Free Press Journal

Demonetisation: Opposition not in sync with public pulse


An Indian man puts a new 2000 rupee note in his wallet after exchanging his old 500 and 1000 rupee notes at a bank in New Delhi on November 10, 2016. Long queues formed outside banks in India as they reopened for the first time since the government's shock decision to withdraw the two largest denomination notes from circulation. / AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN

The unity and cohesiveness of the Opposition in Parliament faced its acid test in the wake of demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes by the Modi government. The shocking manner in which the various Opposition parties approached the challenge convinced one that as a whole they were abjectly unequal to the task.

It seems inconceivable that they could get their act together in the two and a half years that remain before the next general elections in 2019 unless something drastic happens to queer the pitch for the ruling BJP which propels it towards disaster. There was little evidence that a clearcut strategy was on the cards. One may flay Mrs Sonia Gandhi for her acts of omission and commission in her heydays but the fact was that in her absence there was no alternate leader worth the name to steer the parties with a common intent and purposefulness.

Perhaps Nitish Kumar may have fitted the bill but seeing the ragtag combination of strange bedfellows, the Bihar chief minister had sensed that discretion was the better part of valour and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was no pushover. Modi’s calculated and shrewd act of taking on the forces that were behind black money generation in the economy had made an impact on the common man who was willing to face some hardships if he felt reassured that the hoarders of black money and the currency counterfeiters would be brought to book.

There was an air of expectancy which doubtlessly got a boost with the superior oratory and the transparent earnestness of Modi. Shrewd as Nitish Kumar is, he realised early on that this was not the time to take on Modi. He welcomed demonetisation while seeking to keep his options open by siding with the rest of the opposition on the other issue of poor implementation by the Modi government on which too he was not on high key.

Nitish’s relations with his partner in the Bihar coalition Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal have been on a rocky course and wily as Nitish is he wanted to hold out a subtle olive branch to Modi without seeming to go out of the way. That BJP president Amit Shah noticed the olive branch and held out his hand to Nitish was enough for him for the time being. Nitish had not burnt his bridges with Lalu but he wanted him to know that he was not without an option if he needed. Reports say that after a meeting with Nitish, Lalu has changed his tune and has dropped his opposition to demonetisation in principle.

As for the leader of the largest opposition group, the Congress party, in Sonia’s absence due to ill health it was Rahul Gandhi who needed to assume a leadership role. But Rahul was just not up to it. This was Rahul’s golden opportunity but he frittered it away because he was yet again proved to be unequal to the challenge. Congressmen are already whispering that they would not go with the Opposition if Rahul is not the leader of the grouping.

Indeed, on the eve of the winter session of Parliament, the Opposition failed to present a picture of unity against the ruling party. Mamata Banerjee’s over-eagerness to steal the limelight and project herself as the face of the national Opposition in the capital propelled her rush to rush to the President on the demonetisation issue. Instead of this helping to show her hold, this worked in the opposite direction. It showed up fissures in the Opposition ranks. No major national party gave her company. It was only the MPs of a regional party, National Conference of Kashmir, that marched with her and her flock to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Arvind Kejriwal thought it wise not to be seen in the company of Shiv Sena. He sent an MP of his party. Mamata in her wisdom agreed to allow the Shiv Sainiks to march with her. Politically and ideologically, whether it added to Mamata’s political credibility, particularly among the Muslims, is a debatable question.

The byelections in Madhya Pradesh, Assam and the civic elections in Maharashtra and Gujarat would have shown the public anger against Modi if there was any such reaction. But the results were in BJP’s favour. At least that should have taught some lessons to the Opposition which had been boycotting the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament. But it did not.

More than a dozen Opposition parties decided to hold a Bharat Bandh across the country. Somewhere along the way, the Congress and some other parties realised that there was no public support forthcoming except in Mamata’s West Bengal for which the credit would go solely to her, so to save face the bandh was converted into ‘Aakrosh Diwas’ to express anger over the BJP stand.

Incompatibility defines the opposition today. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati will have no truck with each other. So it is with TMC and the CPM. Strangely enough, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has chosen to be with the ruling BJP on demonetisation, as he thinks it is a step in the right direction to unearth black money. Lalu has now fallen in line. Nitish had run a coalition government of the JD(U) and the BJP in the past. Perhaps he thinks it safe to keep the BJP in good humour if eventually he has to part company with his foe-turned-friend Lalu.

The so-called ‘Aakrosh Diwas’ was a flop show that has dented the credentials of opposition unity. The whole movement has got derailed but the opposition parties are failing to see the writing on the wall. They are persisting with their negative tactics in Parliament, stalling the two Houses. The sooner the Opposition realises that this is not bringing them dividends the better it would be for them.

If the Opposition is to have any chance of getting the better of the BJP in 2019 it has to learn to feel the public pulse better.