In 2020 September Issue of Red Star, under the title “India’s Economy is projected for the Biggest-ever Contraction”, quoting both international sources and official Indian agencies, we have briefly outlined the unravelling economic scenario for India in 2020. Accordingly, IMF, World Bank and ADB, together with India’s own Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation (MoSPI), RBI, and the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), have come to a consensus on the projection that the Indian economy was moving to a 4.5 percent contraction in 2020. Some independent researchers even predicted a shrinkage of India’s GDP from $2.11 trillion as estimated in 2019 to $ 1.9 trillion in 2021. Of course, independent institutions such as the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP), had even went a step ahead warning an impending 15-22 percent contraction for the economy. Among the factors identified by these studies that led to this historic downturn, the most important was the prolonged, ill-conceived and coercive and authoritarian lockdown superimposed by Modi.
However, most of these agencies were unwilling to have a close scrutiny of the economic performance of the 6 years (2014-20) of Modi’ rule and more or less were concentrating on the pandemic-link of the economic crisis including the regime’s ill-conceived policies that accentuated it. Though India’s per capita GDP has been one of the lowest in the world (140th rank according to 2019 estimate), corporate centres along with Modi government were still spreading the illusion that by 2024 India’s economy would move to a $5 trillion size. Contrary to the perspectives put forward by well-meaning scholars that Indian economy under Modi has been plunging throughout, the neoliberal pundits and a many academics were reluctant to have a concrete evaluation of the crisis confronted by the broad masses of Indian people. Though a general agreement is there among them that lockdown is the immediate cause for economic reverse, still they are in tandem with the official view that strict lockdown has helped India keep case fatality rate lower than counties like the US, the UK, France, Japan and Italy.
However, following the Economic Review report for August prepared by Indian Finance Ministry that was released following the spread of the information that GDP numbers for the first quarter ending June showed the worst ever quarterly performance by the Indian economy, the government was forced to willy-nilly admit thus: "Data now available for the April-June quarter confirms a significant world-wide year-on-year contraction of output resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. US economy has contracted by 9.1 per cent, UK, France, Spain, Italy and Germany by 21.7 per cent, 18.9 per cent, 22.1 per cent, 17.7 per cent and 11.3 per cent respectively with the overall Euro area contracting by 15.0 per cent and Japan has contracted by 9.9 per cent. Relative to these advanced nations, India's GDP contraction at 23.9 per cent is slightly higher." And it is to justify this unparalleled collapse which Modi regime whitewashes as “slightly higher” without any scientific basis, that the Finance Ministry claims the “stringent lockdown” as helping the nation to contain its COVID-19 case fatality rate to 1.78 percent, as compared to 3.04 per cent in the US, 12.35 per cent in the UK, 10.09 per cent in France, 1.89 per cent in Japan and 13.18 per cent in Italy. On the contrary, as is evident from IMF’s Gita Gopinath’s unkind comment on India’s GDP contraction as “worst among G-20 countries”, neoliberal centres are unwilling to take Modi regime’s explanation as taken for granted. And of late, Lancet, the renowned medical Journal has vehemently criticised both Modi government and the ICMR under its control for covering up the gruesome pandemic situation in India.
Coming to the economic scene, the 24 percent collapse in GDP in the first quarter (April, May, June) of the financial year 2020-21 has gone against the calculations of the ruling classes. In common parlance, it implies that the total value of goods and services produced in India in April, May and June this year is 24 percent less than the total value of goods and services produced in India in the same period last year. In fact, sector-wise analysis of data shows a more frightening situation. In terms of the gross value added (GVA), barring agriculture where GVA grew by 3.4 percent (on account of favourable weather good monsoon) as claimed by government, all other sectors of the economy saw an absolute collapse. Thus, GVA in construction sector has shrunk by 50 percent, in trade, hotels and similar services by 47 percent, manufacturing by 39 percent and mining by 23 percent. According to some estimate, the entire economic activity during the quarter has been only 25 percent of what it was during the same period in 2019. The job-loss due to the collapse of the relatively labour-intensive sectors mainly comprising informal/unorganised activities alone is estimated at around 140 million. Meanwhile, the Express Research Group of MoSPI has made the startling revelation that compared with the first quarter of the previous financial year, individual consumption expenditure that comprises around 56 percent of GDP experienced a decline worth Rs. 531803 crore (the decline is estimated at 27 percent) and private business investment that is composed of 32 percent of GDP collapsed by Rs. 533003 crore (the decline is estimated at around 50 percent) in the first quarter of the current financial year.
The outcome of this unprecedented decline in respect of the two biggest “growth engines” (i.e., individual consumption and private investment which form economy’s driving force on account of the continuous downsizing of the government expenditure resulting in a decline in its share in GDP to around 10 percent) of the neoliberal economy that accounted for 88 percent of India’s total GDP, The government has no data regarding the millions of informal/unorganised workers, migrant and daily workers who lost means of livelihood and employment, though unofficial estimates count them in the range of 12-14 crore. As estimated by CMIE, around 21 million white collar professional employees and 5 million industrial workers have been sacked in India during the past one year alone that does not all include self-employed professionals like doctors, lawyers, chartered accountants, etc. As a matter of fact, the 23.9 percent GDP contraction in the first quarter of 2020-21 as estimated by Indian Finance Ministry, on account of paucity of data, is not based on the real state of the economy pertaining to the informal sector. Therefore, as pointed out by US-based neoliberal experts like Raghuram Rajan, if the damage to the informal sector is also taken into consideration, then the economic collapse will be worst in sharp contrast to the GDP drop of 12.4 per cent in Italy and 9.5 per cent in the US, two of the most COVID-19 affected economies. Hence, as the global economy is going to contract by 4.3 percent this year (as calculated by UNCTAD, this year the world will experience a complete wipe-out of $ 6 trillion in terms of GDP –equivalent to the combined GDP of Brazil, India and Mexico), as estimated by MOSPI, Indian economy is going to collapse at the rate of 7 percent in the current year!
However, the very same neoliberal centres who now expose India as the worst performing economy were unanimous in characterising it as the “best performing country” in the world in 2014 with a GDP growth rate of around 7 percent when Modi government assumed power 6 years ago. Since then, what happened has been an irreversible downward trend in GDP growth rate along with the intensifying poverty, deprivation and pauperisation of the broad masses of toiling people as manifested in the historic decline in production, biggest unemployment in five decades, horrific levels of inequality and corruption. Though already discussed much, let us go through a few indices to unravel this historic plunge of India during 2014-20. For instance, in 2014 India’s ranking in Global Hunger Index (prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute) was 55. Under Modi, within two years it steadily declined to 100 in 2017 and further to 102 in 2019 among 117 countries in the world and much below that of all South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka (66), Nepal (73), Bangladesh (88) and Pakistan (94) in 2019. Regarding hunger and deprivation of children, an indication of the seriousness of poverty and deprivation, Indian position is despicable. In India, only 9.6% of all children between 6 to 23 months of age are given a minimum acceptable diet and medical care. India is also notorious for under-5 mortality rates and prevalence of undernourishment owing to inadequate food. And, as an indicator of inequality and deprivation, India’s rank out of 189 countries on the 2019 Human Development Index released by UNDP is 129. Of course, there is no dearth of statistics highlighting the extent of poverty, hunger, inequality, unemployment, corruption, etc. in India.
Let us see the other side of the picture too. Under Modi regime during the same period, the concentration of income and wealth with the superrich Indians witnessed a sky-rocketing. For instance, in 2013, i.e., before Modi’s ascendance to power, the number of dollar billionaires (those having assets worth $100 crore and above) in India was 63. After Modi’s coming in mid-2014, their number steadily grew to 90 and further to 138 in 2019. Ambani who leads this list with $ 8060 crore (equal to around Rs. 6 lakh crore) is the fourth richest in the world today. In the absence of reliable domestic data, we have to depend on international sources such as Forbes, Oxfam, Credit Suisse, etc. to get a real picture on this. While 53 percent of the entire national wealth is gobbled up by just one percent of the superrich, the poorest bottom half of the population owns only around 4 percent of the national wealth as of now. When Modi came to power if one percent of the superrich appropriated around 50 percent of the additional wealth generated in a year, on account of his superimposition of corporate saffron-fascism, today this proportion has grown to almost 80 percent, quite unheard of anywhere in the world!
Over the last six years of Modi regime, this horrific wealth concentration on the one hand, and hitherto unknown levels of deprivation and destitution of the masses on the other, have revealingly taken place along with a process of India’s economic transformation from “best performing” as estimated in the 7 percent GDP growth rate in 2014 (as recognised by both Indian international agencies) to “worst performing” as is manifested in the 7 percent contraction of GDP as now admitted by the Indian Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation (MoSPI). Obviously, the roots of this destructive process are not caused by any extraneous or external disturbances but a logical corollary of the fascistic “surgical strikes” directed against the people ranging from the superimposed demonetisation to the coercive lockdown pursued by Modi without any economic or medical basis. Demonetisation in 2016 that terrorised and subjugated the people in the guise of dealing with black money was an ingenious move for an unprecedented concentration and centralisation of wealth in most corrupt corporate, crony capitalists. The GST that followed (since mid-2017) was also aimed at bringing India’s goods and services market under the firm control of corporates after demolishing the federal structure of the Constitution. Both these neoliberal-fascist offensives that may be characterised as economic holocausts led the entire economy to a frozen state, brought all economic activities to a standstill and paralysed the agricultural sector that provide sustenance to 50 percent of the people and destroyed the informal and traditional sectors which are the sole source of livelihood for 95 percent of the 52 crore workforce in India.
The whole package of far-right neoliberal polices and direct measures such as pro-corporate tax exemptions, neoliberal labour and environmental deregulations, series of stimulus and economic packages that directly channelled trillions worth of public money into the coffers of corporate thugs and outright loot of public sector banks coupled with the fascistic demonetisation that at a stroke wiped out 86 percent of currency in circulation quite unheard of in modern history, followed by GST and so on have already led India to a historic economic stagnation on the eve of COVID-19 itself. The fabulous wealth thus appropriated by corporates, both foreign and Indian, according to the logic of neoliberal accumulation, instead of contributing anything towards employment-oriented productive sphere, actually went into money-spinning speculative spheres or for further appropriation of public assets by a handful of the superrich billionaires. Consequently, on the eve of COVID-19 itself, Indian economy had entered into the biggest-ever contraction in its history along with its concomitant manifestations in all spheres.
Historically, crisis has been an opportunity for fascists and Modi knows the art of effectively utilising it from his experience of heading both state and central administration. Thus without even consulting the parliament or opposition, and with a four-hour notice, and quite reminiscent of the manner in which demonetisation was implemented, he superimposed the most stringent and most coercive lockdown that continued at a stretch for two months on an economy which, as we noted in earlier articles, was already in ICU. This highly authoritarian and destructive move which is unjustified and uncalled for while collapsed the entire industry and service sectors, also impacted the agricultural sector due to abrupt collapse in demand and freezing of trade and transportation. Only the fascistic administration and its oppressive instrument such as police required to implement the lockdown remained functional. The outcome: India has become the worst performing economy in the world during 2020 April-June quarter.
Now if we take the entire Asian countries, the estimated COVID-triggered economic contraction for this part of the world during this period now hovers around an average of around 6 percent, even as the real economic collapse of India may be larger than the 24 percent now estimated by government’s own agencies. For instance, former chief statistician Pranab Sen had projected a GDP contraction to the extent of 35 per cent if the real situation in the informal sector is also taken in to consideration. Therefore, COVID-19 is only partial explanation for India’s current economic collapse. Rather, it is directly connected with Modi regime’s far-right fascistic policies that serves corporate capital since 2014. The present unparalleled economic collapse of India is corporatisation-induced. To reiterate again without much elaboration, as we have already said, unless this trend is reversed through an appropriate political intervention, the corporate-saffron fascist regime will again try to deploy all avenues at its disposal to carry forward its disastrous pro-corporate agenda and put heavier burdens on the backs of common people.
“Following the longer period of lockdown”, according to the latest Report of IMF, “India’s economy is projected to contract by 4.5 percent” in 2020, the lowest ever for India in seven decades. And according to ADB’s latest forecast, this contraction is slated to continue in 2020-21 too, though IMF does not share such a view as of now. Moreover, if this contraction persists, then by 2021, India’s GDP may shrink to $ 1.9 trillion from $2.11 trillion (as estimated in 2019). Though Modi regime is now reopening the economy amidst further intensification of COVID-19 pandemic, many experts including Gita Gopinath, chief economist of IMF identifies the “Great Lockdown” as the immediate cause for the worst downturn in India’s history. Many US-based economic experts who earlier worked as Modi regime’s economic policy advisers have also come out identifying, among other things, the ill-conceived COVID-19-related policies including the prolonged lockdown as one of the reasons for the contraction of the economy.
Following this, even Indian official sources such as Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation (MOSPI), Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) and RBI (many official Indian agencies linked with the government were engaging in preparing doctored statistics as suited to the regime and those experts who questioned it had to resign too) have now started parroting on the negative economic trends already identified by neoliberal centres. For instance, the second quarter (of 2020) estimates released by the RBI just two days ago portray a dismal economic picture in every sphere in this regard including a 4-6 percent GDP contraction in the fiscal year 2020-21. However, independent research bodies such as the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP), from the perspective of output and employment, predicts an impending 15-22 percent of the economy. According to noted economist Arun Kumar of CESP, India’s GDP in the fiscal year 2020-21 is set to contract by at least 30 percent from Rs. 204 lakh crore to Rs. 130 lakh crore. Many such evaluations are forthcoming from diverse centres.
Of course, COVID-19 and the coercive lockdown with just four hours prior information that brought the economy to a standstill are only the immediate cause that accentuated the crisis. That is, it is not COVID that created the crisis, rather the former only strengthened the latter that was already set in. On the other hand, until the onset of the pandemic, as opposed to their recent revelations and sudden somersaults, all the neoliberal institutions and far-right ideologues associated with them were working overtime to bring about a rosy picture of India even when its economy had been steadily and irreversibly plunging throughout the Modi regime. And throughout, these neoliberal pundits were camouflaging the real state of the economy under this government as well as the horrific living conditions of the broad masses of this country when Modi has been resorting to all means to accomplish the required investor-friendly measures and for laying red carpet for the unfettered inflows of money-spinning and speculative imperialist capital to India. Most corrupt corporate Consultancies like PwC and their Indian pen-pushers while spreading the illusion of a $5 trillion economy by 2024 and $10 trillion size by 2030, were abstaining from unravelling the underlying trends behind India’s 140th rank (2019 estimate) in the world in terms of per capita GDP.
