PLUs deafened by the Big Bang

Make no mistake — demonetisation is an important first step in what will be remembered as India’s biggest reform.

One of the more endearing, and enlightening acronyms that the Indian upper class has come up with is PLUs — People Like Us. Both the Indian and Western PLUs have been clamouring for Big Bang reforms for the last two and a half years. The demand had a lot of merit — for the first time in 25 years, there was a government with a clear majority in the Lok Sabha. While several economic reforms were initiated since May 2014, and by my calculation more than the cumulative set of reforms since (but not including) 1991, the PLUs were not satisfied and bayed for more — yeh “liberal” maange more. Finally, when PM Modi delivered the Big Bang, the PLUs were so deafened that they refused to see the writing on the reform wall.

But why did the intelligentsia and mainstream media (domestic and especially foreign) not see that demonetisation was (obviously) part of a Big Bang reform? For one simple reason — the battle is ideological, and has precious little to do with the content of reform. And PLU ideology dictates that whatever any non-Congress government does has to be wrong, immoral, and illiberal. Soon after the May 2014 election, I suggested that the big story of the election was the forthcoming battle between the old elite and the new, yet to be formed, elite.

A battle between the established middle class, and the new middle class. A battle between the amoral naam ke waste liberal policies of the last 70 years and a vision, and accompanying policies, for a transformed India.

Demonetisation 2016 only confirms that the battle of the elites is the one forecast I did get right. The old elite keeps stating three arguments in support of their defence that demonetisation has been a failure. The first, Rottweiler-like, that demonetisation has failed because most of the old banned notes have been deposited in banks. The purpose of demonetisation, according to PLUs and their voting outlet, the Congress, was that a large chunk (possibly two to four lakh crores) of banned notes would not return to the system. The fact that money not returned is likely to be lower than the lowest estimate means that D-policy has failed. But who said that this was even a minor goal of demonetisation? The old elite, of course.

The second focus of the ideological view that D-policy has been a failure is the botched-up implementation. To repeat this as the reason to reject D-policy is myopia of the worst kind. Of course, implementation has been bad; even the government (and RBI) admits to it, as revealed by the much noted fact that the government has changed policy on a daily basis. Having noted this dog bites man fact, let us proceed. If the government had all the time in the world, of course the implementation would have been as perfect as the Kumbh Mela or the annual Republic Day parade. Secrecy was required and there is a near certain likelihood that D-day was advanced because the secret was getting out. So, can one really call it a botch-up? If you are the old elite, then what other weapon have you got to disagree, complain, and question?

But there is a third option. Document and rightfully complain about the fact that people, especially poor people, have been inconvenienced — they have to stand in queues with no return (all puns intended). This is not surprising, even though it is revolting. The left-liberal apologists for the rich have always shot off the backs of the bottom half. This half has been hurt by D-policy in terms of jobs lost and income not received. What is remarkable is that not only have they not complained about this genuine loss, but they have verbally, actively, and in the poll booth supported the Big Bang initiative.

The bottom 90 per cent realises that those hurt by D-policy are the old elite, amongst whom are a large proportion of those gaming the system by laundering their black money via the other 90 per cent. A truly shocking fact just revealed by the government is that six million units (individuals, small firms and NGOs) have deposited a total of Rs 7 lakh crore of the banned notes. That is an average of Rs 11 lakh (or $15000) per unit.

I would like to hear from the PLUs: How many elites do they know in the Western world who keep an average of $15000 of cash at home? These very same elites had opposed demonetisation on the grounds that there was very little black cash in the economy because the bad rich were too smart to have any black cash. The fact that there was a lot of extra cash in the economy has two immediate implications. The government must continue with its policy of limiting cash withdrawals after December 30 — no more than Rs 1 lakh per individual and no more than Rs 5 lakh per firm. Second, that no more than, say, Rs 11 lakh crore of new cash (a comfortable excess of what is really required) of the banned Rs. 15.4 lakh crore should be printed. These are important steps to foil any attempts to keep the old order, and to encourage the ringing of the new.

India 2016 is very likely to go down in history as comparable to China 1978. Fifty days after D-day is too soon to pass judgement. One hundred and fifty days later, the transformative power of D will (hopefully) become obvious.

author bio

  • Surjit S. Bhalla | Contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’, and senior India analyst at Observatory Group, a New York-based macro policy advisory group. Views are personal FULL BIO

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