Realising the importance of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Congress has sought his help in cornering the Narendra Modi government on the twin subjects of demonetisation and the error-ridden implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, which have emerged as the chief talking points in the ongoing election campaign in Gujarat. Assembly polls will be conducted in the state in two phases on December 9 and December 14.

Hoping to cash in on the former prime minister’s deep understanding of economic matters, the Congress has persuaded the otherwise reticent Singh to address a press conference in Ahmedabad on Tuesday, the eve of the first anniversary of the note ban. The main Opposition party will observe Wednesday as “black day” and has planned a series of protests and candle light vigils to highlight the ill-effects of demonetisation on the economy.

The Congress expects Singh’s press conference – which is expected to dwell on all aspects of the current health of the economy – to trigger a wide public debate and help the party ensure that demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax continue to dominate political discourse. An economist hailed as the architect of India’s liberalisation programme in the 1990s, Singh is very much at home discussing the state of the economy and can be relied upon to put forth substantive points on the subject.

“There are only two people in our party who have the credibility to speak on the economy, especially GST, and they are Manmohan Singh and [former finance minister P] Chidambaram,” said a former Congress minister. “When they turn around and tell people… we said so and we can fix the problem… they are taken seriously.”

Authority and credibility

Congress leaders said it was party vice-president Rahul Gandhi who persuaded Singh to travel to Gujarat, even though the 85-year-old is not in good health these days. A senior leader said Gandhi has also instructed Congress functionaries to ensure Singh is informed about the party’s thinking on various subjects. Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said, “There is a conscious effort by Rahul Gandhi to seek the former prime minister’s counsel in view of his vast experience and that is why he makes it a point to involve him in the party’s political decisions.”

A section in the Congress maintains that Sam Pitroda – an old friend of the Gandhi family and chairperson of the Indian Overseas Congress, who planned Rahul Gandhi’s trip to the United States in September – prevailed upon the party vice-president to involve senior leaders in party affairs. “Pitroda got an opportunity to spend quality time with Rahul Gandhi on this visit and the changes seen in him [Gandhi] since his return from America is a result of this intense interaction,” said a member of the Congress Working Committee, the party’s top decision-making body.

The deference shown to Singh by the Congress is a dramatic departure from the time it virtually shunned him during election campaigns when the United Progressive Alliance government was in power. Party leaders recall a time when a discreet word would be sent to the prime minister’s office that it would be better if Singh did not address any poll meetings. “The fact that the Congress is now turning to Manmohan Singh is not just a reflection on his credibility but it also shows the bankruptcy of leadership in the party,” explained a senior Congress functionary. “Just look around… whom do we field? Is there anybody who can speak on these issues with the same authority?”

Congress leaders said it was party vice-president Rahul Gandhi who persuaded Manmohan Singh to travel to Gujarat and address a press conference. (Credit: Vijay Kumar Joshi / PTI)

Singh’s comeback

Manmohan Singh lay low for over two years following the Congress-led coalition’s defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, before grabbing national and international attention with his brief intervention in Parliament on the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s decision to demonetise high-value currency notes on November 8 last year. His description of the move as a “monumental blunder” and “legalised loot” and his prediction that it would lead to a 2% drop in the country’s gross domestic product (the sum of all goods and services produced in a country in a year) pushed the Modi government on the defensive and forced it to offer a series of explanations to justify the note ban.

The Opposition was effectively silenced, though, following the BJP’s landslide victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls in March, which was projected as popular support for demonetisation. But the situation has changed vastly since then. The Opposition revived its campaign against the government after the Reserve Bank of India confirmed a drop in gross domestic product figures on account of the note ban. Widespread public anger over technical glitches, ambiguous rules and other problems that hobbled the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax – a single nationwide tax subsuming all Central and state levies that rolled out on July 1 – further emboldened the Congress. It moved in fast to corner the ruling alliance, and particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on their alleged mishandling of the economy and over rising unemployment, an agricultural crisis and price rise in the hope that these would resonate with the people.

Manmohan Singh, who had retreated into a shell after his statement on demonetisation last November, has also become more vocal in recent months, especially since his prediction that demonetisation would hurt gross domestic product proved to be accurate. Speaking at the Indian School of Business Leadership in Mohali in September, he pointed out that the “adventure of demonetisation was unnecessary” and had led the economy on a “downhill path”. In a rare interview to a television channel the same month, he underlined that demonetisation, combined with the hasty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, would have an adverse impact on the informal and small-scale sectors, which account for 90% of employment in the country.

On Monday too, he told the digital news publication BloombergQuint, “I strongly feel the time for politicking over demonetisation is over. It is time the prime minister graciously acknowledges the blunder and seeks support from all to rebuild our economy.”

Taking a cue from Singh, the Congress election campaign in Gujarat has relentlessly highlighted the woes of small-scale industries in the new tax regime and other matters related to the economy, prompting the ruling BJP to make several attempts to divert attention to emotive subjects such as nationalism and terrorism.