Demonetisation is back on the agenda of the Opposition parties.
Emboldened by official reports in the past few weeks about a sharp decline in the country’s growth rate and inputs about the adverse impact of the note ban, the Opposition parties have decided to target the Narendra Modi government on price rise, lack of jobs and other such economic problems.
The parties will hold their next joint meeting in Jaipur on Thursday to highlight the deficiencies of the ruling alliance and they plan to focus on economic matters. Though this meeting is part of dissident Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav’s “sanjhi virasat bachao” (saving the country’s composite culture) campaign highlighting the Bharatiya Janata Party’s allegedly divisive agenda, Opposition parties are veering around to the view that it would be more effective to pin down the Modi government on matters such as the agrarian crisis, the impact of demonetisation on the informal sector and small-scale industries, slowing exports and other poor economic indicators.
“There is no doubt that the government is on the backfoot on economic issues,” said Communist Party of India leader D Raja. “We have, therefore, decided to focus on these.”
This was also evident from tweets by Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad and Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress on Monday:
The Opposition had launched a frontal attack against the government after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had decided in November to ban high-denomination currency notes in a bid to check black money. Besides holding up Parliament, they had led a full-throated campaign against demonetisation outside it. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi were the most vocal critics of the government’s policy. The Trinamool Congress and the Congress had drawn up detailed programmes, including protest marches by the joint Opposition, to highlight how the move had hit the poor. However, their campaign had failed to resonate with the public at large, which was convinced that the policy was aimed at curbing black money and punishing the corrupt. The matter died a natural death once the BJP swept the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls earlier this year. It was widely believed that demonetisation had been a major factor in this victory.
But the prevailing economic scenario has proved to be a dampener for Modi, who rode to power in 2014 with the promise to push growth, bring down prices, create more jobs and improve the climate for investments. With economic indicators painting a gloomy picture, the Opposition has, therefore, decided to highlight livelihood problems.
Setting the agenda
This change in strategy follows a realisation in the Opposition camp that its continuing focus on the BJP’s allegedly communal agenda – which commentators blame for the many incidents of mob lynchings in the name of the cow – helps Hindu consolidation in its favour and deflects attention from bread and butter issues. It has been felt for some time now that the Opposition should not allow the BJP and Modi to set the agenda by reacting to it and that it should instead set the agenda. It is for this reason that the Opposition did not rise to the bait when the new tourism minister, KJ Alphons, said last week that foreign visitors should eat beef in their own countries before coming to India. As far as possible, the Opposition intends to keep the spotlight on the government’s poor track record in governance and, more particularly, Modi’s inability to deliver on his election promise to improve the country’s economy and create more jobs.
Well aware that the Modi government is vulnerable on this front, Rahul Gandhi’s meeting with Congress workers in Gujarat last week dwelt at length on the ill-effects of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax – a nationwide tax replacing all state and Central taxes that came into effect on July 1 – on small businesses, busting the myth about his “Gujarat model of development”. He also referred to special favours allegedly given by Modi to big corporate houses like the Tatas while small-scale industries were languishing in a clear attempt to drive home the point that the prime minister had failed to deliver on the economic front. The Congress leader was equally scathing in his comments on how poor farmers and indegenous communities had borne the brunt of the government’s economic policies because of the priority accorded to a few chosen business houses.
The attack mounted by the Congress vice-president and the first quarter gross domestic product growth figures showing that the economy had slowed down appear to have rattled the BJP, if its president Amit Shah’s recent comments are anything to go by. Addressing young people in Gujarat last Sunday, Shah was clearly on the defensive when he urged them not to believe the anti-BJP propaganda spread by the Congress on social media. The BJP president seemed to tie himself in knots when, addressed a meeting organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, he insisted the fall in GDP growth rate was due to technical reasons. “The Modi government has changed the way GDP is looked at as it is not only limited to production, services and infrastructure but also includes improving overall quality of life and social capital,” he told the gathering.
Modi and Shah have reason to worry. While the Opposition has predictably done into attack mode, the overall gloomy economic picture is also worrying the BJP rank and file. Though no one has spoken out on this, there is underlying tension in the party as its MPs and MLAs privately admit that they are finding it increasingly difficult to face their voters. Well aware that the situation has the potential to spiral out of control, Modi is going out of his way to keep his ministers in good humour. Not known to praise his cabinet colleagues without a reason, his tweet last week complimenting External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was certainly out of character:
Are these signs of insecurity?