As already underlined by various domestic and global studies, when Modi came to power in 2014, India’s GDP growth rate was hovering around 7 percent that prompted them to characterise India as “the best performing country” in the world. To an extent, as pointed out by many analysts, it was also “relatively immune” from the world economic crisis of 2008-09. Thus the irreversible declining trend in GDP growth rate actually began in 2014. To transform the State as a corporate-facilitator and to rapidly improve India’s indices pertaining to “ease of doing business” and “global competitiveness” (even after so much sell-outs, India’s rank is still at the pitiable 63rd and 68th position in global ranking regarding these indices) as laid down by Bretton Woods twin and in accordance with the far-right economic philosophy of RSS, the first step that Modi regime did was the abolition of the more than six-and-a-half decade-old Planning Commission, the last remnant of state-led development, and its replacement by a corporate-saffron think-tank called NITI Aayog and entrusting the task of policymaking with it without even consulting the parliament. This was followed by the Demonetisation in 2016 and GST in 2017 which in essence aimed at further concentration of income and wealth with the corporate-financial elite leading to a superimposed destruction of all the informal and traditional sectors of the economy upon which, as of 2019, more than 95 percent of the 52 crore Indian labour force (as of 2019) subsists. Along with this, mimicking China, the flagship “Make in India” initiative was announced in September 2014 with the declared aim of transforming India into world’s manufacturing hub, thereby claiming to raise the proportion of manufacturing from 17 percent to 25 percent of GDP by 2022. However, what happened is the opposite and today this proportion has fallen further to around 13 percent and in the meanwhile in spite of becoming one of the largest destinations of foreign capital investment, India’s position has again deteriorated into a dustbin of money-spinning speculative capital (since capital that flowed in taking advantage of liberal tax, labour and environmental regulations is least interested in employment-oriented productive activities) as well as a dumping ground for goods and services from imperialist sources ranging from US to China.
It is not intended here to go into the details of this economic collapse. Though Modi came to power in 2014 claiming to generate an additional 2 crore jobs every year, as of now, according to independent estimates, the country has lost around 14 crore jobs during the six year period 2014-20. And India today experiences the worst unemployment in recorded history. Almost 50 percent of the people are still clinging on to agriculture for their sustenance though the contribution of agriculture to GDP is only around 15 percent as of now. But Modi’s input-output pricing policies pertaining to agriculture and its forcible integration with world market and corporatisation policies are displacing large sections from agriculture altogether. Despite the economic slump, India being one of the highest number of superrich billionaires, income and wealth inequality (close to 60 percent of the country’s total wealth is in the hands of upper 10 percent of the population, and three-fourth of the additional wealth generated is gobbled up by the top one percent) are of unprecedented proportions. Still only 1.5 crore Indians are effective direct tax payers (including corporate and personal income taxes) and in spite of extreme concentration of wealth and inequality, Indian corporate tax rate at 15 percent is the lowest in the world. The direct tax-GDP ratio in India is stagnating at around 5.5 percent which also is world’s lowest. If the upper 10 percent of the wealthy sections are brought under the tax net, together with 30 percent corporate tax (during the 1970s, the highest rate was up to 90 percent), the direct tax-GDP ratio could have easily been raised to 20 percent.
To compensate for this biggest loss in tax revenue (GST collection is already on the downturn due to lack of purchasing power of the masses and declining consumption expenditure), Modi has been resorting to the biggest-ever loot of the broad masses by sky-rocketing prices of petroleum products (mainly through raising taxes and cesses on petrol, diesel, cooking gas, etc.), and by this alone during 2014-20 the regime has amassed an additional amount worth Rs. 17.5 lakh crore relative to the UPA regime. Ironically, the average world crude oil price (India imports around 80 percent of its crude oil requirements) during the entire Modi regime has been around one-third of what it was during the previous UPA rule, and following declining global demand in the context of COVID-19, global price is now hovering around one-fourth of what it had been a decade ago. Meanwhile, declining government revenue from direct and indirect taxes coupled with corruption and plunder of the exchequer in manifold ways are resulting in an unprecedented growth in India’s debt-GDP ratio to around 85 percent during the Modi period. To cap it all, an unprecedented loot of public wealth through disinvestment of PSUs and plunder of public sector banks through the creation of NPAs by corporates are flourishing without any let up.
In 2015, the World Bank based on its renewed yardsticks of poverty measurement including the new methodology of purchasing power parity redrew its world poverty line. Still India with 17.5 percent of world population had more than 20 percent of world’s poorest people. Out of this, more than 6 crore belongs to chronically malnourished children under the age of 5. According to UNICEF estimate, 8.8 lakh Indian children have been dying every year due to lack of food. As per the latest Edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) India has the distinction of the largest share of food insecure people. As estimated by UN Organisations, under Modi.1, the prevalence of food insecurity in India increased by 3.8 percentage points. As a result, by the year 2019, the number of food insecure people increased in India by an additional 6.2 crore than 2014. Though FAO in its Prevalence of Moderate and Severe Food Insecurity (PMSFI) estimate places India in a very critical situation, Modi government is not allowing publication of such reports in India for obvious reasons.
Usually, while the World Bank reports often whitewashes the Indian situation, the FAO Report seems to be more objective in approaching India’s stark realities. Thus, according to FAO’s PMSFI, while 27.8 percent of India’s population suffered from moderate or severe food insecurity in 2014, the proportion rose to 31.6 percent in 2019. Thus, number of food insecure people in India rose from 42.65 crore in 2014 to 48.86 crore in 2019. Accordingly, India accounted for 22 percent of the global burden of food insecurity, the highest for any country in 2019. Since Modi government has not released the usual NSSO Consumption Expenditure Survey data even for 2017-18 which was due, FAO had to use supply-wise data on per capita food availability to measure changes in average per capita calorie intake, which is an underestimate. Prolonged lock down and lack of buying capacity of people has increased the core issue of hunger and food security, and many starvation deaths are frequently covered up under COVID-19. While there is no let-up in India’s multidimensional poverty, the 2019 Global Hunger Index (that measures the severity of hunger) has ranked India at 102nd out of 117 countries.
On the other hand, amidst the fudging of economic data, deployment of the entire administrative machinery for achieving its Hindutva majoritarian objectives and using the pandemic itself as an opportunity for corporate bootlicking and selling out the country’s wealth to the most corrupt foreign and Indian corporates, concerted efforts are also going on to cover up the stark realities people’s life. For instance, India being ranked second in food and agricultural production, the total food grains stock (rice plus wheat) with FCI has now topped 100 million tons as of June 1, 2020. On account of grave storage challenges, millions of tons of this grain stock are prone to decay, and the government could have effectively and quickly liquidate the heavy burden of storage by immediately distributing this among the needy, vulnerable and destitute sections through a free-grain scheme. But true to its fascist character, except certain window-dressing (as part of the much trumpeted Aatmanirbhar, 5 kg wheat/rice for 3 months among the poor 80 crore was announced), no concrete intervention is there to distribute the food grains among the tens of millions of poor including the migrant workers who were forced to bear the brunt of Modi’s coercive lockdown since March 25th 2020. Concerned people have already demanded an extended food distribution system along with an universalisation of the MGNREGA program expanding to urban and semi-urban areas where the informal/unorganised workforce is concentrated including a revision of pay from the existing Rs.202 to Rs.450 a day. They have also demanded a wage-led approach that will boost output, employment and demand instead of the current “supply-side” interventions (i.e., the pro-corporate stimulus packages) now pursued by the Modi regime.
However, the fascistic Modi regime is consistent in blatantly opposing such genuine pro-people demands. On the other, as again proved by the announcement of Rs. 21 lakh crore package (in real terms what is addressed to the vast majority of toiling and oppressed people in it is only around Rs.2 lakh core or just one percent of the country’s GDP) under what is called “Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan” the regime is still pursuing the beaten track of stimulating the corporates as the only alternative before it. While setting apart a paltry sum for the people whose entire livelihood has been destroyed, Aatmanirbhar turned out to be a cover for an unprecedented sell-out to those whom Modi regime characterises as “wealth creators”, a post-truth synonym for corporate looters who plunder and appropriate the country’s wealth. Thus Aatmanirbhar Bharat has turned out to be a more vulgar imitation of the earlier “Make in India”, under the cover of which the remaining key and strategic sectors including mining, transport, defence, banks and insurance space exploration, power distribution, health research, and entire frontier technologies are thrown open to foreign and Indian corporates.
As already discussed, this intensified shift to the far-right by the corporate-saffron regime laying red carpet for aggressive corporate plunder using COVID-19 as an opportunity is driving the country deep into the vicious circle of corporatisation-induced economic breakdown. Unless this trend is reversed through an appropriate political intervention, fascist forces will deploy all avenues at its disposal to put still heavier burdens on the backs of common people. A broad-based, nationwide people’s movement capable of mobilising the workers and all oppressed including dalits, adivasis, minorities and women based on a common minimum program against corporate saffron fascism is the need of the hour.
Following India’s bloodiest clash with imperialist China in 45 years, there seems to be no dearth of jingoistic postures from saffron centres, as even Chinese intrusion in to India’s territory is becoming self-evident now. As part of this, a hectic campaign is in full swing for an economic retaliation against China mainly by boycotting Chinese products. For instance, the pro-RSS Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), has called for an outright boycott of 450 broad categories of imported Chinese items which include 3500 products comprising a whole range of cosmetics, bags, toys, furniture, footwear, watches, etc. so as to reduce their imports by $13 billion or Rs. I lakh crore by December 2021, whereas the value of India’s import from China approximately equals to the staggering figure of around $70 billion or Rs. 525000 crore in 2019-20. However, at the outset, it may be stated that such moves are mainly rhetorical since India’s dependence on and integration with imperialist China in the economic field (of course with its political ramifications) is so complex and deep-rooted that in the immediate future, despite the much trumpeted “Make in India”, and the latest “Atmanirbhar Bharat”, it will be well-nigh impossible for India to resort to a ban on Chinese investments and products.
China’s Transformation as the Largest Imperialist Economy
To unravel this, a brief note on China’s emergence as an imperialist power with its position today as world’s leading capital and commodity exporter would be in order. No doubt, China’s experience of breaking the imperialist hierarchy inherited from the colonial world order is an exceptional and unique phenomenon. China’s political trajectory as a socialist country for more than a quarter century after WW II, its capitalist restoration following seizure of power by bureaucratic bourgeoisie in the late 1970s and its eventual transformation as an imperialist power are all complex processes that require in-depth analysis and, therefore, is outside the scope of this note. Since the beginning of the 1980s, with its catchword of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, the bureaucratic state capitalism in China began its close integration with private sector orienting state-owned banks toward liberally supporting private businesses. Since the 1990s, there took place a relative shift in this privatisation strategy with more emphasis on FDI inflows that rushed in to take advantage of China’s inexhaustible supply of cheap labour. As the cheapest source of production and as an active participant in the neoliberal international division of labour, this enabled China to increasingly integrate itself with global finance capital. In conformity with the logic of capital accumulation, lucrative real estate, financial markets and other money spinning businesses also flourished as a concomitant. Party-led bureaucratic state was transformed into an apparatus committed to protect the interests of corporate capital at the expense of workers, peasants and toiling people. As estimated by All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, the share of private sector in Chinese GDP today is more than 60 percent. As of 2018, the entire private sector including both domestic and foreign accounted for70 percent of technological innovation, 80 percent (340 million) of the total employment (783 million) and 90 percent of all Chinese exports.
The bureaucratic state monopoly capitalism of China through various joint ventures between state-owned enterprises and foreign corporate capital went on adapting itself to the most modern and state-of-the-art technologies and in the process succeeded in building up a number of Chinese monopolies exporting capital to almost a hundred countries by the turn of the 21st century and to more than 125 countries as of now. Sino-US bilateral trade during the four decades following capitalist restoration in China had grown by 150 times —quite unprecedented in recorded history — from $4 billion in 1979 to around $600 billion in 2019. With an average annual GDP growth rate of 10 percent since mid-1980s, China rose to the position of the second largest imperialist power when the 2008 world imperialist crisis erupted. Since then, though the growth rate has gone down, according to World Bank’s purchasing power parity estimates, by 2019 China became world’s largest economy with a GDP of around $27 trillion relegating the US to the second position with around $21 trillion. As its manifestation, in all other economic indicators including global trade volume, China had already surpassed the US. And by leading several organisations, groupings and initiatives such as Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), BRICS including New Development Bank (NDB), etc., China is already in an enviable position, as the US hold over many post war neo-colonial institutions such as UN and its Specialised Agencies are rapidly loosening. And in tandem with its growing imperialist political-economic clout, China’s military budget had steadily grown from around $14 billion in 2000 to more than $260 billion in 2019, almost four times that of India!
This transformation has its domestic repercussions. The so called “iron rice bowl” of socialism that ensured food, housing health, education and employment for all has been demolished. All the evils of ‘uneven development’ associated with capitalism and market economy are on the ascendance. Destruction of ‘self-reliant’ and ‘self-sufficient’ communes has led to one of the biggest internal migrations in history that resulted in tens of millions of displaced landless peasants becoming unemployed while a section of them who could migrate to urban centres and special economic zones in coastal areas were subjected to extreme forms of super-exploitation jointly by both foreign capital and emerging Chinese monopolies. In 1980, urban dwelling population was just 20 percent; it reached almost 50 percent in the first decade of the 21st century, a trend that gathered further momentum since then. China’s urbanisation, like its whole course of development, is unprecedented. According to latest Demographia’s World Urban Areas Report, there are now 113 urban centres in China that surpass the one million population threshold. In comparison, only North America and the European Union combined have 114 urban areas that surpass one million people. At the same time, large sections of the population still remain in the country-side at subsistence level. Since a social safety net composed of cost-indexed wages, health care and pensions is totally lacking outside the public sector employment, tens of millions of workers are left without access to welfare benefits or minimum standard of living. Migrant workers in construction sites and unorganised sectors live and work in desperate conditions and are paid below normal rates. As a reflection of the extreme misery and destitution suffered by people, all evils of capitalism such as poverty, price rise, corruption, sex trade, child-begging, homelessness and cultural degradation have also become rampant. And the emergence of a ‘deep state’ and political oppression have now become a corollary of the inevitable social tensions arising from the rigorous dismantling of even the remnants of erstwhile socialist achievements.
The concomitant political-ideological dimensions of this economic transformation found its first formal expression in the 16th Party Congress of Communist party of China (CPC) held in 2002 that formally announced extension of party membership to CEOs of corporate companies. Its outcome was well-reflected in the National People’s Congress (NPC) held in 2018 when large number of the delegates elected were from corporate CEOs and super-rich financial elite and wealthy individuals along with the party bureaucrats who have been the sole beneficiaries of the four decades of capitalist restoration. For instance, almost half of the more than 300 Chinese global billionaires (3 times that in India and second only to the US in 2018) whose wealth has appreciated by around 20 percent a year had their berth in higher echelons of CPC. Overall proportion of millionaires and billionaires in party bureaucracy is relatively high compared with their membership in CPC composed of 89 million out of a total population of almost 1400 million. According to China Rich List released by Hurun, the total wealth held by the top 70 delegates to the 2018 NPC was larger than that with the members of the entire US Congress! China’s Gini coefficient estimated at 0.465, - a statistical measure of inequality in which 0 indicates perfect equality and 1 depicts a situation where all incomes go to one person - is one of the highest in the world. In view of corroborative evidences coming from various other sources, today it is difficult to ignore such data as mere guesstimates associated with usual West-sponsored Sinophobia.
