Even as the common man continues to suffer from the ill-implemented demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, the entire issue has turned out to be a war of perceptions for the political parties. While the opposition has been raising questions about the government’s real motive behind the move, the BJP has put up a strong defence.
On November 29, in an effort to counter the allegations that many BJP leaders were tipped off about the demonetisation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked his party’s MPs and MLAs to submit their bank statements for November 8 to December 31 to party president Amit Shah. His bête noire, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, however, was quick to point out that the prime minister should ask for their bank transactions since the beginning of the year, and also seek details of the accounts of spouses and children.
Just when the opposition parties thought they had found a common ground against the demonetisation to corner the government, the results of the civic body elections in Maharashtra and Gujarat came as a dampener. The polls were held after the demonetisation announcement on November 8, and the BJP significantly improved its tally.
Also, the united opposition has hardly been united. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar openly supported the demonetisation. Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad and Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Ajit Singh, who initially were against it, calibrated their stance to “not being opposed to demonetisation, but only the poor implementation”.
The parties seem to have been repositioning their public stance with an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. While the BJP expects the demonetisation to pay dividends to Modi in his second bid for the prime minister’s chair, Kejriwal, Nitish and Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, too, have their eyes firmly set on it. These leaders have chosen their strategies accordingly.
Kejriwal’s aggressive campaign in the poll-bound Punjab and Goa, and his party’s likely gains in these states, for instance, will enhance his national image. Mamata has held rallies against demonetisation in Lucknow and Patna, and would be travelling to other parts of the country. She recently started tweeting in Hindi. Nitish has tied up with Ajit Singh’s RLD to contest Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. A week ago, he opened a unit of his Janata Dal (United) in Punjab, which has a sizeable Bihari migrant population.
The BJP, visibly wary of the opposition unity, has been watching the developments keenly. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley even called up non-BJP chief ministers who were not opposed to demonetisation to be part of a panel to recommend roadmap to the shift to cashless transactions. “Where is the opposition unity? They are disunited,” said Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar. “They are opposing the thing but they cannot justify.”
The government, too, has been moving quickly to cash in on the so-called fight against black money. It pushed through changes in the Income Tax bill, which proposes two separate slabs of taxes for voluntary and involuntary disclosure of black money. The Congress called it an attempt to convert black money into white. Javadekar defended the move, saying it was to take out black money from safes and use it for the welfare of the poor.
In a bid to break the logjam in Parliament, which had already lost half of the winter session, the government has offered that the prime minister would speak in the discussion on demonetisation in the Lok Sabha. Said Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ananth Kumar, “It was high time the debate started because people also want to know what Parliament thinks about it, what is the opinion of different political parties.” The opposition parties, however, did not appear to budge.
Ananth Kumar and Jaitley have been talking to opposition leaders to resolve the issue, as three key bills on the goods and services tax have been held up. Without passing these bills, the GST rollout on April 1, 2017 is unlikely. The opposition has been demanding discussion under a parliamentary rule which entails voting in the house. “The prime minister has been speaking outside Parliament, but refused to speak inside the house,” said Ghulam Nabi Azad, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
The terror attack on an Army camp in Nagrota, Jammu and Kashmir, which claimed the lives of seven soldiers, including two officers, has given fresh ammo to the opposition. The attack, the second one in two months, could prove damaging for the government, as it showed infiltration had not abated even after the much-hyped surgical strike across the Line of Control. Said Azad in the Rajya Sabha, “We want to give our respect to the soldiers killed in this attack and 82 people killed during the demonetisation exercise; parliament should discuss it.”