With just a little over a week to go before the winter session of the Parliament ends on December 16, the Opposition is in a dilemma over how to take forward its protest against the government’s decision to ban high-currency notes.
In the three weeks since the session began, opposition parties have paralysed the Parliament’s functioning by cornering the government over the move, which has caused the economy to tailspin in the short-term and has created a liquidity crunch that has hit common citizens hard.
A united Opposition has decided to observe a “black day” on Thursday, to mark the completion of one month since the Prime Minister made the surprise demonetisation announcement on November 8. Members of Parliament from opposition parties in the Rajya Sabha as well as the Lok Sabha will wear black bands and hold a protest at the Gandhi statue in Parliament to highlight the consequences of the severe liquidity crunch on the poor and in the informal sector which runs on cash.
However, with the session entering its last leg, there has not yet been a constructive debate on the issue in both houses of Parliament and the Opposition does not want to send out the message that it is running away from discussion and is disrupting the session merely on a whim. On the other hand, it wants to keep up its momentum against the move even after the winter session ends on December 16, especially with elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab early next year.
Debating a debate
Soon after the winter session began on November 16, the Opposition had pressed for an adjournment motion in the Lok Sabha, which puts the government in the dock, to debate the demonetisation move. This demand was turned down by Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan. Looking for a middle ground, the Opposition later pressed for a debate under rule 184 of the Lok Sabha, which calls for a vote. The government, however, has so far only agreed to a debate under rule 193, which does not entail a vote. The Opposition has been holding informal discussions with Mahajan to reach a consensus and the two sides are learnt to be working on the language of the motion.
Unlike the Lok Sabha, the debate on demonetisation in the Rajya Sabha began on the opening day itself, but a united Opposition disrupted the proceedings, first demanding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi sit through the discussion and then insisting that he apologise for claiming that the opposition parties were opposing demonetisation as they did not have enough time to prepare for it – ostensibly, to turn their black money white. The government has rejected the demand for an apology but has agreed to Modi’s participation in a debate on the issue. The Opposition is likely to agree to this.
Senior Opposition leaders believe that if they intensify the protests against demonetisation, they will be accused of stalling Parliament even after the government has agreed to a debate. They have argued that by allowing the debate to happen, the Opposition will get the chance to corner the government on the move and have its views on record. The Congress is said to be open to a discussion in the Lok Sabha, in which party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi is slated to participate.
On the flip side, the Opposition does not want to dilute its protest either. At the start of the winter session, ground reports suggested that there was widespread support for Modi’s demonetisation move, especially among the poor, as they believed it had hit the rich equally. However, three weeks on, the Opposition is feeling slightly more confident now, as it believes the public mood is beginning to change, given the distress caused by the move so far – with many wage earners and factory labourers out of work, small-scale manufacturing units closing down and people, especially those in rural areas, still struggling to access cash.
Fuelling the Opposition’s attack is revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia’s statement on Tuesday that the government expects the entire money in circulation in the form of scrapped currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 to come back to the banking system – earlier, it was expected that the demonetisation would yield windfall gains of Rs 3 lakh crore or more for the government as the amount, ostensibly all unaccounted-for wealth, would not come back to the system. Hitting out at the Modi government, Congress spokesperson Sushmita Deb said on Wednesday that this statement proved that the demonetisation scheme had been a failure as it had not succeeded in unearthing black money, which was the stated purpose of this move.
But if the Opposition is emboldened, the government is equally confident that the move has the support of the people. Addressing Bharatiya Janata Party MPs at its weekly meeting on Wednesday, Modi continued his tirade against the Opposition and insisted that the people are backing this scheme. “Janshakti is with the government on demonetisation,” he said. “What some Opposition parties are doing is undemocratic and the issue should be debated in Parliament.”