As a matter of fact, the reunification of Hong Kong in 1997 and Macao in 1999, both being nerve centres of global finance, trade and speculation, followed by China’s formal entry in 2001 into WTO, often characterised as the third neo-colonial pillar (the other two being IMF and World Bank) were milestones that speeded up its integration with imperialist market and finance capital. As world’s low-cost production base, this integration enabled China to capture substantial share of commodity markets not only in Afro-Asian-Latin American dependent countries, but even in US, its main imperialist rival for world hegemony. At the same time, this Chinese integration with global market has coincided with the emergence of fast moving ‘frontier’ or new generation technologies such as, digitisation, blockchain, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, robotisation, etc. which were practically insignificant in the 20th century. Closely integrated with the bureaucratic state, many Chinese companies became pioneers in economic innovation and application of these technologies to production at a maddening speed. Among them Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent (popularly known as BAT) and Huawei (pioneer in ‘5G revolution’) have now become world leaders in digitisation, the fast-moving frontier technology of the 21st century, and even capable of successfully challenging US-based “Silicon Six” (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Microsoft). For instance, though five years younger than Amazon, the biggest American e-commerce giant, in terms of volume of trade, Alibaba has already eclipsed the former and is now the leading cloud-provider besides being world’s biggest e-commerce company. And backed by the breakthroughs in digital technology, China is also pioneering a digital currency alternative to the hegemony of US dollar in international transactions.
A crucial aspect to be underlined in this context is that mechanical approach to class/property relations and western notions of corporate governance do not fit in with the private sector in China. Chinese bureaucrats have learned lessons from Soviet Union’s eventual disintegration on account of private corporate sector finally usurping power and taking over the regime. As such, Chinese bureaucratic bourgeoisie’s unleashing of privatisation and corporatisation and encouragement to private businesses for generating economic growth, propelling investment and exports, etc., always go hand in hand with party bureaucracy’s strict supervision over the entire process. Party bodies and ‘party cells’ function in every private business, including even foreign enterprises. This intervention is intended to ensure economic growth strictly avoiding the plausible danger arising from any organised alternative to centres of political power.
It also ensures the regime’s close nexus with corporate capital together with constant surveillance over their dealings. According to a 2018 report, around 95 percent of the private enterprises in China had or in the process of having party cells/units in them. And the presence of the appropriate party representative in board meetings of companies is the accepted norm and corporate CEOs holding ‘Communist party’ membership is the general rule.
For instance, Jack Ma of Alibaba, global face of Chinese monopoly capital and corporate philanthropy has been a party member since 1980s, though his membership was openly declared only in 2018. Even Walmart, world’s biggest US-based retail MNC (that at one time depended on China for around 70-80 percent of its merchandise) which is notorious for not allowing unions in its US stores, had party cells in its companies in China. To be precise, driving corporate wealth accumulation and buttressing the bureaucratic state regime are two sides of China’s private sector that is accomplishing the miraculous “success story” of Chinese imperialism.
Alarming Chinese Penetration to Indian Market
In the background briefly stated above, it may be stated that India’s transformation as a market for Chinese products as well as a destination for investments from China is primarily a 21st century phenomenon intertwined with latter’s emergence as the workshop of the world under neo-liberal globalisation. On account of the 1962 Sino-Indian war and disputes such as the 1967 Chola incident, 1975 showdown when Sikkim became a state of India, and the 1987 Sino-Indian skirmish, both diplomatic and economic ties between India and China had not at all been enthusiastic during the 20th century. Obviously, it was China’s formal entry into WTO in 2001 that enabled it to integrate herself with other countries based on her ‘comparative advantage’ that prompted China to explore neighbouring India’s vast market. Consequently, Chinese premier Zhu Rongji’s2001 India visit was duly reciprocated by Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to China in 2003. The period that followed witnessed regular visits by both Indian and Chinese delegations for pursuing and signing innumerable bilateral investment and trade deals.
As a result, since 2000, trade between China and India has grown nearly twice as fast as each country’s trade with the rest of the world. In 2008 itself, surpassing US, China became India’s largest trade partner. Meanwhile, bilateral trade between China and India shot up from $2 billion in 2000-01 to $65 billion in 2013-14. Trade (including exports and imports) between China and India during this period was growing at nearly three times the pace of US-China trade. Modi’s tenure since 2014 saw a further boost to trade such that by 2017-18 India’s trade volume with China again rose to $89.76 billion excluding that with Hong Kong ($34 billion). In 2018-19, though bilateral trade marginally declined to $87.07, in that year, India’s trade deficit with China was $53.57 billion (around Rs. 401700 crore) as India’s imports from China were worth US$ 70.32 billion and exports to China were only US$ 16.75 billion. Even today there is little change in India’s huge trade deficit with China. As such, India’s position in India-China bilateral trade is highly unfavourable for India.
According to IMF estimates (based on 2019 data), while China’s exports to and imports from India respectively came to 3 percent and 0.9 percent of its total exports and imports, the corresponding proportion for India was 5.1 percent and 13.7 percent (respective figures for 2020 February were5.33 percent and 14.09 percent). Revealingly, according to 2020 February data, in percentage terms, India’s imports from US at 7.58 percent of its total imports amount to only half of that from China. This depicts India’s relatively high dependence on China than US with whom India has even a strategic military relationship as a junior partner. An item-wise analysis of Indian imports from China also reveals the essence and gravity of this economic dependence. For instance, 76.3 percent of all antibiotics and pharmaceutical products imported today by India is from China. This dependence of India on China is 84 percent for vehicle accessories, 68 percent for nitrogen compounds, 64 percent for diodes and transistors, 63 percent for iron & steel pipes and tubes, 58 percent for electric accumulators, 55 percent for LCD/LED/OLED panels for TVs, 52 percent of insecticides and pesticides, 46 percent of data processing machines, ACs and Fans and so on for several other items. A significant aspect connected with these imports by India is that they also comprise critical raw materials and intermediate items for production and export to other markets. To put it differently, while India depends heavily on imports from China, the latter has no such dependence on India. Hence an economic boycott of China, as stated at the outset, is only of rhetorical value and not at all feasible in the immediate future, especially at a time when India’s growth rate is projected to shrink by 5 percent during the fiscal year 2020-21. And many Indian auto, pharma and electronic companies that heavily depend on Chinese supplies have already raised alarm bells against such a move in the absence of developing reliable alternatives. More revealingly, even US companies in India that relies on raw-materials from China have conveyed their anxiety on carrying on production in view of the reported move to ban Chinese imports.
How “Make in India” Became “Made in China”
From the very beginning, due to its inherent far-right economic orientation, RSS’ servility to imperialist masters, to Britain during the colonial period and then to US in the post-war neo-colonial phase is not at all a debatable issue. Hence, the RSS-led Modi regime’s allegiance to US imperialism is expected to be its normal behaviour. However, though credited with the ultra-rightist ‘Gujarat model’ of privatisation/ corporatisation during his long tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, on account of US visa denial to him following the Gujarat pogrom, Modi could not enter US for many years. Probably, this might have prompted him to cultivate his personal relationship with Chinese rulers by visiting China four times as chief minister of Gujarat, the only chief minister from India doing so, and again visiting China five times during 2015-18 as prime minister of India.
Modi’s five-day China visit in November 2011 was historic as it was against Manmohan government’s stand of not permitting him to travel to China. Modi went to China via Hong Kong and, according to reports, to the great embarrassment of the Indian ambassador, landed up at the Indian embassy in Beijing and during his visit met many Chinese companies willing to invest in Gujarat. This was followed by Vibrant Gujarat Global Investor Summit in 2013, and by 2014, could arrive at a deal on Chinese investments worth Rs. 9000 crore in the state. Apart from many Chinese firms such as Great Wall Motors Company Ltd and Shanghai Automotive Industries Corporation agreeing to set up mega vehicle manufacturing plants in the State, of particular importance was regarding the strategic Chinese investment in Mudra port owned by Adani. While ports like Mumbai and Tuticorin were not allowed to seek Chinese investment on account of security concerns, China’s investment in Mudra port remained an exception. In fact, the large-scale rolling-out of red carpet for Chinese investments in Gujarat was despite objections raised by the then UPA government at the centre. And as part of making Gujarat a Chinese investment hot-spot, Modi, in fact, went to the extent of initiating even Mandarin (China’s official language) coaching institutes and courses in universities in Gujarat.
No doubt, this “Gujarat-Cheeni Bhai Bhai” process accelerated once Modi became prime minister in 2014, and on his election Chinese media continued to eulogise the ‘Gujarat model’ followed by the 2014 visit of Chinese president Xi to Ahmadabad leading to a surge in Chinese investments in Gujarat and conversion of India as a dumping ground for Chinese exports. By the time of 2019 Vibrant Gujarat Summit, the committed investment by firms from China including Huawei were to the tune of Rs. 17000 crore in addition to proposals for a Rs. 21400 crore investment led by the Chinese solar giant East Hope Group in Dholera Special Investment Region along with an Adani-owned power plant at Godda in Jharkhand. This was over and above the June 2017 Rs. 2250 crore deal that Adani had with Chinese firms. Of course, this Chinese connection had other dimensions too. As per a document, revealed through Freedom Information (www.theguardian.com/ environment/February 2018; www.ft.com), Adani, Modi’s closest friend even sought Australian ministers’ help to write to a Chinese government agency vouching the controversial Carmichael coalmine project in Australia.
Meanwhile, after his ascendance as prime minister, the immediate initiative that Modi undertook was a pan-India extrapolation, this far-right ‘Gujarat model’ as prelude to the rapid transition from ‘Manmohanomics’ to ‘Modinomics’. At the same time, in conformity with RSS’ historical allegiance to US imperialism, even while maintaining his opportunistic Chinese link and camaraderie with Xi in relation to the economy, during the past six years Modi has strengthened India’s position as a strategic junior partner of US in latter’s geo-political contradictions with China by signing many military-to-military partnerships with Washington. Meanwhile, after a thorough overhauling of the last vestiges of Nehruvian state-led development paradigm including the abolition of the 64-year old Planning Commission, thereby transforming the state as a corporate-facilitator, Modi put forward the attractive formulation “Make in India” on September 25, 2014, with much fanfare. Its objective was to transform India as world’s “sweatshop” emulating the Chinese experience as a low-cost workshop of the world. The aim was to project India before the West as an alternative cheap-labour manufacturing hub by improving “ease of doing business”, removal of all barriers to the free entry and exit of foreign capital and a series of investor-friendly measures such as aggressive liberalisation of labour, tax and environmental laws for unfettered plunder of labour and nature by MNCs and their junior Indian partners. Coupled with Modi’s high-profile tours to neoliberal centres, the “Make in India” prognosis, amidst the pseudo-nationalism of the ruling regime, laid down the roadmap for India’s dependence on international capital at an alarming pace.
Obviously, even from a neoliberal perspective, the “Make in India” program, unlike the Chinese experience of making use of western capital in the initial phase of its capitalist transformation until the turn of the 21st century, was totally devoid of any domestic efforts to boost productivity and competitiveness. By utilising the ‘red-carpet for investors’, foreign companies wasted no time to enter the country and gobble-up precious natural and mineral resources and strategic public assets and critical infrastructure overheads through the “public-private-partnership” (PPP) route. And in accordance with the logic of corporatisation today, instead of developing employment-oriented productive spheres, capital that rushed in from the West, mainly from US with relatively obsolete manufacturing technologies, was only interested in ballooning the money-spinning speculative sectors thereby keeping up the bullish trend in the stock market and sky-rocketing of the Sensex. Accordingly, many concessions extended to US MNCs under pressure from Trump administration have led to a ‘financialisation-stagnation trap’ instead of adding up to real production, and this has been a contributory factor for unprecedented unemployment and economic downturn in India since 2014.
It was in this context that China, as the leading imperialist economy with up-to-date production technologies and whose manufacturing contributes around 30 percent to GDP (for US the corresponding share is only 11 percent) has been in a better position to take advantage of Modi’s “Make India”. The background for this was already there through Modi’s friendship with Chinese president Xi including his meeting with the latter as many as on 18 occasions! Cheaper and more efficient technology relative to that of the West has been a comparative advantage for China for grabbing projects in India. Probably, an interesting example in this regard is that of Indian Army’s 2017 contract with Beijing Protech New Material Science Company Ltd for the import of material fabric and boron carbon white powder essential for manufacturing bullet proof jackets (thepolicytimes.com). Earlier these raw material/ intermediate goods were imported from the US and Netherlands; but the shift was necessitated as the Chinese imports were 60-70 percent cheaper and the decision was taken following a series of firing tests to check quality in tune with the standardisation laid by Bureau of Indian Standards. When the usual security question regarding this Chinese deal came up, V K Saraswat, NITI Aayog member and former DRDO chief explained the government’s ‘helplessness’ thus: “It is a market force; we cannot do much about this. The only thing is if we find that the bulletproof jackets produced by the Chinese material are not up to the mark, then we will have to say, as of now there is no such reports.”Though a report on China printing Indian currency along with that of Brazil, Poland, Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka (China is the only country that can perform the intaglio style of printing simultaneously on both sides of a banknote using a Colour Dance to improve note’s security) was there in the media (Deccan Chronicle, April 14, 2018), an official on condition of anonymity later denied it.
It is this “law of market” dictating neoliberal globalisation today that ultimately became decisive in unravelling ‘Make in India’ as ‘Made in China’. Despite Modi regime’s intensified military integration with US transforming India as former’s strategic base for its Indo-Pacific machinations directed against China, the US obsolescence in many badly needed technologies coupled with their high cost enabled China to effectively displace the US from many investment spheres. Accordingly, total Chinese investments in India rose from $1.6 billion (Rs.12000 crore) in 2014 to $8 billion (Rs. 60000 crore) in the beginning of 2020. If the planned or proposed investment is also added to this, the figure will be more than $26 billion (nearly Rs. 2 lakh crore; on the other hand, cumulative Indian investment as of now is estimated only at Rs.7000 crore). However, according to many observers, a major part of Chinese capital investment is often “rerouted”, that is from third country sources such as Singapore, which is technically the largest source of foreign investment for India today. During the UPA rule, Mauritius had been India’s biggest FDI source, which was mainly camouflaged US capital export to India (for taking advantage of the tax-avoidance treaty between India and Mauritius). Now under Modi regime, Singapore is replacing Mauritius as the biggest capital exporter to India may also be read along with India’s growing economic dependence on China. However, reliable data on this aspect are few and far between.
Now, coming to the concrete instance of Chinese investment with its thrust in the technology sector, the picture is too complex. In 2008 itself, India (Bangalore) with 1000 employees was the biggest foreign destination for the Shenzhen-based Huawei Technologies Company Ltd, world leader of 5G which (together with AI) is envisaged as the most strategic frontier technology. It is already reported to have carried out 5G trials in India much against the advice of Trump administration, though its future course of action in the wake of border dispute is uncertain. After Modi coming to power, as estimated by the Gateway House, leading Chinese tech MNCs have put an estimated $4 billion (Rs. 30000 crore) in Indian start-ups. Within five years of Modi rule, by March 2020, 18 of India’s 30 unicorns (unicorn is a start-up company valued at over $1 billion) are Chinese funded. Other 92 start-ups with less investments are also funded by Chinese companies.
