't long, short actually by demonetisation standards, but each person was taking way too much time before the vending machine to withdraw the daily quota of Rs 2,500. When I inched closer to the door, the reason became clear.

Nearly everyone who stepped inside the kiosk fished out multiple debit cards. This elongated the waiting period for those in the queue. But during my nearly two-hour wait, I did not record even one disgruntled voice. Among the everyday chatter and an odd bonhomie that a queue imposes upon total strangers, there were instead voices of support for Narendra Modi's move despite the quite pronounced inconveniences.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during he address to the nation on the eve of New Year. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during he address to the nation on the eve of New Year. PTI

Close to the 50-day deadline that the prime minister had promised — we had been informed by an endless stream of reports in media that disgruntlement against 'notebandi' among the public is now reaching a crescendo — the anecdotal experience sat at odds with the reportage. It pointed to a strong disconnect between the media, which professes to represent the views of the people, and vox populi.

As Manu Joseph wrote in his 1 January column for The Times of India — Why aam aadmi is not mad at NaMo despite DeMo: "…There is evidence that the average Indian feels Modi is on to something. Or at least, for some reason, he is not angry with Modi. If the cash crunch continues for another month, the mood might change but as of now it does appear that Modi is going to be fine. The people standing in the queues suggest that."

If there is a difference between perception and reality regarding demonetisation, that got reinforced during Modi's New Year's eve speech. Very often, during the prolonged debate over currency swap, the criticisms have been based less on facts and data (it is still too early to gather empirical data expect broad indications) and more on ideological and political differences. The predominant critiques of Modi's New Year eve speech could be divided into two categories.

One, that termed the speech as "inadequate" because it apparently lacked "specifics" on black money or political funding. Two, that termed the PM's schemes as "sops" or "doles" and dismissed those as harebrained ideas borrowed from the UPA.

It is not a little ironic that demands of "specific" information by the 50th day on how much black money has been eradicated are emerging from the section that had all along been claiming that the effect of demonetisation would become clear only after months or even an year. If that is true — and this assumption has been borne out by economists, various think tanks, research groups and credit rating agencies — then these demands that the PM specify right now how much damage the economy has suffered or how much black money the RBI has mopped up, are premature.

As economists (cutting across differences in opinion about demonetisation) have repeatedly pointed out, there exists no such reference point that may even remotely point towards the impact of such a sweeping move that is still evolving every day. Hence it would have been too adventurous to furnish any figure right at this moment, given that the prime minister would rightly be held accountable for any accounting errors or oversights.

Moreover, this strain of criticism is disingenuous because nowhere did the government claim that it would roll out "specific data" on demonetisation by the 50th day. Modi's assurances were focused on lessening of public inconveniences and the jury is still out on that count.

If anything, the prime minister gave enough suggestions on 31 December that the drive against black money will continue and that demonetisation is merely one piece in the jigsaw. There are enough indications that the NDA government is serious about plugging the black money loopholes. Just ahead of the speech on Saturday, reports emerged that India has amended a decade-old treaty and will now start imposing capital gains tax on investments coming from Singapore from April and fully withdraw exemptions in two years. The development follows similar treaty amendments with Mauritius and Cyprus earlier this year.

As Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was quoted as saying by The Indian Express, "…there was a reasonable apprehension that these (double taxation) agreements were being used for roundtripping of domestic black money organising its flight outside the country and bringing it back into the country through these three routes… by amending them, we have been able to give a reasonable burial to this black money route which existed."

The next category of criticism, that Modi has been borrowing UPA's 'doleconomics', is even more off the mark. It confuses Congress's mai-baap style of politics with targeted assistance at sectors that need nurturing but crucially, only if, the sectors/individuals show willingness to become empowered instead of depending on doles and entitlements.

As columnist and ORF Fellow Ashok Malik wrote in NDTV, "Those who have followed Modi's governance since his Gujarat days would know be believes in the power of the individual citizen to improve his or her conditions, with the state as a sympathetic enabler and not a spoon-feeding parent. This is different from the culture of giveaways and doles that remains the trademark of the Congress and motivates Rahul Gandhi's familiar calls for blanket loan write-offs."

While some ideas like the interest subvention on loans for home loan borrowers that may facilitate affordable housing and change the game in terms of financial inclusion are original, some ideas such as financial assistance for pregnant women are not, but here too Modi has brought a scheme out of UPA's cold storage (the 2010 Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana was subsumed under the National Food Security Act in 2013) and promised its national rollout across 650 districts.

IGMSY, as a report in The Times of India pointed out, was amended in 2013 and the cash entitlement was increased to Rs 6,000 but the benefit, which was to become universal and provided in all districts in the country from the date of NFSA, remained stunted due to lack of budgetary allocations.  That is a shame because 17 percent of all maternal deaths occur in India. Every 100,000 live births claim the lives of 167 women and 43 children out of 1000 die during childbirths. The causes for the deaths, mentions the TOI report, have been identified as poor nutrition and inadequate medical care.

In the area of housing, the prime minister's scheme may level the field where 45 percent of all housing loan are cornered by just 300 real estate firms. Another report in The Times of India quoted Rajiv Lall, MD & CEO of IDFC Bank, as saying: "…The extreme concentration of bank credit on the top end of the corporate sector has begun to border on the ridiculous," opining that the incentives will help "rebalance this by encouraging loans to small business where the framework has already been created with the help of payment systems and bank accounts."

Whereas the Gandhi scion has been demanding farm loan waivers, a move that results in a detrimental effect to the economy and punishes the honest borrowers, eventually leading banks to stop offering loans altogether, Modi's speech has already resulted in home loans touching six-year lows with market leader SBI leading the way. If there is a revival of credit cycle interest, that may stave off the contractionary effects of demonetisation. This is a far cry from Congress's populist policies.

For full coverage of Union Budget 2017 click here.

Published Date: Jan 02, 2017 18:50 PM | Updated Date: Jan 15, 2017 21:01 PM

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