Demonitization and middle-class morality

Last week Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that within a matter of hours Rs500 and Rs1000 notes (about 10 and 20 Australian dollars) were going to be demonitized (retired, stripped of their value) in an effort to crack down on the black economy and counterfeit currency. These notes constituted about 86% of cash in circulation. A week later, queues at banks and ATMs remain dauntingly long as people try to deposit the notes they can no longer use and withdraw notes they can. There are limits on withdrawals, but at least half of ATMs at any given moment seem to have run out of cash. Many small businesses are closed while they and their customers sort out their cash flow problems.

The different responses to this situation have been striking. In a week when Trump became President-elect of the United States, my friends from outside of India either did not notice or failed to register the enormous impact of this policy. A journalist friend living in London asked, ‘Is it a big topic with your colleagues or friends?’. My answer: ‘Yes! This country runs on cash’. Within India, my research participants from Hyderabad are championing Modi’s bold move, while my participants and friends from Delhi critique the policy’s effectiveness (cash constitutes only 6% of undisclosed income recovered in income tax raids) and its disproportionate effect on the poor (many of whom do not have bank accounts). The strength of consensus within each of my participant groups is perhaps another example of the ‘filter bubble’, that people are blaming for the unexpectedness of Trump’s victory.

It is interesting also to see how this policy is framed by some in moral terms: ‘don’t you also feel taller if you’ve been paying taxes and have no ‘undeclared’ funds…that’s #dignity; that’s true #independence …that’s #ModiEffect’. This has caught the attention of sociologist Sanjay Srivastava too. According to Srivastava, support for demonitization fits into a broader narrative: the middle classes define themselves as the moral class and one dimension of this is the virtue of having achieved success through hard work and merit, in contrast to the poor (and the rich, I would add).

Srivastava’s assertion that ‘Being middle-class in India has always been about moral claims to being certain kinds of people’ neatly encapsulates some of the key arguments of my doctoral research. During a year of fieldwork among middle-class families in suburban Hyderabad, I found that middle-classness was associated with virtues of restraint and moderation, a prudent balance of Indian tradition and cosmopolitan open-mindedness. I argued that these moral discourses served to naturalize and reproduce both class(-caste) and gender inequalities. An ardent nationalism was an important part of this middle-class morality, and we see this also in support for demonitization.

Last week I foolishly went to the airport to change my valueless notes. As I stood around waiting for the Thomas Cook to replenish its supply of cash (I left unsuccessful 4 hours later), a middle-aged airline employee pointed out to me that this short-term inconvenience was worth it. I protested — ‘What about the poor? Most people in the informal economy (45% of GDP and nearly 80% of employment) are informal by necessity and not because they’re big gangsters hoarding cash.’ ‘No,’ he told me, ‘they’re not poor in real terms’. This is perhaps the kind of anti-poor sentiment Srivastava is concerned about.

But in my postdoctoral research with middle-class young people working to promote gender equality in Delhi I see lively spaces of critique and efforts to provide complex solutions to complex social problems, rather than quick technological fixes. Like Srivastava, I am concerned about “the acts of defining the moral high ground through ever-narrowing ideas of the public good”. But within the great diversity of India’s middle classes, there is also much to inspire hope.