Chinese software companies like Alibaba, Bytedance, Tencent, Huawei, ZTE, mobile companies like, Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, Oneplus, Coolpad, Motorola, LeEco, Lenovo, Meizu, Honor, Gionee, Gfive, Hair, TCL, and automobile giants such as Volvo, SAIC, Nippon, Shanghai Electric, Beijing Automotive, WISCO, China Dongfang, have already established there deep roots in India. Didi, Chunxing, Shunwei Capital, Fosun Capital, China-Eurasia Economic Cooperation Fund are well-known Chinese MNCs who have substantial investments in some of the important Indian start-ups such as Paytm, Ola, Snapdeal, Swiggy, Flipkart, MyDermacy, Hike Messenger, IBIBO and Make My Trip, Dream 11, Byju’s App, BigBasket,Delhivery, Oyo, PolicyBazzar, Quikr, Rivigo, Uddan, Zomato, etc. TikTok, the Chinese video app, has 200 million Indian subscribers and has overtaken the US-based YouTube in India. Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance are in the process of overtaking the US giants Facebook, Amazon and Google in India. Chinese smartphones like Oppo and Xiaomi controls around 72 percent of Indian smartphone market leaving South Korean Samsung and American Apple far behind; and four out of the five top mobile phones in India today are Chinese brands. And unlike comparable investments from other imperialist powers, since Chinese investments are in fast moving frontier technology areas having complex linkages, their impact is considered to be disproportionate to the apparent size of such investments. In this situation, it is left to readers to ponder over whether Indians today can afford to boycott Chinese products.
Of course, the aforesaid ‘Chinese connection’ with “Make in India” is more explicit with respect to former’s domination in frontier technologies including digitisation. For instance, an important component of “Make in India” has been “Digital India” that too launched by Modi on 1 July 2015. But the last five years’ history of digitising India including Modi’s experiments with digital transactions amply reveals India’s abject dependence on China for the essential digital tools and digital infrastructures required for them. Even the ArogyaSetu App, India’s contact-tracing app to combat COVID-19, is modelled after the ‘authoritarian’ Health Code App of China. According to an MIT Technology Review, among 19 countries that designed similar apps, India belong to the category of the three countries, other two being China and Turkey, where the app poses greatest risks for user privacy. Even though India still depends on the US technology giants for a major portion of the digital software needed, Chinese monopolistic hold over the required digital hardware is explicit. A typical example is that relating to the swiping machines or PoS terminals which are indispensable for the ongoing digital payments/cashless transactions taken up by the regime as its flagship program.
In this regard, almost the entire PoS machines (around 3500000) in India today were made in China by two companies, Veriphone and Ingenica and directly exported to India. According to data published by an import tracking website Zauba.com, Ambani, India’s largest corporate player and very close to Modi together with Adani, have imported 435000 new 4G SIM cards from China. It is often said that through Jio, Ambani is trying to replicate the “Alibaba model” in India. Still there is no dearth of calls for boycott of Chinese products from far-right saffron quarters!
Along with this, Chinese capital’s penetration in many sectors of industry and engineering including solar power generation equipment, chemicals, aluminium, animal feed, automobile, metallurgy, construction, rail and port construction, etc. is regularly taking place. In the banking sector too, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) already has a series of moves in India.
Recently, PBOC has increased its stake in Housing Development Finance Corp. Ltd (HDFC) in India. Even the 600ft high Patel statue, Modi’s towering tribute to Patel called “Statue of Unity” constructed at a cost of Rs. 2990 crore, is not free from the stamp of China. Announced in 2010 when Modi was Gujarat chief minister, but completed after his ascendance to prime ministership, the entire 6500 bronze panels weighing 1700 metric tons were cast in Jiangxi Tongquing Metal Handicrafts Co. Ltd, as India lacks such facilities.
By Way of a Conclusion
The above is only a bird’s eye view on India’s dependence on China and other imperialist powers for the emerging technologies. No doubt, the pitiable Indian situation is not an overnight development. When the country was opened up for globalisation a quarter century ago, its industrial and manufacturing system was characterised by extremely low productivity mainly on account of technological obsolescence. The crony capitalism-corporate-politician-bureaucrat nexus- oriented towards quick-yielding money spinning businesses and speculation that flourished since then had little interest in applying science and technology to production appropriate to the country. While India is world’s second largest smartphone market, it is too pitiable that the country is still incapable of manufacturing any of the phones itself. While R&D expenditure in imperialist countries is between 2.5 and 2.75 percent of GDP, the same in India is still less than one percent on an average. Here too, China is the global leader with almost 20 percent of total world R&D expenditure as of now. In accordance with its geopolitical global ambitions, the 2020 National People’s Congress of China has launched the “Made in China 2025” and “China Standards 2035” initiatives with an astounding $1.4 trillion (approximately 70 percent of India’s current GDP) public spending program to further shore up its domination in industry and frontier technologies.
On the other hand, India’s PSUs which were capable to undertake R&D even in advanced semiconductors were systematically dismantled or undermined, while the crony capitalists who made fabulous wealth appropriation through speculative corporatisation have little interest either in heavy industries or in technology development. Meanwhile, under the post-truth prognoses of “Make in India” and “Atmanirbhar Bharat”, the Indian private corporate sector is encouraged for technology imports through foreign collaborations and joint ventures. And the MNCs from China, US, Japan and other countries that are rushing in under the liberalised atmosphere in IT, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals (and revealingly not in heavy industries) and in similar other areas are not all willing for technology transfer or up-gradation here. COVID-19 has once again underlined that no country can move towards self-reliance without substantial investments in public health, public education and research and development. For a country of India’s size and diversities, there is no model that can be copied from abroad. Dependence on private corporate sector, financing from external sources, and offshore manufacturing bases at the cost of planned government intervention with appropriate people’s participation is becoming suicidal for India. The ongoing border dispute with imperialist China has exposed this vulnerability of India more than ever, and it is high time on the part of all progressive democratic forces to seriously think over a viable political alternative to this deplorable situation.
COVID-19 pandemic, its emergence, global spread and the crisis there from is inseparably linked up with the character of neoliberal accumulation today. As is widely recognised, its origins are rooted in profit-driven corporate capital’s unbridled plunder of nature and consequent invasion and intrusion in to wild life ecosystem leading to spill-over of viruses to humans and their subsequent mutations. That is, most of the zoonotic viruses and consequent highly infectious diseases coming up one by one during the neoliberal period are rooted in increasing disruptions in ecosystem and biodiversity. The entire health care system under capitalist-imperialist system being driven by profit motive, this pandemic has given rise not only to a health crisis but also to an unprecedented economic collapse given the globalised character of world today. Many concerned and well-meaning scholars, political scientists and economists the world over envisage the outcome of COVID-19 pandemic as more deadly and destructive than that of all previous crises including even world wars. In particular, while the world is celebrating the 75th year of the end of Second World War, COVID-19, with both US and UK under its highest death tolls, has exposed the political-economic and social bankruptcy of the Anglo-American led capitalist-imperialist system of more than two centuries. Many observations and hypotheses on this aspect based on the emerging trends are pouring in from various quarters.
Coming specifically to the political-economic situation, with GDP growth rates in US and Europe being in the negative territory and everything including production, trade and commerce, travel and tourism, etc. coming to a halt, world economy has entered in to a frozen state that is more dreadful than the Great Depression of 1930s prompting analysts to characterise the situation as an “Ice Age”. From a political economy perspective, COVID-19 has totally disrupted the foundations of globalised production, both its supply and demand chains. Initial estimates by Bretton Woods Institutions made in April indicate a contraction in global GDP by around $ 9 trillion (equal to the combined GDP of Germany and Japan) during 2020. However, according to latest IMF forecast, while the GDP of China, which could bring the pandemic under control and resume economic activities earlier, is set to grow by 1.2 percent, world GDP will be minus at around -6.0 percent with France, Germany, UK, US and Japan witnessing negative growth rates of -7.2, -7.0, -6.5, -5.9 and -5.2respectively. On May 6 at Brussels, Paulo Gentiloni, EU Economic Affairs Commissioner has drawn a more damaging picture of the Eurozone economy with the growth rate reaching – 7.7 percent in 2020. According to more recent estimates, the GDP of Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is expected to shrink by 6.3 percent in 2020 - the biggest contraction since 1949. And the case of the neo-colonially dependent Afro-Asian-Latin American countries inhabited by world’s poorest, the situation is gruesome. An analysis in the third week of May by Goldman Sachs predicts a historic shrink of the Indian economy by 45 percent in the second quarter of 2020 and a 5 percent decline of its GDP during the financial year 2020-21, whereas India’s Reserve Bank puts the country’s growth rate in the negative territory in the current financial year.
The consequences of this economic pandemic including unemployment, poverty, deprivation, etc. among other things are turning out to be unimaginable and unmanageable within the imperialist system. According to ILO predictions, global unemployment will be 1500 million this year while the number of absolute poor who lack even the minimum income to have a meal is going to reach the staggering figure of 1000 million, 40 percent of them being Indians. It also envisages a dreadful situation of $3.4 trillion drop in working class incomes across the world. Interpreting the pandemic as a “child rights crisis”, UNICEF has warned that an additional 6000 children could die daily from preventable causes over the next six months (1.2 million deaths in 6 months) as COVID-19 weakens global health systems. On the other hand, global inequality today is the highest with 8 superrich corporate billionaires led by Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) gobbling up as much wealth as that of the bottom 50 percent of world’s population. In the same vein, highlighting the destructive levels of inequality prevailing today, Oxfam Report (2020) estimates the total wealth of world’s 2153 billionaires as equal to 60 percent of the world people at the bottom. And neoliberal-corporatisation policies that continue unabated even during the pandemic are constantly channelling more wealth in to corporate coffers.
In this context, though concrete studies are yet to come, many trends in global political economy and international relations which were evident on the eve of the pandemic have become more pronounced and well-defined now. Obviously, while World War II ravaged the entire world including the economies of all other imperialist powers including Britain, it did provide an excellent opportunity for US imperialism whose war-damages were minimum to gain maximum out of the war. For, during World War II, the entire US economy had geared toward the most concentrated application of science and technology for war-oriented production ranging from agricultural and industrial products to weapons of mass destruction. As a result, together with the confluence of many other factors, when the war that wiped out 75 million people from earth came to a close, US accounted for almost half the GDP of the capitalist world together with three quarters of the total global gold reserves. It finally enabled US financial oligarchy and its think-tanks to devise the political-economic and military blueprint required for transforming US as the supreme arbiter of post-war neo-colonialism replacing Pax-Britannica with Pax-Americana.
Now the pandemic has become a historic turning point that exposed the bankruptcy of this pre-eminent role of US imperialism both in terms of the highest number of casualties and on account of its abject inability to take leadership role in a critical situation that brought the whole world to a standstill. It also laid bare the unbridgeable gap between the agenda of a tiny ruling elite leading neoliberal-corporatisation on the one hand and the interests of the working and oppressed majority of the world over on the other. At the same time, in view of the weakening of US, the situation is also witnessing a reduction in the power gap between the US and China, the latter so far exporting medical ‘aid’ to more than 80 Covid-battered countries including the US. However, in the absence of a well-defined global power leadership, the emerging post-pandemic situation points to a bipolar imperialist configuration led by China and US in the immediate future and towards a further weakening of the latter thereafter, a trend which is fully in conformity with the twenty-first century trends associated with the laws of motion of finance capital.
The Collapse of the ‘American Dream’
By the 1870s, the US had transformed as world’s leading economic power through the concentration and centralisation of production and growth of finance capital though Britain was still holding its “empire upon which the sun never set”. The formation of US Steel Corporation and Standard Oil as world’s first billion-dollar companies led respectively by Morgan and Rockefeller catapulted the US as the world leader in finance and manufacturing by the turn of the 20th century. Along with its industrial and financial superiority, surpassing Britain by this time, the US also became number one in world trade, capital export and as world’s creditor together with the concomitant political and military dimensions. As the most powerful capital exporting imperialist power and as world’s major creditor, dollar also became a major reserve currency along with pound sterling and WW II saw only its logical culmination when the former completely replaced the latter’s role as international vehicle currency and as one of the main instruments of US neo-colonial hegemony for seven-and-a-half decades. Now this position is being challenged, a process that started much before the pandemic.
On the eve of COVID-19 itself, i.e., by the end of 2019, based on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), China with a GDP of $27.3 trillion had surpassed the US having a GDP of $21.44 trillion. While China’s trade volume was estimated at $4.43 trillion, that of US was $3.89 trillion, around 80 percent of the former. In 2000, 80 percent of the countries of the world was trading with US; today it is only 30 percent while China today has 60 percent of the countries of the world as trading partners. By the first quarter of 2020, the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership-- composed of 10 ASEAN countries plus China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea) and Russia had become China’s largest trading partners comprising around 50 percent of its global trade. Of course, China’s capitalist transformation as cheap labour-based “workshop of the world” and its comparative advantage in global trade over the US following its integration with global market as world’s biggest exporter are all much-discussed topics. The recent US threat of cutting off Chinese supply chains including the reported move to shut out Huawei’s 5G out of US seems to be rhetorical only. For, the supply chains of almost 80 percent of US industries at present have direct or indirect links with China. In the sphere of medical supplies, the US dependence on China is even up to 90 percent, an aspect well-exposed in the context of COIVID-19.
In the sphere of capital export too, China with its specific neo-colonial interests has overtaken the US as is evident from the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative which in terms of its size and extent is larger than the erstwhile Marshall Plan (or European Recovery Program) of the US that acted as the driving force for post-war reconstruction of war-torn Europe. Envisaging a capital export worth $1 trillion that lasts till 2049 and spanning Asia, Europe, Africa and even Latin America, the OBOR aims at infrastructure build-up such as roads, ports, airports and so on in host countries along with the usual neo-colonial controls underlying such deals. At a time when Trump and his think-tanks were characterising the pandemic as “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu”, Chinese export of 31 tons of much-needed medical equipment including ventilators, masks and protective units when Italy was at the zenith of the pandemic had been of immense help to it which was effectively reciprocated by Italy by signing the OBOR initiative characterising the same as a “train that Italy cannot afford to miss.”
A number of regional economic arrangements and trade agreements led by the US are either crumbling or weakening in the background of the relative decline of it in international affairs. In the context of the pandemic, several international groupings likeG7 and G20 supposedly led by US are also in disarray. The collapse of the Tans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is just another example. Even the US-led NATO is losing its cohesion and EU is planning its own independent European military arrangement. On the other hand, China after joining WTO by the turn of the 21st century is ingeniously working on many regional and international arrangements led by it or is coming to the leadership of many using its emerging political-economic clout. In fact WTO provisions also favour regional trade agreements as a “gateway” to internationalisation of capital and market. In this context, a best example is that of RCEP, one of history’s biggest Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) that came into being towards the close of 2019.Now, as the leading imperialist power in the grouping, China is in a position to dump its cheap products in RCEP that encompasses one-third of global GDP. Though at a different level, Chinese imperialist interest is predominant in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), BRICS, etc. while the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) led by it is a powerful entity several times bigger than ADB, the Asian economic arm of US. Chinese imperialism has even started emulating Rockefeller-Ford philanthropies as is evident from the prompt provision of a medical aid comprising 500000 test kits and 1000000 masks to Africa by the Alibaba-funded Chinese Charity.
