It is not uncommon for India’s elected representatives to head into a “stormy” Parliamentary session, as the media loves to call it, but this year’s winter sitting had the makings of a cyclone. A week before the two houses convened on November 16, the Narendra Modi government had demonetised 86% of India’s currency in circulation, in a move alternately hailed as bold and disastrous.

When the winter session began, reports had started pouring in about long lines outside banks and ATMs, children dying after being denied treatment owing to lack of valid currency, daily-wage labourers struggling to find work and a cash-dependent economy being made to bleed.

The Opposition parties clearly had enough ammunition to take on the government headlong on the floor of the House. What followed, however, were a series of misfires.

Here, in no particular order, are five ways in which the Opposition failed to get its act together, missing a golden opportunity to dent the popularity of the government over a move that had thrown the country into confusion and chaos, at least in the short run.

  1. Congress arrogance: Though the Congress is the biggest Opposition party in the Lok Sabha, in the first week of the Winter Session, it was Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee who was leading the charge against Modi’s money move. The West Bengal chief minister led a protest march to Rashtrapati Bhavan, joined by a handful of Opposition parties, on the first day the Parliament session and followed this up with a demonstration outside the Jantar Mantar in Delhi the next week. On both occasions, Congress was conspicuously absent.

    The grand old party possibly did not heed Banerjee’s calls for unity, as it sees itself as the natural leader of the Opposition, even though it falls short of the 55-seat mark to qualify for that title in the Lok Sabha. Had it marched side by side with the Trinamool, the government may have been forced to take the Opposition more seriously.

    Teasers of what a united Opposition would look like were seen during protests led by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi near the Gandhi statue in the Parliament complex on November 23 and December 30, and when parties congregated outside the Parliament building on November 28, but these were few and far between.
  2. Communication gap: The compulsions of electoral politics in various states that go to polls next year, including the crucial Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh, prevented Opposition parties from rising above their differences, but even those who do not have any stakes in the upcoming elections failed to take care of simple things like coordination and communication.

    There were major gaffes, like the botched Bharat bandh on November 28, when there was little clarity even among Opposition parties over what the agenda for the day was. In fact, there was no consensus even on whether the plan was to call for a complete shut down or organise varied agitations like protest marches and rail rokos. As a result, while the Left parties called for a bandh in some states, the Congress, the Trinamool, Aam Aadmi Party and others marked it as a day of protests.

    This fiasco was topped off by the chaos on December 16, the last day of the Winter Session, when a 16-party Opposition march to the Rashtrapati Bhavan to protest demonetisation whittled down to an eight-party affair. Earlier in the day, Rahul Gandhi led a Congress delegation that met Modi to demand loan waivers for farmers, much to the annoyance of other Opposition parties who felt they were blindsided by the move, and subsequently backed out of the march.
  3. Disruptions in Parliament: The Opposition missed an opportunity to put the government on the mat over demonetisation by frequently disrupting both houses during the Winter Session, which turned out to be the least productive Parliament sitting in 15 years. Even though about eight hours were reportedly spent debating demonetisation in both houses of Parliament, the discussions reached no conclusion. As a result, what could have been a cyclonic attack turned out to be a breeze. A short intervention by Manmohan Singh, where he trashed the demonetisation exercise and called it an “organised loot” offered a glimpse of what a strong attack could have achieved.
  4. Tall promises, poor delivery: This wasn’t the only time that expectations were (far) greater than reality. The stage was once again set for a big disappointment when Rahul Gandhi promised an “earthquake” but failed to even deliver a slight jolt.

    On December 14, the Congress vice-president announced at a press conference that he had evidence of corrupt dealings by Modi, because of which he was not being allowed to speak in Parliament.

    This so-called earthquake turned out to be mere stale news, garnished and served afresh. Addressing a rally in Mehsana, Gujarat, on December 21, Rahul Gandhi alleged that Modi had received about Rs 53 crore in bribes from the Sahara Group of companies and the AV Birla group.
    While the stage for the revelation was grand – a rally at Modi’s home turf – the allegations were nothing new. In November, Delhi Chief Minister and AAP Convenor Arvind Kejriwal had brought up the so-called Sahara-Birla diaries – a tranche of documents containing purported evidence of payments made to political bigwigs – and Modi’s alleged link to them in the Delhi Assembly. Lawyer Prashant Bhushan even filed a case before the apex court in this regard. The court, just a week before Rahul Gandhi’s rally, had raised doubts about the authenticity of the papers.
  5. Lack of credibility: The Modi government managed to sell the demonetisation exercise on a narrative that was hard to counter – an attempt to weed out corruption and black money. Despite continuing reports of hardships among the poor – farmers, domestic workers, housewives, daily-wage labourers etc – Modi continued to fashion it as a move that would take from the rich and give to the poor, and most affect those with stashes of black money. This narrative ensured considerable and continuing support for demonetisation, especially among the poor, who are the worst hit by the move.

    That the Congress has such a poor track record on corruption, with a series of scams under its rule, did not help matters. Mamata Banerjee, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Lalu Prasad Yadav and others who were in the forefront of the protests against demonetisation also do not have a reputation for financial probity. Modi managed to dismiss all the criticism of demonetisation by the Opposition as proof of their tacit support for black money and corruption. Till date, the Opposition has not found a way to counter this.

    If nothing else, Rahul Gandhi perhaps had a chance to speak about prominent Congress politicians like Sheila Dikshit and Salman Khurshid who are also allegedly named in the Sahara-Birla documents to try to show how he means business and wants to make a new beginning for his party by speaking out against corruption, even if it means hurting members of the Congress.
    The Opposition thus failed to build a counter-narrative that could trump the notion that the government was fighting the good fight in the larger interest of the poor.

Bleak note

As recently as Tuesday, when the Congress called for an Opposition meeting to discuss how to take the protests against demonetisation ahead, about half the parties failed to turn up. Just eight of 16 parties against demonetisation were attendance, including the Congress, the Trinamool, the DMK, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (Secular).

And so, as 2016 ends, India finds itself in an unenviable position of being strapped for cash as well as choice. It has been let down by its government that has unleashed havoc on the people that has lasted for 50 days and counting and betrayed equally by an Opposition that failed to project itself as a viable alternative.

With as many as five state elections in the first half of the year – in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Uttarakhand and Goa – 2017 is a big year for the government, opposition parties and Indian democracy. Opposition parties have very less time in which they have to focus not only on strengthening themselves in the states going to polls but also on joining forces against the Centre. If they fail to do either, when the elections come around, voters will find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.