A bearded man, probably in his early fifties, came to pick us from the hotel. He was polite to the core and spoke immaculate Urdu.
Generally unhappy with the poor traffic skills of youngsters, he was eager to play the typical Mumbai guide. The 70s music blaring from his ageing music system made it a typical retro ride.
As we entered the Worli Sea Link toll booth, this Uber driver flashed his card, swiped it effortlessly and strode ahead.
He displayed a sense of pride as he used the card to make a bold statement - he was keen to reinvent to stay at the wheel.
Apart from staying relevant and competitive, this Uber driver proved that he was a quiet brand ambassador for Digital India.
As he dropped us off at the airport, his digital journey had just begun.
This ride happened just a few days ahead of the announcement of the 2019 election schedule. Now with four phases of polling over amidst intense (mostly negative) political campaigning, Digital India has not at all merited a slogan, either for or against it.
A political casualty
Digital India happened to be among the most secular campaigns mounted by Narendra Modi at the start of his innings. Looks like this has become a political casualty even as the vote for digitisation on ground is emphatic.
Today, Digital India is an emerging reality with an overwhelming citizen mandate for less-cash society. Numbers do suggest that cash is back in currency, but even the worst critics of demonetisation would admit that it put less-cash paradigm on fast track triggering a huge mindset change.
As economists and technocrats battle over the merits of Digital India, politicians have given it a complete miss.
This is quite surprising given that politicians are said to have a very strong sense of the ground pulse. On the ground the digital payment revolution is hard to miss with even weekly mohalla bazars having embraced the system in a big way.
The e-commerce revolution and the POS machine are almost omnipresent in all mega metros and emerging cities. The digital push has miniaturised the device itself with delivery boys flashing it out as their moment of arrival.
Technology reform or political liability
But all this doesn’t impress politicians including those who authored the idea of Digital India in the first place. Modi knows that the initiative is a success but doesn’t fit the political narrative. Congress is keen to shy away from celebrating technology as an election slogan even as the IPR for the coinage of ‘scientific temperament’ rests with Jawaharlal Nehru.
The irony here is that even technology-led internal reform (as mandated under Digital India) has become a political liability this election. Poll or no poll, the thirst for ease of living brought about by digitisation is universal.
A campaign like Digital India rests on the premise of transparency, efficiency, ease and growth. It reflects the aspiration of a young and restless India.
Any attempt to colour it politically is laden with the risk of trying to appropriate technology. But when technology itself becomes a victim of politics, the road ahead is indeed risky.
This isn’t the first time though that a technology-savvy politician have had to make a strategic retreat. The original Cyber Neta has since abandoned his public love for anything digital given his legitimate quest to stay in political currency. Incidentally, Chandra Babu Naidu presided over the chief ministers’ panel to boost digital payments post demonetisation. But that is history today!
Consumers’ digital delight
Unmindful of the politics or the lack of it, the consumer is enjoying the mindset shift. The digital payment push has helped consumers reimagine their wallet. And the love affair has just begun!
According to the Reserve Bank of India, as of September 2018, the number of debit and credit cards has gone up significantly to 990 million and 44 million, respectively, showing a preference for cashless transactions.
Another study by fintech firm Razorpay points to greener pastures for the
on-ground digital consumer play. According to its ‘Era of Rising Fintech’ report, non-cash transactions are likely to overtake cash transactions in the country by 2023.
“With 2019 already going full speed ahead, we can foresee digital transactions in India accelerating at 70 percent CAGR through to 2020, contributing to the GDP by 15 per cent. Implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Indian digital transaction landscape will result in more convenience and security, ensuring real-time fraud prevention.”
This phenomenal growth has been made possible by UPI - an instant, real-time payment system developed by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) that facilitates inter-bank transactions. UPI has clearly come to be recognised as among the most defining fintech innovation.
Given the frenetic growth, the need to bring about adequate checks and balances for digital payment safety has been felt like never before. According to the latest RBI data, about 28 percent of complaints filed with its banking ombudsman between July 2017 and June 2018 were about digital transactions and card payments.
The RBI has said that due to the increasing volume of complaints about digital payments, it was in the process of formulating a separate ombudsman for digital transactions.
While that should happen quickly, independent estimates predict an increase in the mobile payment volume by a tenfold by 2020. The forecast says 50 percent of internet users will begin to use digital payments by 2022.
It is most unlikely that digitisation would even then merit top value in the political discourse.
But for our Mumbai Uber driver his vote for digitisation is without any ifs and buts. He obviously wants to swipe it right.
Politicians, however, will have to shed the stereotype and embrace voters like him on the digital highway without any baggage.
Rakesh Khar is senior editor, Special Projects, Network 18. He writes at the intersection of politics and economy.
First Published: IST