Of particular relevance, however, is with regard to the collapse of the “oil empire” so assiduously built up by US imperialism since the turn of the 20thcentury. More than a century of US history comprising West Asian geopolitics led by it is interwoven with the specific role of oil right from the days of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, erstwhile biggest international monopoly, as already mentioned. American finance capital from the very beginning has been maintaining its profit rates high by indulging in oil speculation. No doubt, the formation of OPEC in 1973 and the sudden four-fold increase in the price of oil at the zenith of the Cold War was a temporary setback for US imperialism. However, within a short time, the US succeeded in manipulating the dependent West Asian countries of OPEC by persuading them to hold their earnings in US banks in the form of “petrodollars”. This enabled US not only to revive dollar from the stagflation of the 1970s but also to boost the profits of US military-industrial complex on the other.
Obviously, this situation is altering at an alarming speed now. The days of “oil imperialism” are numbered. Contrary to previous predictions on oil as leading energy source lasting for another two-three decades are now called in to question. Research and economic application of non-polluting, alternative and non-conventional energies such as solar and wind are fast advancing. Biggest US and European hedge and pension funds that turned to oil speculation as a reliable source of profit in the aftermath of the 2008 global meltdown are in crisis as crude oil prices are secularly deteriorating. Following abrupt fall in demand in the context of the pandemic, during the third week of April 2020, the world for the first time witnessed the historic fall of crude price below zero in US futures market for oil. While the sustenance of oil producing countries is at stake, many financial oligarchs mainly in US whose principal source of neo-colonial plunder has been artificial hike in petroleum price and its speculation are in crisis. To be precise, the collapse of the “oil empire” will have far-reaching repercussions for US imperialism whose emergence and transformation as the biggest imperialist power has been intertwined with the history oil.
The whole set of institutional arrangements such as the UN system, the Bretton Woods institutions, global military alliances and world-wide military bases that framed the political, economic and military foundations of the US-led post-war neo-colonial phase of imperialism are also facing a relative decline in their striking power. Probably, this is more evident in the UN system together with its Functional and Regional Commissions and a number of Specialised Agencies such as ILO, WHO, FAO, UNICEF, UNESCO, etc. which the US tried to use as political-ideological tools in the neo-colonial-neoliberal offensive. With veto power in the Bretton Woods twins (IMF and World Bank) and the US hold over them is conspicuous, the same over UN institutions and agencies was often camouflaged and subtle either through intervening in the selection of their CEOs or manipulating the funds due to them.
However, in recent years, new trends are emerging. A best example is that of WHO which in this critical time of the pandemic has refused to toe the US line and of late has overtly displayed its affinity towards China, following US accusations of it being too China-friendly. In continuation of US flouting many crucial WHO guidelines regarding the pandemic, trump administration has suspended its UN-mandated $50 billion annual contribution to WHO. But this has led to a further isolation of US imperialism in international community and even the western US allies including EU and Germany in particular have vehemently disagreed with Trump and issued statements in support of WHO. At the same time, promptly taking advantage of the situation China came forward injecting an extra-$30 million in to the agency, a quantum jump from its pledged contribution of $ 20 million. This is not an isolated case. While China is very prompt and regular in accomplishing its payments to UN and its affiliated agencies, the US seems often refraining from committing its mandated contributions. For instance, the existing US due to UN budget is $1165 million while its dues towards various UN peace-keeping tasks come to around $1332 million. In this situation, when even erstwhile allies of the US have openly expressed their displeasure over Trump’s handling of the UN and its agencies, China is tactically making use of the situation towards its global reach.
Of course, the US still remains as history’s mightiest military machine in terms of both the stock of weapons of mass destruction and the readiness to deploy it in accordance with its imperialist agenda. Hiroshima and Nagasaki had unequivocally proved that no ruling class on earth can ever surpass the criminality and terrorism unleashed by US imperialism. This characteristic of the US is not specifically connected with WW II or that of post-war neo-colonialism led by it. For, the whole trajectory of US ascendancy as the supreme imperialist power had always been filled with loot, plunder, horror and genocide. It perpetrated holocausts upon holocausts on defenceless and innocent people as documented in the extermination of Red Indians, slavery on African- Americans, mass genocides on people of Pacific Islands and in superimposing “imperialism without colonies” over Latin America before ascending as supreme arbiter in the post-war neo-colonial world order. During the post-war period too, with 800 military bases in 80 countries and a nuclear arsenal large enough to wipe out the world many times over, the geopolitical tensions, terror and wars, both cold and hot, imposed on world people by US imperialism have surpassed everything that preceded.
Even today, when US imperialism is confronting a historic downturn which is inherently connected with the laws of motion of capital and the specific form of neoliberal accumulation, its annual military expenditure (2019 estimates) with $732 billion comes to 38 percent of the world total. China with $261 billion comes second and India, US’ junior partner with $71 billion is third in the list. However, in view of the crumbling political and economic foundations of crisis-ridden US imperialism, its capacity to sustain this huge military expenditures and maintain its military hegemony is doubtful. Protectionist trade wars as well as geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific between US and China have sharpened during this period. For the first time in history, a US Navy Destroyer in South China Sea was forced to retreat following Chinese military intervention. Of course, no one can deny the fact that with accumulated weapons of mass destruction and backed by huge military expenditure, the US still remains as the biggest war machine in the world. As history underscores a decaying empire will never go down from its dominant position without a fight. No doubt, the situation definitely calls for appropriate global level intervention on the part of progressive- democratic forces
Probably, the most crucial issue that accelerates the decline of US imperial reach is with regard to dollar itself. Omnipresence of the dollar that provided American finance capital an unparalleled opportunity for neo-colonial control has also been the most conspicuous expression of US hegemony. Being the only generally acceptable currency for international transactions, countries had to hold dollar as unit of account, medium of exchange and store of value. While other countries have to forego real resources for dollars, as the issuing country of dollar, the US could print any amount of dollar and purchase from or invest in any part of the world. US could finance its aid programs and military adventures out of the printing of dollar. Governments and central banks the world over were bound to keep their reserves in dollars and so on. However, obviously and logically, there is another side of the picture. That is, this dollar-denominated international arrangement has become an obstacle and at many times came in to conflict with the interests of other imperialist powers contending with US imperialism. Moreover, the underlying and badly needed symbiotic relationship between dollar as vehicle currency on the one hand, and US as world’s leading trader and capital exporter on the other, has already been broken—a repetition of what happened to pound sterling during the final decades of colonialism when Britain was still continuing as formal colonial leader. To be precise, today dollar continues as the international currency not based on the economic strength of US but only because of the absence an alternative arrangement.
It is in this context that imperialist China’s efforts to deal with US interference in international monetary transactions assume strategic political importance. China had already started using its currency Yuan along with local currencies in trade with its closest partners comprising almost half of the global trade volume. The transactions here are settled through the CIPS (Cross-Border Interbank Payments System bypassing the SWIFT(Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications headquartered in Belgium since 1973) network payment system that uses dollar as the medium of cross-border settlements and therefore alleged to have a partisan approach to US in sharing financial information. Along with this, China is in the process of launching a digital or crypto-currency called e-RMB (e-Renminbi) for circumventing the role of dollar in global transactions. The digital currency/cyber money developed with the involvement of Chinese digital giants like WeChat and Alipay has already become acceptable in many Chinese cities and is widely used for almost all transactions including salary payments. In the present international monetary system in which dollar is the numeraire, many countries are already fed up with US interference in their transactions. For such countries, the internationalisation of digital Yuan will be very attractive.
Revealingly, with the application of ‘digital intelligence’ through such technologies as blockchain, the Chinese digital currency is designed in such a manner as to accomplish total non-interference from the Chinese Central Bank and this is expected to strengthen the general acceptability of ‘Chinese digital Yuan’ among the international community. If the Chinese initiative becomes successful and digital Yuan starts functioning, it will erode the role of dollar as world’s main reserve currency. Parallel to this, China is also planning to divest its trillions worth of dollar-denominated foreign exchange through outright write-off of loans of its closest partners or purchase of foreign assets or as OBOR investments abroad. Meanwhile, as per reports, the US also is planning a counter-offensive by developing a digital dollar project. No doubt, as manifested in the assassinations of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi, US imperialism will go to any extent to eliminate any threat attempting to replace the dollar with another viable international medium of exchange. The multi-faceted and concerted China-bashing and Sinophobia now unleashed by Trump administration is to be viewed in this perspective. However, according to latest information, France has successfully tested a digital euro, and similar experiments are going on in Japan, Canada and UK. No doubt, the outcome of such simultaneous emergence of Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) including their use in global interbank settlements will be nothing short of a “gunning for the dollar” from rival contending centres.
A Pandemic Turned in to a Catalyst Towards “Digital Imperialism”?
This international situation forms the background to the emerging post-pandemic political-economic trends. When the COVID-19 battered world economy came to an abrupt halt, the only sphere that worked overtime was that of the internet and digitisation. To put it differently, in the absence of cross-border digital flows, the economic outcome of the pandemic would have been more horrific. That is, when COVID-19 disrupted everything and disconnected the world, it was the digital or cyberspace that kept the world moving. Of course, in the beginning of the pandemic itself, China with its advancements in robotisation, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and blockchain technologies succeeded in designing a suitable App to track and trace corona patients. In the course of the global virus-spread, several countries subsequently emulated it by devising their respective apps (Arogya Setu App in India is an example). Along with this many digital spheres including cashless payments and transactions also got a boost during the pandemic days.
Among the fast-emerging frontier technologies including robotisation, AI, medical and bio-technologies, probably, digitisation is today’s fastest-moving. Though emerged in 1990s,digital flows were practically non-existent till the close of the 20th century, while during the past two decades, digitisation has undergone an exponential growth. With just 100 gigabytes (GB) per second in 2002, world digital flows (Global Internet Protocol Traffic) rose to 2000 GB per second in 2007. The aftermath of 2008 global meltdown imparted a further boost to this process such that digital flows rose by more than 20 times during the past decade reaching 46000 GB per second by 2017. According to UNCTAD, it is expected to shoot up to 150700 GB by 2022. However, in view of the specific developments during the pandemic, the digital growth rate is likely to outstrip UNCTAD’s estimate made in 2019.
Today, US and China together account for around 75 percent of all patents related to digital/blockchain technologies and digital companies from both hold 90 percent of the market capitalisation value of the world’s digital platforms. As per a Mckinsey study, the value of China’s e-commerce transactions is larger than the value of those of France, Germany, Japan UK and US combined while as a percentage of GDP, China’s digital economy at about 30 percent is still below that of US. Digitally deliverable service exports now comprise more than half of total global service exports. Share of digital economy now ranging up to 16 percent in global GDP is a bigger contributor to GDP than the centuries-old transport sector comprising road, rail, shipping and air traffic. And every economic activity having a digital component today, digitisation has become inseparable from social life. That is, in addition to transmission of data or streams of information and ideas in their own right, digital flows have become essential for enabling the movement of tangible goods, services, finance. Obviously, in the pandemic situation, digitisation has been unleashed as a strategic tool with governments and health officials in using digital interactions as a substitute for physical interactions. It enabled not only tracking and tracing patients but even for remote-location diagnoses by using new avenues of robotisation and in measuring body temperature, pulse rate and even oxygen levels through AI and for treatment through telemedicine. The pandemic time also witnessed an unprecedented transmission of valuable streams of information and data flows-enabled movement of goods, services and communication along with the use of video conferencing, remote or home-based work, and a host of online/mobile services. However, behind this apparent and open use of digital technologies by far-right and neo-fascist regimes, from a political economy perspective two aspects are of crucial significance – one, how digitisation is used as a political tool in the move towards a deep state and two, how it intensifies corporate accumulation through an unprecedented super-exploitation of the working class.
Regarding the first, political use of the crises as an opportunity or excuse for circumventing the established democratic procedures is not all new with fascist regimes. As already noted, China could contain the initial virus-spread in Wuhan by developing appropriate phone apps by grasping the extent of infections through tracking, locating and quarantining corona patients. It was also made mandatory on the part of people to download it enabling the authorities to track their entire movements. Within a short while South Korea, Singapore, Israel and Italy followed by various neo-fascist regimes of Europe also evolved similar softwares/apps attached to mobile phones. Interestingly, such digital interventions aimed to help medical and health personnel are now effectively used by police and intelligence agencies which may later be used as coercive instruments for serving the fascist agenda of the far-right regimes against political opponents and struggling people. Many governments that developed such phone-based softwares in gross violation of people’s privacy for tracking their movements and involvements in the guise of the pandemic have hinted at the continuation them as a surveillance tool even in the post-COVID situation.
A best example is that of the Indian regime which has already declared that it will continue with the Arogya Setu App developed in the context of COVID-19. The Modi government which is systematic in its drive towards a deep state has now made this App mandatory for citizens to download it as an e-pass for travel across India. That is, those who lack the required smartphone capable of downloading the App will be denied the constitutional right of free movement as a citizen. Thus like the CAA and NRC, the Arogya Setu App also implies a disenfranchisement and outright denial of citizenship rights to 75 percent of Indians who lack smartphones. According to latest information, world’s leading digital giants Google and Apple are actively engaged in a mobile software updation enabling governments to develop appropriate Apps for a foolproof tracking of their citizens.
Secondly, along with this direct political use of digital software as an effective fascistic tool by neo-fascist regimes, the multi-dimensional economic repercussions arising from digitisation is far-reaching. The role of the internet in internationalisation of production and global corporatisation or financialisation with the advent of neo-liberalism is a much discussed issue. However, unlike the 20th century, along with imparting new dimensions to financial speculation, it has also become possible by 21st century imperialism to instantly transform physical activities like manufacturing into fluid digital data that can be stored, retrieved and distributed globally. This has enabled profit-driven finance capitalists and corporate MNCs to bring about qualitative changes in both global production and international division of labour. The consequent reorganisation of production while leads to unprecedented wealth concentration in “Silicon Six”(Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Microsoft) and similarly placed Chinese companies like Alibaba and Tencent, the working class under new forms of surplus value extraction is going to be subjected to hitherto unknown levels of super-exploitation.
Corporate media has already started talking on how post-pandemic work-place is to be re-arranged. It is argued that many professions can be moved online avoiding face-to-face-meeting and travel; that daily commuters will be told to work from home through video-conferencing or video calls or via other online platforms and in self-isolation, that wages also can be made digital through mobile biometric payments and so on. Online shopping and e-commerce, cloud business and services are to get new booming and as a manifestation, the fortunes of Amazon like companies that already gained much from the Corona crisis are sky-rocketing. A pervasive digital culture pertaining to education and research and a flourishing of online courses are also in the offing. Even the film industry is planning to re-orient towards direct to home releases using online platforms like Amazon. This emerging trend in many social realms is likely to continue in the post-Covid situation without any let up.
