The call for nationwide protests on November 28 was undermined by confusion whether it was a shutdown call or not.
It is now almost 40 days since Prime Minister Narendra Modi withdrew almost 86 per cent of the currency in circulation and we are just a fortnight away from the deadline to deposit old notes. Without a doubt, the decision is the single-most disruptive official proclamation in more than a quarter of a century, the last one being V.P. Singh’s declaration in 1999 to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission.
Just a few days before he stunned the nation on November 8, Mr Modi delivered sermons to the media and the public at the Ramnath Goenka awards ceremony and reminded everyone that the baron had been among foremost critics of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi between 1975 and 1977. For almost four decades, Mrs Gandhi’s decision to curtail fundamental rights of people and put thousands of political opponents behind bars has been a black mark in the history of the Congress.
The imposition of Emergency and the State’s role in aiding anti-Sikh violence in November 1984, in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, have been two convenient sticks to beat the Congress with just as the adversaries of Mr Modi raked up the Gujarat riots of 2002 repeatedly. From a nonpartisan view, it is important to keep serving reminders on these most questionable acts of the Congress and the BJP.
If the Emergency was all about extinguishing the people’s political rights, there is a need to consider if demonetisation can be viewed similarly because it severely restricted economic freedom and rights of the people. Conspicuous parallels exist between the reasons cited by Indira Gandhi and Mr Modi’s list of justifications while invalidating the Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 banknotes. The official proclamation signed by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed stated the decision was taken as a “grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbance”. Mr Modi, in his address to the nation, cited threats to the nation from terrorists. Just as the imposition of Emergency laid fundamental restrictions on the lives of the people, demonetisation restricted the freedom of people to live their lives freely.
There, however, is a significant difference between 1975-77 and 2016. The June 25, 1975 announcement was preceded by over a year of political unrest in several parts of India. Agitations spreading against the government from one state to another coupled with the Allahabad high court verdict unseating Indira Gandhi unnerved her and she curtailed political rights, besides jailing opponents and critics. The protests began within three years of Indira Gandhi securing a decisive mandate in March 1971 and while she was still basking in glory of victory in war. The final push to defeat in 1977 was the result of an electrifying campaign against her after her adversaries decided to contest the elections jointly.
In contrast, more than halfway into the tenure of the Modi government, the Opposition remains as directionless as it initially was. Barring using lung-power on the floor of the House and jumlabazi in front of TV cameras, they have done little in the past 40 days to either put up a credible argument among people that demonetisation was ill-judged and meaningless, or to try to harness people’s distress.
Undoubtedly, the dramatic announcement put millions of Indians to utmost inconvenience. Besides being severely short of cash for their daily needs, they had to either struggle to deposit hard-earned money in banks or find touts and agents who overnight spotted a business opportunity in exchanging currency at a premium. Rational critiques of Mr Modi’s move did not emerge from the Opposition parties but from public intellectuals, analysts and writers.
Barring the solitary demolition of demonetisation by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Opposition entered into a slugfest with the government, thereby losing an opportunity to counter Mr Modi on the basis of rational arguments. From the beginning, the Prime Minister couched his decision’s raison d’être in a cloak of morality and false nationalism. Historically, rulers justified harshest decisions by claiming motivation from nationalist considerations. In the case of demonetisation, the Opposition parties failed to pierce the fear of people that to publicly protest or criticise the government’s move would tantamount to justifying black money. They were unable to reach out to people and explain that their woes would come to a naught.
Mr Modi drew an imaginary line on November 8 and people were worried of social sanction if they were seen to be crossing it. It was the job of the Opposition to explain to people that this “laksman rekha” was arbitrary and breaching it to raise a banner of protest would not be anti-national. They have not reached out to people to explain that not only would the malaise of unaccounted wealth not be tackled, but the decision would also have long-term negative impact on lives of the poorest as the economy slows down and jobs dwindle.
The Opposition parties so far have done precious little but resort to gimmicks on the streets, in queues outside banks and ATMs, on the floor of Parliament and, of course, before TV cameras. The call for nationwide protests on November 28 was undermined by confusion whether it was a shutdown call or not.
With the Winter Session of Parliament being washed out, it is unmistakable that barring preventing the House from functioning, the Opposition had no strategy. Instead of using the floor of two Houses as the proscenium to establish how squarely the government falsified facts and failed to achieve the objective of demonetisation, the Opposition has behaved like proverbial headless chickens.
Mr Modi is a master of post-truth and aping him serves little purpose. Rahul Gandhi has levelled a serious charge and if and when he discloses facts, its failure to stick will further undermine the Opposition. Even if his allegations have substance, it will have to be backed by mobilisation of people. It is time that they harnessed people’s power, certainly more effective than lung power. It will be tragic if the people are failed by the ruling party as well as by the Opposition.