India’s demonetized currency finds its way back into the system — but can we still call it a success?

Key Points
  • India's demonetization policy failed to purge black money from the market, but analysts still view it as a success.
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP party saw a resounding electoral win in March, following implementation.
  • The program has improved tax returns and encourage digital payments, figures suggest.
Adnan Abidi | Reuters

India's demonetized currency may have found its way back into the system but analysts suggest that far from tarnishing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's image, the strategy will ultimately be viewed as a success.

"It's important to remember that the demonetization move was intended more as a political move than as an economic one," noted New York-based South Asia-focused Eurasia Group analyst Sasha Riser-Kositsky.

"The drama of demonetization allowed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to demonstrate in a very visible way his commitment to fighting corruption and black money."

Earlier this week, the annual report from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the country's central bank, found that a total of 15.28 trillion rupees ($239 billion) worth of cancelled high-value notes were deposited or exchanged for new money in the 10 months since the strategy was implemented – just one percent shy of the number in circulation before the plans came in.

The results suggest a damning failure for Modi and his flagship policy. In November last year, Modi announced the radical step to demonetize the currency notes in order to tackle the rampant problem of the so-called black money – billions of dollars' worth of cash in unaccounted wealth and fake currency notes. The government decided to introduce a new 500 rupee note and also introduce a higher denomination banknote of 2,000 rupees.

Opponents hit out at Modi and accused him of damaging the economy and tarnishing the country's credibility at home and abroad. First quarter gross domestic product (GDP) data released Thursday marked a three-year-low of 5.7 percent, versus 7.9 percent the year before. The RBI had to spend 79.65 billion rupees on quickly printing updated replacements for the 500 rupee ($7) and 1,000 rupee notes which were abruptly banned at midnight on November 8 last year, according to the central bank's annual report.

How to build a cashless society? Give people no other choice
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Meanwhile cash-dependent small businesses and poorer citizens – those Modi had claimed to be helping – have been badly hurt by note-shortages this year.

Prior to the data release, it was unclear how successful Modi's policy had been, and as such his political motives were enough to win him favor with India's vast segment of poorer voters at the polls. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won overwhelming support in March elections in Uttar Pradesh, India most populous and one of its poorest states.

"The government and its supporters can argue that even if demonetization failed to remove black money from circulation, that at least Modi and the government tried to do something about it," Riser-Kositsky told CNBC via email.

But politics aside, analysts claim that the economic benefits will emerge over time.

"The demonetisation campaign clearly contributed to economic slowdown, reflected in poor GDP figures in April-June. In hindsight, this can be deemed a failure from an economic point of view," Firat Unlu, leading India analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told CNBC.

"Still, assuming that demonetisation is complemented by efforts to enhance tax compliance, then some success can be salvaged and lead to higher government revenue."

An Indian bank employee counts old 500 and 1000 rupee notes in Guwahati, the capital city of the north-eastern state of Assam on December 30, 2016.
Biju Boro | AFP | Getty Images

As a result of demonetization, and in tandem with Modi's 'Digital India' strategy, which aims to expand India's online infrastructure, the country now sits on a treasure trove of data. The government has been gradually making enrolment to its national electronic database 'Aadhaar' mandatory for tax returns, opening of bank accounts and any purchases above 50,000 rupees. It is estimated that over 99 percent of Indians aged 18 and above are now enrolled in the scheme.

This means that the government can expect to see the benefits of taxation on previously hidden black money over the coming months and years.

India's finance ministry says it is probing 1.8 million bank accounts where cash inflows during the demonetization period "did not appear in line with its tax profile," meaning it can expect some belated tax payments.

"There are also long-term benefits from demonetization in terms of increasing income tax payments going forward and encouraging the use of digital payments over cash, a means of encouraging better tax compliance among businesses," Riser-Kositsky explained.

However, whether it is a model to be replicated by other countries struggling to combat corruption and illicit money is not yet clear.

For Unlu, the initial economic fallout may be too much for other economies to stomach. "On balance, governments abroad are unlikely to replicate India's experiment given the economic fallout," he said. Traditionally, other governments have only embarked on demonetization schemes in times of extreme need, such as hyperinflation, political upheaval and wars.

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