As is obvious, in the guise this ‘digital culture’, corporate capital is unleashing a systematic disruption in the collective bargaining power of the workforce. That is, on account of the specific character of the service sector (that today comprises more than two-thirds of the global GDP) having relatively more white-collar professions, digitisation (with its emphasis on home-based work, etc.) has made it easy for capitalists to deal with employees on an individual or personal basis. Together with this, digitisation coupled with the new advancement in processing technologies that makes it possible to decentralise or decompose production into several stages has enabled corporate capital to devise a neoliberal version of the “putting out system”(pre-capitalist production system widespread in Western Europe in which merchant employers “put-out of materials to rural producers who worked in their homes)of transplanting ‘toxic’ and cheap labour-based stages of production to the dependent countries. This is speeding up a new division of labour in material production both at the global and regional levels leading to super-exploitation of workers and toiling masses through various arrangements for organising labour such as ‘flexible specialization’, outsourcing, assembly lines, etc. To be precise, through what is called ‘informalisation’ or ‘disorganisation’, of the workforce, “digital imperialism” is swiftly reinforcing its global reach ensuring the highest rate of profit at minimum cost mainly through pushing down wages using digital platforms and tools.
No doubt, while the capitalist-imperialist system is engaged in a global reorganisation in all spheres of life through digitisation, and when the international Left in general is weak, the poor and oppressed people are increasingly driven to the peripheries and are denied access to even means of life. That is, the so called “digital relations of production” have become a concrete expression of the class relations at the international and national levels. The “digital divide” (a term used to highlight the situation of vast majority of people in Afro- Asian-Latin American countries who lack internet- a 2017-18 Study on internet availability in India amidst Modi’s “digital India” hype found that only 27 percent of Indians have internet accessibility with wide variations across classes, gender and regions) or the “digital gap” between and within countries that is subsumed under the neoliberal-corporatisation and under existing property relations is leading to more and deprivation of the poor and widening of inequalities. To be precise, digitisation and robotisation that are being shaped by informal/unorganized, unpaid/underpaid and hence super-exploited workers and oppressed people are now becoming inexhaustible avenues of plunder and exploitation by finance capital today. At the same time, there is a concerted attempt in corporate media to manipulate political opinion and superimpose a culture of silence to disguise this biggest-ever extraction of surplus value by capital.
However, while acknowledging the due role of the rapid advances in digitisation, robotisation, AI, IoT (Internet of Things), and blockchain technologies, a closer analysis will make it amply clear thatthe centrality of production, commodity trade, military-industrial complexes, etc. are decisive and the determining force in society. At the same time, while there are no substitutes for material production and physical interactions among people, the relevance new technologies that enable imperialism to bring about a reorganisation of production cannot be glossed over. The consequent new division of labour superimposed on the working class and the possibility intensified surplus value extraction according to national and local specificities and many diversities today are resulting in an unprecedented growth in the ranks of unorganized or informal working class including refugees and migrants as the most “wretched” social class on earth today. It is the urgent task of the revolutionary left to have a concrete analysis of this globalised production process and growing accumulation of monopoly profits from super-exploitation of workers from a Marxist perspective. The problem is not that of new technologies, but of social relations or, as Stephen Hawking had said, the manner in which the gain from technological efficiency is appropriated by capitalists and how it is denied to the workers and broad masses of people. The most urgent political question and organisational task that the Left and democratic forces have to take up today centre around this crucial issue.
As outlined in the preceding observations, the emerging international situation is being shaped by a bipolar configuration between US and China in which the other imperialist powers will perform the role of third parties in consonance with their self-interest. Though US imperialism is much weaker, declining and relatively isolated, as history shows, declining empires will not go down peacefully. On the other hand, the ‘neoliberal virus’ has totally exposed the political-economic and social bankruptcy of capitalist-imperialist system as a whole. The pandemic has laid bare the diverging gap between interests of the billionaire financial elite indulging in terribly destructive plunder of nature and labour on one side, and the needs and sustenance of the working class and broad masses of people on the other. In this context, the likelihood of bureaucratic-capitalist led imperialist China with its specific neo-colonial methods of operation ascending to number one position in imperialist hierarchy leading to more intensified global scramble for markets, spheres of capital export and sources of raw materials will only result in a change in the form of neo-colonial plunder while, in essence, the laws of motion of capital shall still be prevailing. That is, the crisis is systemic and is integrally linked up with the overall dominance of the imperialist financial relations over world people and a mere retreat of one imperialist power yielding space for another will not alter the loot and plunder that are going on. Of course, we cannot be oblivious of the extreme destruction that may emanate from the sharpening of inter-imperialist contradictions irrespective of whether the global set-up is bipolar or multi-polar. And international Left and struggling forces must be prepared to effectively utilise the contradictions among the ruling classes both internationally and nationally.
Meanwhile, regardless of a probable shift in global power balance, the pandemic in all its details has clearly revealed that the continuation of the rotten and exhausted imperialist system itself will be threatening to the very sustenance of humankind. Since space for manoeuvre within the system is fast-depleting, scope of neo-Keynesian proposals seems to be very limited. What is required is a counter-offensive with a comprehensive political program from people-centred, bottom-up approach on the part of the Left and struggling forces to overthrow the more than three-century old capitalist-imperialist system that is reversing the hard-erned rights by people on the one hand, and at the same time rotting and becoming anachronistic on the other. Such an alternative shall be capable of effectively and appropriately coordinating both international solidarity national struggles against imperialism and its local chieftains. No doubt, until being thrown away, the system will keep linger on to the end putting heaviest burdens and untold miseries on the backs of humankind.
Modi government has presented its second budget (for the financial year 2020-21) at a critical juncture when the Indian economy is passing through the biggest-ever crisis since Power Transfer. GDP growth rate plunging to 4.5 percent and consumer-price inflation hovering around 7 percent, economists have acknowledged Indian economic situation as a typical case of stagflation — defined as a persisting economic stagnation coupled with accelerating inflation.
This historic economic collapse has been the result of unprecedented concentration of India’s wealth and income with a small number of most corrupt corporate billionaires who having little interest in taking up employment-oriented productive activities are always oriented towards mad rush for making maximum gain from all kinds of speculation within the shortest time possible. And the immediate factor that paved the way for this situation has been the past six years of far-right corporate-fascist policies including the pumping of several lakh crores of public money directly in to corporate coffers by Modi regime. Instead of doing anything to reverse this anti-people and anti-national trend, under the cover of the catchword “Aspirational India”, the very orientation of 2020-21 Budget is to further aggravate this corporatisation-induced stagflation.
Sector-wise, agriculture whose share in GDP is around 15 percent is still the source of sustenance for almost half of the Indian people. At a time when the anti-peasant credit and adverse input-output pricing policies are driving peasants to mass suicides, rather than putting forward concrete proposals for uplifting farmers from growing distress and destitution, finance minister’s talk of doubling agricultural income by 2022 through a 16-point program, that too at a time when agricultural growth rate is negative, lacks credibility and is devoid of required substantiation.
All subsidies and cash payments pertaining to seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and support prices are drastically cut down. Agricultural procurement by government agencies is curtailed and scope of FCI is scaled down. On the other hand, targets of 2.83 lakh crores of budget allocation for agriculture and allied sectors, 15 lakh crore agri-credit availability for FY 2020-21, etc. are intended for the so called “elite” farmers connected with corporate agriculture and agri-business operations. An unprecedented agricultural corporatisation with its orientation on contract and lease farming led by both foreign and Indian agribusiness giants is the running theme in the budget with respect to agriculture. And they are given unfettered freedom for hoarding and futures trading in agricultural produce. “Kisan trains” with refrigerated coaches as well as proposals for launching “Krishi Udan” on domestic and international routes are all in the interests of corporate-agribusiness companies.
The traitorous essence of the pseudo-nationalism of RSS is more evident in the budget proposals regarding industry and infrastructure. Without any qualm, the budget has replaced the much trumpeted “Make in India” program propped up by Modi himself by the new catchword “Assemble in India for the World” in accordance with the “Global Value Chains” hypothesis put forward by World Bank in its latest World Development Report. After all, contrary to the claim of boosting the ratio of manufacturing to GDP from 17 percent to 25 percent through FDI-oriented “Make in India” initiative under Modi-1, what took place has been a further collapse of the manufacturing-GDP ratio to below 13 percent, as whatever foreign capital that came was interested only in money-spinning speculative activities than building up manufacturing industries that require long gestation period.
Accordingly, the budget repeatedly refers to the need for concentrating on transforming India as a cheap-labour link in the “global assembly line” led by MNCs. In conformity with this, the budget has given added emphasis on “ease of doing business” also promulgated by World Bank for attracting FDI not only in industry and infrastructure but in the service sector too. Accordingly, the budget, along with carrying forward a host of tax exemptions to profit repatriation, for quick decision on easing foreign capital inflow, an Investment Clearance Cell is also announced in the budget.
In accordance with neoliberal-corporatisation diktats, PPP projects, which are among the most suitable form of corporate plunder of national wealth and public money today, are unleashed in all infrastructures ranging from highways, railways and airstrips and violating all precedents, even education and hospital construction are opened up for FDI. In continuation of the last year’s budget proposal, a PPP model investment of Rs. 103 lakh crore composed of more than 6500 projects (National Infrastructure Pipeline Projects) across sectors led by foreign and domestic corporates is envisaged up to 2024. Most profitable railway lines are to be privatised and 150 more trains along the most profitable routes and 4 major stations are set apart for corporate looters. 100 new airports are to be constructed based on the same policy. Several express highways, economic corridors, smart cities, suburban railways, etc. will also be developed on PPP basis, such that the whole money required will be provided by government and as loans (which will eventually be converted as NPAs) from public sector banks, even as the projects will be operated and owned by the private party.
And compared with the previous budget, disinvestment target is more than doubled and is pegged at more than Rs. 2 lakh crore for the fiscal year 2020-21. In continuation of the sell-out of BPCL, Air India, etc., even LIC which having assets worth Rs. 32 lakh crore and that handed over profit share of Rs. 2610 crore to government in the preceding year along with IDBI are also set apart for sale at throw-away prices. In the guise of creating ‘investor-friendly” atmosphere, corporate cronies are given unprecedented tax give-aways, liberal tax exemptions and cut in corporate tax rates. For new corporate entrants, corporate tax rate is further brought down from 22 percent to 15 percent-the lowest in the world today. Corporate companies are exempted from paying Dividend Distribution Tax (DDT) too, which alone will inflict an annual revenue loss of Rs. 25000 crore. Financial speculators interested to fund infrastructure projects will be given 100 percent tax concession. Though audit exemption for medium-small traders having a turnover up to Rs. 5 crore is announced, the benefit is available only for those adapting to cashless transactions using digital tools monopolised by global software giants. For decriminalising economic offences committed by corporate cronies, the budget proposes to amend the Indian Company’s Act altogether.
Obviously, this unprecedented corporate-friendly measures offered to foreign capital should be seen in the context of the utter failure on the part of domestic corporate billionaires to invest in manufacturing in spite of several lakh crores of worth tax exemptions and wealth transfers showered on them during the last few years. Rather than investing this huge amount in job-generating activities, the corporate thugs are using it for gobbling up PSUs at throw-away prices or diverting the amount to speculation and money-spinning activities, leading to economic stagnation. Not only corporate investors, but even banks, financial institutions and mutual funds are reluctant to deploy the immense funds at their disposal for productive investment. It is in this context that, under ‘expert’ advice from neoliberal centres, red carpet is laid down for attracting foreign capital through a number of investor-friendly measures. However, given the logic of corporate capital, the situation is to go from bad to worse.
Thus, while the budget resorts to all efforts including unprecedented corporate tax exemptions to fill the coffers of the most corrupt superrich billionaires, some window-dressing is also done by altering personal income taxes affecting the middle classes. On the other hand, all public investments and social welfare spending including that of MGNREGA are drastically cut down at a time when vast majority of the toiling masses are subjected to unprecedented destitution and devastation. MGNREGA allocation is Rs. 61500 crore compared with Rs.71000 crore in the last budget and in view of rising inflation the real reduction will be much larger. Same is the case with disbursement under PM-KISAN project. For the landless peasants, agricultural workers and even for marginal farmers, these two schemes in spite of erratic disbursement are a source of sustenance in many parts of the country.
Similar is case with budgetary allocations to health and education. While BJP-ruled states like Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are allotted more central share of taxes and grants, allocations to non-BJP ruled states are withheld or curtailed. Even as the current year GST collection of Rs. 6.12 lac crore is less than the expected Rs. 6.63 lakh crore, the states’ share is yet to be disbursed. At this critical juncture when economy is in stagnation, instead of raising all round governmental spending, Modi regime, at the behest of neoliberal masters is engaged in a downsizing and rollback of the government’s economic intervention. As its manifestation, total budgetary spending for 2020-21 fiscal year at 13.5 percent of GDP is less than the 2019-20 spending of 13.6 percent of GDP, a decline in even in nominal terms. However, on account of the current 7 percent retail inflation, this implies a huge reduction in public expenditure in the coming year.
Of course, since Modi had already dissolved the Planning Commission, there is little meaning in talking about annual plans, etc. or the inseparable and inherent link between planning and budget in India. Consequently, under the far-right Hindutva fascist regime the budget itself has been reduced to the level of a mere Annual Financial Statement. As such, the so called central plan outlay has been steeply reduced by 11% relative to the revised estimates of the previous budget. In the same manner, outlay for centrally sponsored projects has been reduced by 4.5%. Meanwhile, defence outlay is raised to a whopping Rs. 4.71 lakh crore in 2020-21 to 4.3 lakh crore in 2019-20. One-third of this will directly go into the pockets of Western arms manufacturers and dealers, as India is a dumping ground for obsolete weapons as well as a flourishing source of corruption today.
No wonder, there is little mention on the frightening unemployment situation, mass suicides of peasants, sky-rocketing prices, pauperisation and deprivation of the broad masses, horrific levels of inequality and galloping corruption. State of the economy and crucial questions connected with people’s sustenance are camouflaged through statistical juggleries and data manipulation and the only concern of the budget, in the guise of development, is to maintain the profit rates and wealth accumulation by the crony capitalists most closely aligned with the Hindutva fascist regime. Thus under the cover of populist and high-sounding words, Modi.2’s budget is putting still heavier burdens on the backs of working and oppressed people.
While neoliberal-corporate centres and agencies such as the Moody’s investors Service, KPMG, PwC, NASSCOM and so on are eulogising the budget as “positive”, “reasonable”, “focussed”, etc., both in form and content, with this budget, the economic situation is going to worsen further. A few days before the budget, Arvind Subramanian, India’s former chief economic adviser, whose difference with Modi regime was only at the level of implementation of neoliberal policies, has opined that the Indian economy is moving towards ICU. However, Modi.2’s second budget is, in fact, further pushing it from the ICU to the ventilator.
