A united opposition has paralysed Parliament ever since the winter session got underway on November 16 to register its protest against the hardship caused to the weak and poor sections by the Modi government’s decision to annul high denomination currency notes.
But the ruling alliance is not too concerned about the disruptions or the opposition attack as it is using this time to pump in more currency notes in banks and ensure that normal banking resumes at the earliest. Its indifference to the disturbances in Parliament are based on the internal assessment of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party that it is the opposition which is under pressure to explain its objections to the demonetisation move and why it is holding up Parliament.
The government was on the defensive in the face of the opposition attack when the Parliament session commenced. But the scales have tilted in favour of the ruling alliance since then after it received reports that the decision to ban old notes had got widespread support from the people, especially the poor. Even its allies like the Shiromani Akali Dal, which had voiced their concern over the Prime Minister’s decision, have fallen in line after their surveys revealed that the note ban had actually been welcomed by the poor because they were convinced that it had hit the rich hard. This change is evident in the body language of the leaders of the two camps. While BJP ministers sound more confident now, the opposition camp is showing signs of frustration, especially since its campaign against the government is not resonating with the people.
Consequently, the government’s floor managers have made little effort to break the logjam in Parliament.
Logjam in Parliament
Home Minister Rajnath Singh did call opposition parties for a meeting last week but it proved to be a non-starter when the opposition leaders realised that not all of them had been invited for the talks and that this was an attempt to create fissures in their ranks. There has been no follow-up by the government on Rajnath Singh’s initiative. Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan has also tried for a compromise between the government and the opposition but nothing concrete has emerged from this move.
The opposition first held up proceedings in the Rajya Sabha to demand that the Prime Minister sit through the debate on demonetisation and reply to it instead of the finance minister. However, it has upped the ante after Modi slammed the opposition at a public function. It is now demanding that the prime minister should apologise for his remarks, failing which it will not allow the House to function. The Lok Sabha proceedings have been disrupted as the opposition wants a debate on demonetisation under a censure motion requiring a vote. Not surprisingly, the government has rejected the opposition’s demands.
The government believes it can afford to be tough with the opposition because it is on a strong wicket. Its confidence levels have shot up further after the BJP registered impressive wins in the recent by-elections in Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh. This has been followed by victories in the local body polls in both Maharashtra and Gujarat. The BJP forged ahead in Maharashtra by winning 851 of the 3,705 seats in 147 municipal councils and 17 panchayats. The results from the prime minister’s home state also proved to be a shot in the arm for the ruling party which won 107 of the 126 municipal and district panchayat seats for which elections were conducted.
The BJP was obviously in an upbeat mood after these results. Held after Modi announced the ban on high-denomination currency notes, these elections had been described as a referendum on the prime minister’s move. The BJP leadership lost no time in underlining that these election results were a clear indication that the people support demonetisation. “People of India back note ban move... Our performance in local polls held across two states present the mood of the nation. We sense they are with us,” declared Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar. The BJP president Amit Shah put out an equally exultant tweet:
Riding high on these victories, the BJP is further drawing comfort from the fact that there are differences in the opposition camp which surfaced during its protest day on November 28. Janata Dal (United) president and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who has consistently supported Modi’s decision on demonetisation, refused to join the protests while the other opposition parties conducted their individual protest marches as their state-level rivalries prevented them from putting up a united show.
While the opposition is continuing with its collective protests inside Parliament, the government is working overtime to see that the new notes reach the cash-starved banks before December 1. The ruling alliance is focused on making sure that pay day goes off without any glitches as it could provide fresh ammunition to the opposition to hit out at the government. If the Centre succeeds in stabilising the situation and ensuring there is no disruption in the payment of salaries to government employees and those employed in the informal sector, it will not just blunt the opposition attack but will also provide it with yet another reason to steamroll its political opponents.