Just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s grand spectacle in Varanasi was winding down by late Monday evening, a Twitter hashtag perked up from nowhere and started trending. #StrikeForPublic seemed almost effortlessly to be gathering a storm over a call for a two-day nationwide strike, starting Thursday, against the government’s move to privatise public sector banks.
The forensics of the hashtag shows that the messaging first emerged as a flash tweet by a banker who goes by the pseudonym Newton Bank Kumar @ideshibanda. The tweet quickly mobilised the attention of several influencers and influencer groups. By 10 pm, more than 35,000 tweets had been fired using the same hashtag and soon made it the top trending topic.
While trending hashtags come and go, there seems to be a lot more here than meets the high count of its impressions.
For starters, #StrikeForPublic, as Kumar later told me, actually stirred an already heated disagreement between public sector bank managers and bank employees. While the management held the view that the two-day strike would inconvenience customers and should be called off in the public interest, the employees were claiming the reverse: that urgent action was needed to save the public from another attempt to exclude them from economic progress.
Kumar and his colleagues maintain that only the rich stand to gain from this round of hasty privatisation of profitable public sector banks.
Interestingly, and not unsurprisingly, the data and numbers do not support arguments for bank privatisation. According to one estimate, the combined operating profit of public sector banks in India has grown more than three-fold in the past decade to Rs 195,859 crore. Net profitability, however, remains muted as the banks continue to make large provisioning for bad loans (non-performing assets), many of which are a doing of the government of the day, not that of the banks. The table below, provided by All India Bank Officers Confederation, illustrates the point.
There is also substantial evidence to show that despite growing competition over the past two decades from private banks, public sector banks have been up to the challenge in adopting technology, improving customer services and enhancing efficiency. If they still lag behind some private sector banks with respect to profitability, the reasons lie in the stark differences in the constituencies that are being serviced: while public sector banks cater to the masses, private banks mostly deal with better-off clients.
Akshaya Vyas, a young officer at a public sector bank, calls it the paradox of mass banking vs class banking. In other words, public sector banks, as part of their mandate, extend their banking facilities to less profitable but needy communities.
Moreover, public sector banks today (by design or otherwise) are suffering from severe staff shortages, even as their responsibilities ─ implementing government welfare measures such as direct cash transfers and managing Jan Dhan accounts ─ have been increased manifold. According to a recent of reply of the government in response to a question in Parliament, there are 41,177 jobs lying vacant in public sector banks.
Kumar and his colleagues suspect the actual number could be much bigger. An average public sector bank employee today handles 1,800 customers, whereas that number ranges between 400 to 700 for private sector banks, according to bank officer Sandeep Akhouri.
Lastly, some would argue that public sector banks should not be privatised because in their absence the government would not have any control over credit and capital flow. For instance, public sector banks cater to the borrowing needs of farmers and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises that remain, unsurprisingly, underserved by private banks.
Many of these arguments, however, are not new. What has nonetheless changed is a fresh and enthusiastic resolve by the bankers. Over the past few months, inspired by the savvy messaging of the farmers movement, the protesting bankers have been systematically harnessing social media outlets to disseminate a compelling narrative against the government’s flat-footed rationale for bank privatisation. Among their repertoire of digital strategies, the bankers have held innumerable virtual sessions to enlist wider public support and seem to have mastered the ability to create digital virality in their messaging tactics.
They have also been forging alliances – offline and online – with like-minded groups: the youth of Uttar Pradesh protesting against the government’s failure to fill job vacancies, Dalit and Adivasi groups fighting for the implementation of reservation policies. Even farmer leader Rakesh Tikait has come out in their support.
Government on backfoot
The results are showing. The government, it appears, seems to be on the backfoot. It may not go ahead with its plan to introduce the bill in the ongoing winter session of Parliament that seeks to amend the Banking Regulation Act and create an enabling provision for speedier bank privatisation. Even though Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced in her Budget speech that the government would privatise two state-run banks in the current financial year, a cabinet committee set up to identify them has yet to make a decision.
Does it mean the protesting bankers are winning? It’s too early to say. What is clear, however, is that the public sector bank employees and their many new-found allies are prepared to battle hard, even for a long-drawn war. The government is keen for the strike to be called off and for the time being is making polite but firm appeals. The bankers, on the other hand, much like the farmers are insisting that the government must give them a written assurance that no bills will be brought in Parliament to privatise banks.
What, however, makes this standoff particularly noteworthy is the emergence of a new mood of resistance in India. The new crop of agitators is dropping anchor within civil society and crafting innovative social media strategies. What’s more, one increasingly gets the sense that they want the Modi government to govern by dialogue and persuasion rather than declare policy by shock-and-awe-8 pm announcements. If not, the bankers might become farmers.
Rajesh Mahapatra is an independent journalist. He writes and comments on politics, economy and public policy.