The Notification issued by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on October 7, 2019, as per Modi government’s directive with a view to “Deepening Digital Payments” across the country is of far-reaching consequences. The Notification contains the essential guidelines for a “pilot project” to convert one selected district in every state of India into fully digital or “cashless” in all financial payments and transactions by the end of 2020. Obviously, this pilot project is envisaged as a prelude to the eventual transformation of India as a full-fledged cashless society in the near future. Accordingly, the task for achieving this time-bound task is entrusted with the concerned 'Lead Bank' of the respective district in coordination with the administrative head, the District Collector. Instructions from RBI have already gone to the State/UT Level Bankers Committees (SLBCs/UTLBCs) “to identify one district in their respective State/UTs for digital payment ecosystem on a pilot basis in consultation with banks and stakeholders” and the district identified “shall have significant footprint which will attempt to make that district 100 percent digitally enabled within one year.” The RBI Notification has also directed SLBCs/UTLBCs to ensure that such “cashless’” districts identified are converged with the “Aspirational Districts” already identified by NITI Aayog for “good governance” as part of Modi’s “Digital India” Program.
Of course, this strategic decision is not an overnight development. Its roots lay deep in the Demonetization superimposed on India by Modi at the behest of neoliberal-corporate centres. A Committee headed by Nandan Nilekani who spearheaded the Aadhar, world’s biggest biometric exercise (which, contrary to its declared objectives, has no empirical evidence on improving welfare delivery) has been working on this issue since Demonetization. Accordingly, the “High Level Committee on Deepening Digital Payments” led by Nilekani submitted its Report to the RBI in May 2019. In fact, the RBI’s Notification issued on October 7 2019 in essence is a repetition of what elucidated in the Nilekani Report. As pointed out in the Notification, the pilot project that is envisioned on an experimental basis aims at multiplying India’s ‘per capita digital transactions’ by ten times within a year--estimated at 22 as of now to 220-- and increase the number of “cashless” or “digital citizens” from the current 10 crore to 30 crore by the end of 2020!
A glance at both the Nilekani Report and RBI Notification unravels the process or the various steps required for accomplishing this “pilot project” for cashless transactions within the proposed time-frame. Among other things, they comprise a concerted campaign for opening zero-balance accounts for all who are outside the banking system, an increase in the number of smart phones, swiping machines (PoS machines or terminals), linking of bank accounts with Aadhar, popularization of BHIM Aadhar Pay, discouraging cash withdrawals from banks, developing ‘feature phones’ appropriate to cashless payments, and so on. The RBI Notification does not ascribe much importance to ATMs in the transformation process towards digitization or cashless transactions. The idea is to reduce the number of ATMs which are conventionally used for cash withdrawals and to transform them mainly as CDMs (Cash Deposit Machines) so as to suck out the cash in circulation. In a cashless society, the new role of ATMS would be that of ‘digital facilitation points’ which implies a recalibration of them for bill payments, currency transactions, tax payments, mobile recharging, ticket booking, etc. A proposal is also there for the creation of specific ‘digital wallets’ for all payments and receipts pertaining to government transactions. Together with the existing US-based ‘digital tools’ such as Master Card, VISA, Debit and Credit Cards, PayPal, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Paytm (controlled by Chinese giant Alibaba) which are widely used in India, emerging tools like Phonepe (controlled by Walmart, world’s biggest MNC) and initiatives to involve Whats App and Facebook are also in full swing.
Background for Modi Regime’s Cashless Move
The invention of money certainly led to an epoch-making transformation in human history like that of fire and wheel. It enabled human society to transform itself from the ‘primitive’ barter system (exchange of goods for goods) to a higher stage of development where money became a medium of exchange, store of value and standard of deferred payments. And till the end of the 20th century, in political-economic circles, there had been no talk of a cashless society or replacing cash by digital payments. In fact, discussion on cashless transactions has its beginning only in the turn of the 21st century along with the origin and development of cross-border/transnational digital flows. Over a span of two decades, broadband connections have become more important than shipping lanes and, in terms of its economic significance, are now at par with the centuries-old trade in goods. While internet penetration in US is estimated at 80 percent of the population, the same is around two-third in EU and one-third in Asia whereas in India it is only one-fourth. On the other hand, the so called “digital divide” (people having no access to internet) has become a clear manifestation of mounting economic inequality not only between imperialist and oppressed countries but also among people and groups within countries. Today digital flows have become indispensable for the movement of goods, services and above all finance, and every cross-border transaction today has a digital component. Digital business which is already in trillions is still growing in double digits. At the same time, compared with the sphere of production, it has been in the sphere of circulation and finance that digital flows have become truly a catalyst.
It is in this context that digital technology and data flows are becoming the driving force for cashless transactions. And, quite logically, the motive for this cashless initiative everywhere comes from the US- centred global corporate giants who are the custodians (with the exception of China today) of digital tools essential for cashless payments. However, ironically, among the countries which are much advanced in the realm of digital technology, only the Scandinavian countries are apparently moving towards a cashless economy. On the other hand, vast majority of the people in US which is much ahead of others in digital and network infrastructure, leading countries of EU and Japan are deadly against a cashless situation despite concerted efforts on the part of software giants, corporate financiers and monopoly banks in these countries which regularly propping up their respective governments for adopting digital payments.
For instance, with the backing of US Federal administration, various US-based software and digital giants as well as big banks are engaged in a massive and aggressive campaign for adoption of digital payments system. However such a move is vehemently opposed by various state governments in US. This has prompted the digital MNCs to target the so called ‘emerging economies’ in Afro-Asian-Latin American countries by influencing amenable regimes there. As a manifestation, various companies including VISA, Master Card, Citibank, Gates Foundation, Dell Foundation, etc. joining with the USAID (United States Agency for International Development) have already formed the “Better Than Cash Alliance” initiative for seriously taking up the cashless agenda amidst stiff domestic opposition to such a move in the US. The aim of this Alliance was to manipulate policy decisions in backward economies thereby superimpose cashless payments on global people.
The ascendance of Modi regime in 2014 and the Prime Minister’s proclamation on “Digital India” program in the following year should be seen in this context. And, as an appendage of the Better Than Cash Alliance, an initiative entitled “Catalyst” with the involvement of Indian Ministry of Finance started work in since 2016. Catalyst began its operations based on the guidelines codified by USAID under what is called “Beyond Cash”. Alok Gupta, Director of Washington-based World Resources Institute, who cooperated with Nandan Nilekani in designing Aadhar was appointed as Indian Chief Operating Officer of Catalyst. According to available evidence, US think-tanks including neoliberal-far right economists like Larry Summers and Reghuram Rajan were associated with this project in its beginning stage. In fact, the launching of Unified Payment Interface (UPI) as the brainchild of Rajan is considered as the forerunner of cashless initiative in India. As RBI governor, it was he who imposed restrictions on cash withdrawals from ATMs, even as 37 crore new bank accounts were opened in India under Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana during 2014-18 preparing the background for the move towards cashless payments. No doubt, corporate-saffron forces effectively used these Jan Dhan accounts as a convenient tool for whitening huge volumes of unaccounted black money during the opaque days of Demonetization which was a “guinea-pig” experiment superimposed on the Indian people with intellectual inputs from the USAID-led Catalyst-an aspect to be taken up in the ensuing discussion.
Meanwhile, Catalyst had attempted at launching "cashless townships" in six Indian cities- Indore, Visakhapatnam, Kota, Jaipur, Bhopal and Nagpur- on an experimental basis as part of its action plan towards a making India perfectly cashless or digital. These six cities had been selected based certain criteria such as the use and popularity of smart phones, number of digital money transfers, the availability and familiarity with digital tools among vendors and merchants at the local level, various administrative factors essential for such an experimentation and so on. As noted above, and as well-documented by international sources (see Select References attached), it was in this overall background that at the behest of neoliberal-corporate think-tanks, Modi imposed Demonetization in November 2016 that enabled the most corrupt corporate big businesses and crony capitalists hand in glove with the ruling party to have the biggest-ever one-shot wealth accumulation in history by abruptly sucking out the life-blood of more than a billion people and at the same whitening all corporate-black money hoardings through banks.
Totally paralyzing all cash-based economic activities especially in the informal/unorganized sectors that provide sustenance and livelihood to more than 90 percent of the Indian workforce, Demonetization led to an unprecedented squeeze of the entire economy resulting in the biggest unemployment and economic slowdown in five decades coupled with a galloping of all kinds of money-spinning businesses and ballooning speculation at the macro level, thereby transforming India as the most corrupt country in Asia within a year. Of course, while Modi himself was immersed in the post-truth campaign of interpreting Demonetization as “surgical strike” against terror funding, black money and counterfeiting and tried to whip up Islamophobic and Hindutva chauvinist sentiments in the process, in those crucial days, it was left to Gurumurthy, the leading RSS intellectual and member of RBI Director Board to reiterate at the behest of imperialist centres that the true aim of Demonetization was to achieve a state of cashless or digital payments. No doubt, the latest RBI Notification regarding pilot project on “digital districts” is a logical corollary and continuation of both Demonetization and Catalyst-sponsored “cashless townships” already experimented in the country. Revealingly, as the RBI itself acknowledges, a copy of this RBI Notification was forwarded to USAID-led Catalyst too.
General Consequences of Cashless Economy
The immediate outcome of a cashless economy would be total alienation or marginalization of those who (a) have no bank accounts, (b) having no cash in their accounts, (c) having no access to the appropriate ‘digital payment tools’, and/or (d) not having the technical knowhow required for operating them. In spite of the enrolment of millions of “zero-balance accounts” initiated on a war-time footing under Jan Dhan Yojana after Modi’s coming to power, only 60 percent of the 135 crore of Indian population has even namesake bank accounts (many of them are reported to be bogus or benami accounts too). In the event of India moving to a full-fledged cashless or digital payments system, the custodians of the entire cash or currency in the country will be big banks or such other financial entities. This will automatically “disenfranchise” those who have no valid bank accounts or those unable to operate such accounts through proper digital tools. That is, when the Modi regime under the guise of “financial inclusion” is engaged in “digitizing citizens” it needs to be understood in effect as an ingenious corporate-fascist agenda of denying citizenship itself to the marginalized and oppressed. Therefore, at a time when 30 crore Indians (almost equal to the total population of USA) are below the official poverty line and around 50 crore of people having no bank accounts still being outside the banking net, this superimposed cashless project, contrary to the claims of its proponents, is leading to “financial exclusion” and not “financial inclusion”.
Let us see the whole issue of cashless payments from an international perspective too. That the US has already reached saturation regarding the availability of smart phones with iPhone and Android facilities and credit/debit cards is a widely conceived fact today. Moreover, as already noted, the US today still continues (in spite of cut-throat competition from the Chinese digital giant Huawei) to be the biggest source of the digital/software tools such as VISA, Master Card, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Venmo, Square Cash, which have become indispensable for maintaining “digital imperialism”. Again, Walmart, the US-based biggest MNC, for instance, has its majority holding in the software tool such as Phonepe (as is the case with the Chinese giant Alibaba’s involvement in Paytm). As a result, in the World Digital Competitiveness Ranking, the US holds the top-most position today, and that of Sweden, which is moving towards cashless economy has third ranking in this regard, whereas India’s ranking is 44th among 60 countries. Thus, with all the necessary requirements, US is most favourably situated for embracing total digital payments. A study conducted by the Tuft University and published in May 2016 Issue of Harvard Business Review had unequivocally identified US, Japan, Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Czech Republic, Brazil and China in that order as ideally placed on account of their technological capabilities and social realities to move towards a cashless situation. No doubt, as already mentioned, the formation of corporate-sponsored "Better than Cash Alliance" with its slogan "war against cash" took place in the US precisely in this context.
However, public opinion in the US from the very beginning has been vehemently against this pro-corporate cashless initiative. Upholding people’s sentiments, ten US states-- Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York State, Washington State, Oregon, Rhode Island, Chicago, Philadelphia and California (whose GDP of $ 2.7 trillion with a population of 4 crore is equal to that of India with a population of 135 crore)—under the label "States for Cash" have enacted stringent laws with punitive measures against traders insisting on cashless payments. For example, in New Jersey, for the first violation of the law (i.e., forcing digital transfers), the fine is $ 2500 and for second violation the fine will be doubled to $5,000 (around Rs. 3.5 lac). Other states like California also have passed similar laws with criminal procedures and varying degrees of punishment. According to a New York City Council study, 11 percent of the New York residents does not have bank accounts at all. According to it, the superimposition of a cashless system of payments on the poor, immigrants and elderly who have no bank accounts is outright “disenfranchisement”, especially when the US Constitution does not insist bank account as a criterion for citizenship. In spite of having the highest potential for transforming in to cashless economy, most of the people in US prefer cash payments and more than 55 percent of transactions in the US are still under denominations of $ 10. In fact, this is the context that prompted the well-known online portal USA Today to declare "Cash is still King in USA". The annual per capita digital transactions in the US is 474 compared with just 22 in India where the Modi regime totally cut off from concrete realities is shamelessly pursuing the cashless dream!
Specific Issues Concerning India’s Cyber Security
Issues connected with cyber security are of particular relevance when it comes to the case of India. According to cyber experts, digital flows/transfers with barely two decades of history are still like an unchartered territory. A recent BBC Report (bbc.com/worklife-101), has also pointed out the risks involved in the “payment over the cloud” and highlighted the need for proper studies on this emerging field. Serious attention is required regarding the issue of privacy. Of all digital dealings, financial transactions are subjected to highest level of surveillance and information manipulation not only by governments but also by private operators. While the rich and the powerful can ensure their privacy through extra payments, political activists and common people are always vulnerable and at the receiving end.
Cybercrimes and hacking connected with financial transactions are notorious. In this realm, India’s position is the worst. A 2015 Interpol Report situates India as having the lowest cyber security in the world. In that year, the Interpol noted around 111000 “violations” or "transgressions" in Indian cyber space. Assocham has endorsed these findings in a recent study and warned about more worries for India’s digital transactions in the near future. According to Chipset manufacturer Qualcomm, India's hardware security is not at all compatible with digitization. It also points out how hackers can easily steal users’ passwords from existing Android models. On November 15, 2019, the BBC News has released the revealing news of RBI seeking the help of “Group-IB” a Singapore-based cyber security agency to investigate the “status” of over 13 lakh Indian debit cards whose data base might have been stolen. Ironically, this RBI decision to investigate into India’s digital payments came in October 2019 when its Notification on cashless project was also released.
Still more shocking is a recent revelation made by “Group-IB” itself (The Hindu, February 8, 2020, Kochi Edition, p. 12) regarding the display of 461976 Indian card information for sale in a notorious “dark net” called "Joker's Stash"! This hacking was possible solely because of the fragile nature of India's cyberspace. The information leaked includes card numbers, their expiry dates, CVV / CVC codes, cardholder names, emails, phone numbers and addresses. As estimated by “Group-IB”, these data base stolen probably from PoS terminals is worth over Rs 30 crore in the cyber market. Yet another case is regarding the recent leakage through social media of passwords and e-mail ID of around 30000 customers from Flipkart’s e-wallet. Personal details hacked thus were later put on the website ‘Throbin’. Another instance pertains to a recent hacking of e-mail accounts of almost 3000 government officials at ISRO, IGCAR (Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research), BARC and SEBI. According to analysts, these are only tip of the iceberg. Cyber violations in India where majority of victims are common people are less reported. For instance, millions and millions of informal and unorganized workers who migrate across different states within India and who are forced to use debit cards are often victims of cyber-security breaches. According to a BBC Report, it is the first-time users of net transfer in India who are facing major financial frauds. Amidst such reports which have become frequent, the obscurantist saffron regime’s rhetoric on digitization without even having minimum cyber security arrangement has already exposed it before all the well-meaning people the world over.
The Sorry State of India’s Digital Infrastructure
As already mentioned, compared with other Asian countries, India is far behind in terms of digital infrastructure. It was fully exposed during the critical days of Demonetization when many people all over the country were died standing on the queue before ATMs and banks. Of course, in a cashless situation, the existing ATMs will have to be recalibrated as ‘digital facilitation points’, an aspect noted earlier. In spite of that, even in the case of per capita availability of ATMs, India’s position is among the lowest, even below that of the so called “least developed countries” as defined by World Bank. For instance, in the case of BRICS countries, Russia with 184 per capita ATMs ranks one, Brazil second (107), China third (81) and South Africa fourth (68), while India has only 17 ATMs per capita. And over the past three years, on account of bank-mergers and consequent closure of branches mainly in rural areas, the number of ATMS in India has declined further.
However, coming to the case of swiping or PoS machines (terminals) which are indispensable for cashless purchases and transactions, Indian situation is too pathetic. Though the availability of PoS machines in India has increased from around 14 lac during December 2016 to 35 lac as of now, a country with 135 crore of people, this is meagre compared to international standards. Regarding PoS machines, from the very beginning, India has been abjectly depending on China. Two Chinese companies, Veriphone and Ingenica are the sole suppliers of PoS machines for India. During the years following Demonetization, and in view of Modi’s ‘cashless dream’, China is reported to have increased the production of PoS machines by around 600 percent, even as there is no dearth of rhetoric associated with ‘Make in India’. A Chinese PoS machine that simultaneously performs various functions such as billing, accounting, data storage, and money transfer on an average costs Rs. 5 lac. Though a cashless economy inevitably eliminates vast-majority of petti and small retail traders as it would be impossible for them to bear the cost of installing PoS machines, even the financial burden (which will be put on the backs of consumers in the form service charges) on the average merchant would be unbearable. Though there are reports on some Indian companies in Bangalore (e.g., Zk Teco) producing PoS machines, their efficiency and capability compared with Chinese machines are reported to below standard. Thus, the much trumpeted 'Make in India' itself has now transformed into 'Made in China'. It is often said that Modi has to fulfill his cashless dream by totally depending on the mutually contending two biggest imperialist powers in the world; on the US for all the software components and on China for the hardware.
Along with cyber security, in the concrete case of uninterrupted and efficient power supply, download speed, bandwidth availability and server capacity, India lags much behind even the neighboring countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In terms of the Digital Networking Index based on a recent survey of 139 countries, India’s rank is 91 whereas, the same is still lower at 114 when it comes to the case of Basic Infrastructure Digital Transactions Index, as measured by international agencies. As reported by speedtest.net in December 2019, regarding mobile internet speeds of countries, India ranks 128th in the list of 140 countries. Further, the download speed of India is the lowest among BRICS countries at 11.46 Mbps (Megabits per second), while the world average is 32.01 (the highest speed is 103.18 which is in South Korea).
Given this extreme backwardness of India’s digital infrastructure and technology, the neoliberal advisers of Modi including Nilekani have suggested a “leap-frog” to overcome such hurdles for achieving the cashless dream. For instance, though the number of mobile phones in India comes to around 100 crore, according estimates, only 25 percent of the population has smartphones useful for digital payments. Hence the alternative suggested is to link Aadhar with BHIM and thereby develop BHIM Aadhar Pay as the main digital tool in the move towards digitization. Another suggestion is to make use of the new developments in digital technology such as “block chain” (capability of storing data as separate blocks as if in a chain) in accomplishing the declared objective.
But these claims have no basis and are only wishful thinking in view of India’s dismal experience with similar experiments in recent times. A best example is that of GST (Goods and Services Tax), which in many respects is a “digital tax”, that makes use of digital technology. Like the Catalyst-sponsored cashless project being super-imposed on India, the entire blueprint of GST that totally undermined the federal character of Indian Constitution itself was also designed by imperialist think-tanks. GST being the biggest postwar neoliberal tax reform, various institutions and agencies such as OECD, UNDP, IMF, World Bank, WTO, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), KPMG, Deloitte, Tax Inspectors Without Borders (TIWB), Forum for Tax Administration (FTA), etc. have actively coordinated their work with India’s National Institute of Public Finance and Policy to design it. All stakeholders including traders can become part of the GST regime only by registering themselves with the GSTN and can pay taxes only through its software. However here too, on account of the extreme inefficiency and backwardness of India’s digital/software technology the GST experiment is in severe crisis today. Due to software malfunctioning, according to reports, more than 38 lac merchants across India are yet to submit their GST returns for the preceding year. In the specific case of the tiny state of Kerala, as of January31, 2020, only 25 percent of the registered traders has submitted their returns even for the fiscal year 2017-18--an issue directly linked with the non-viability and incompatibility of India’s basic digital technology with the avowed claims of its ruling classes.
Democracy and Freedom in a Cashless Society
Denial of the right to hold cash or currency, the universally accepted and time-tested tool or means for payments is inseparably linked with broader questions of freedom and democracy. Those who have no bank accounts and/or no cash in their accounts and have no access to the essential digital tools and/or not capable of to use them properly are the first to be deprived of their right to life, remain alienated and excluded in a cashless society. As mentioned earlier, digitization, like any other phenomenon is subsumed under class relations and concrete social divisions and the so called “digital divide” or “digital gaps” or “digital relations” arising from superimposition of digital payments will certainly reinforce existing socio-economic inequalities between and within countries and will “disenfranchise” the already deprived “other”. In a cashless economy, those who are not “digital citizens”, or those who are not “digitized” will be deprived of livelihood and basic sustenance and all those fundamental rights associated with ‘citizenship’ in spite of their being formal citizens.
Concrete details coming out from Scandinavian countries like Sweden which are moving towards the goal of cashless society pinpoint to many grass-root level difficulties including the problems faced by rural and elderly people on account of digitization. At a time when people are forced to be alert with many vexed issues of life, keeping the username and password, the ‘life-saving medicine’ in a cashless society always in one’s memory is an added liability. Loss or denial of one’s digital tool (e.g. smartphone) results in loss of one’s many rights associated with citizenship altogether. Why freedom-loving people should shoulder such unnecessary burdens? Digital payments will deprive people not only of their privacy, but even freedom associated with keeping cash with them. These are questions raised by well-meaning people even in countries like US which have the potential in terms digital technology for embracing cashless transactions.
Democracy giving way for Corporatocracy?
Obviously, cashless society is one where banks (and other financial entities) are the custodian of the entire currency stock in the country. This takes place under neoliberal corporatization, when banks are becoming the supreme arbiter or the decisive force in the economy. Today all socio-economic sectors are apparently becoming sub-structures of the bank-led financial superstructure that encompasses more than 90 percent of the entire economic activities. In this epoch, therefore, the ongoing close integration between corporate-led banks and the state regimes is the material basis of emerging neo-fascism everywhere. In a digitized and cashless economic system, real economic power will be in the hands of a few banking monopolies who control the entire monetary stock, the software giants and internet providers who provide the digital tools together with the neoliberal state. No wonder, ever since the advent of digitization, the biggest MNCs and billionaires have been digital-software giants or companies close to them. As is obvious, this directly results from the galloping profits especially from the digital-financial sphere. While there is no specific cost for physical cash/currency transfer/transaction among people, in a cashless economy, every swiping or digital transfer leads to a corresponding deduction in the form of service charge / fee/commission from the bank account of those involved. For instance, when any number of physical exchange of a hundred rupee note among persons can be done cost-free, the same through digital transaction will involve substantial deduction at every stage that directly goes into corporate coffers.
Very revealingly, Thomas Jefferson who drafted the US Constitution was reported to have warned in 1802 that banks controlling currency on account of their power to deprive people of their wealth would be more dangerous than standing armies. Later, in the “financial crash” of 1929 that led to the Great depression, this terribly destructive power of banks came to the fore such that, as part of New Deal, the Roosevelt government was forced to enact the Glass-Steagall Act for controlling bank-led speculation. Though controls were imposed on banks during the Keynesian welfare period that lasted till the early 1970s, with the collapse of Keynesianism and onset of neoliberalism, all controls on banks have been taken away. In the global financial crisis (“sub-prime crisis”) of 2008, the dangerous role of banks was once again exposed more than ever. But unlike the 1930s, in the absence of countervailing forces capable of resisting the most reactionary offensive from monopoly banks and finance capitalists, merging with the corporate interests of neo-fascist regimes, banking monopolies and financial corporations notorious for financial frauds and swindles are coming to the centre-stage of economic policy-making today. In this context, digitization and cashless transactions have imparted a new dimension to the unhindered power of banks. As people are becoming captives of bank-controlled digital finance having transnational dimensions, democracy is giving way to corporatocray.
India, a Guinea Pig for Cashless Experiment?
In this context, why the Modi government is so adamant in imposing the cashless project which is totally inappropriate and incompatible with the India’s digital capabilities and social realities is the pertinent question now. As the aforesaid analysis underscores, despite having all the required technological infrastructure and tools necessary for digital transactions, with the exception of a few Scandinavian countries, the reluctance to embrace cashless payments is very strong in most countries of EU, crucial US, and Japan. Not only regarding digital payments, but in the case of other political-economic issues too, these countries are quite unwilling to cast their lot with digitization. Their conspicuous opposition towards EVM-based voting and strong affinity to ballots are noteworthy. This is mainly due to the possibility of manipulating people’s voting preferences through the insertion of malicious software in to EVMs. Another example is that of GST. As mentioned earlier, it is an acknowledged fact that various US-based institutions and agencies were in the forefront of superimposing the neoliberal tax regime of GST over world people. But these agencies have not yet succeeded to convince the federal states in US who are vehemently opposed to a GST regime.
The fact that Modi regime under the cover of its nationalist pretensions has been opening up India for the digital experiments especially of US corporate interests assumes particular significance here. Reports from western sources amply show the manner in which “Better Than Cash Alliance”, Gates Foundation, USAID-led Catalyst and so on have manipulated the Modi regime for superimposing a cashless system in India. For instance, referring to the Demonetization exercise in India, Bill Gates, Head of world’s richest Foundation declared: “It is certainly our goal to make full digitalization happen in the next three years in the large developing countries. We have worked directly with the central bank there (India) over the last three years” (Norberthaering.de/en/war-on-cash/2-years-demonetisation). For carrying out this task, Nachiket Mor, Head of Gates Foundation in India actively worked as a member of the Central Board of the RBI. More information on how under the pliable Modi government India has been made a “guinea pig” by US agencies for cashless experiments is already there in the public domain. A Report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in the aftermath of Demonetization also confirmed how it was a catalyst for transforming India in to a cashless society. Modi’s Digital India program, Report of the High Level Committee led by Nandan Nilekani, RBI Notification on Deepening Digital Payments and the ongoing pilot project in selected Indian districts, etc. should be analyzed in this broader context.
There is a tendency even among well-meaning people to summarily dismiss these ongoing Indian initiatives for a cashless society as an impractical daydream. However, fascism is a specific situation where many an agenda which were considered impossible and impractical in yesteryears become concrete realities today. For instance, a few years back, nobody in India would have thought of religion becoming a criterion for Indian citizenship. Or nobody ever had thought of a ‘’surgical attack” on the Indian people like Demonetization. In fact, an objective reading of contemporary Indian history shall make it amply clear that corporate-saffron fascists in India will go to any extent to appease neoliberal corporate interests, especially those emanating from the US. This calls for a serious evaluation of the pilot project for transforming selected Indian districts into cashless ones and a pan-Indian extension of it thereafter.
Meanwhile, Lead Banks in charge of the districts selected for the cashless experiment are reported to have started their work in close coordination with the district administration of the respective districts. Initiatives for enrolling all those who are outside the banking net are also in full swing. Efforts to install the necessary digital tools like PoS machines in government offices are also going on. Work for involving NGOs, self-help groups, micro-finance institutions, trade organisations and other peoples movements in the cashless project has been started. And an all-out offensive for creating people’s awareness on digital payments is in the offing. Of course, more information on this experiment having far-reaching consequences is still to come. Meanwhile, it is high time on the part of all well-meaning people to have an analysis and understanding on the cashless project in the proper perspective, and thereby enabling all democratic forces to approach this corporate (fascist) agenda in its multi-dimensional manifestations from a people’s perspective.
- Report of the High Level Committee on Deepening of Digital Payments, May 2019 (rbidocs.rbi.org.in)
- Expanding and Deepening of Digital Payments Ecosystem, Reserve Bank of India (rbi.org.in/Scripts/Notification)
- Norbert Haering, “A welt-kept open Secret: Washington is behind India’s brutal experiment of abolishing cash” January 1, 2017 (norberthaering.de)
- Norbert Haering , “More evidence of early US involvement in Indian de-monetisation”, January 7, 2017 (norberthaering.de)
- Norbert Haering, “Demonetisation in India was a great success—for the Better Than Cash Alliance” (norberthaering.de/en/war-on-cash/2-years-demonetisation)
- “Demonetisation is Catalysing Digital Payments Growth in India”, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, April 12, 2017
- National Bureau of Economic Research, Working paper on Aadhar, https://bit.ly/2T2wSe8
- Global Round-up of the World of Work-worklife101 (bbc.com/worklife-101)
- “The US will not be cashless any time soon”, February 2019, Forbes (www.forbes.com)
- “America has technology to go cashless, but too paranoid to do...", Nov.17, 2016 (www.businessinsider.com)
- IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking 2018 (www.imd.org)
- P J James, “Demonetisation as a weapon for Biggest Corporate Assault on People”, Red Star, December 2016 (www.cpiml.in)
- P J James, “Modi Shifts Goalpost as Demonetisation becomes a Fiasco”, Red Star, January 2017 (www.cpiml.in)
- Interpol-Cyber Security (cybersecurityintelligence.com)
- Bhumika Khatri, “India's Internet Speeds Growing Much Slower Than Other Countries and That's a Problem'' (inc42.com/features/)
- Internet Bandwidth- Country Rankings (the global economy.com); also see, speedtest.net
- "11 Reasons Why Cash is Still King", USA Today, June 14, 2017 (www.usatoday.com)
- "Cash is Still King in the Digital Era" (money.cnn.com)
- "Better Than Cash Alliance Lauds India's Push for Digital Payments, Aadhar", Nov.29, 2019 (livemint.com)
- Harvard Business Review, “60 Countries' Digital Competitiveness Indexed” (sites.tufts.edu/digitalplanet/hbr)
- "Transforming the digital payments infrastructure" (www.livemint.com)
- “Thomas Jefferson on Banks” (www.snopes.com)