On 24 November, as Parliament was stalled for the sixth consecutive day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi left everybody baffled. This was the day when he had apparently finally heeded the opposition's demand to be present for a debate on demonetisation. He duly came to the Rajya Sabha, sat for a while and left during the lunch break. Never to return.
While Modi was in the House, protests by the opposition subsided, only to resume with his vanishing act. Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien tried to assuage the opposition MPs and conduct the proceedings, but in vain.
Still, if only for a while, the opposition succeeded in embarrassing Modi as former prime minister Manmohan Singh, speaking in the House after a long time, slammed the government over demonetisation. Egged on by a loud thumping of desks, Singh denounced the entire exercise as a "monumental failure", a "loot" and "legalised plunder". Singh had been quiet throughout the last fortnight and his first words on the move have lent much weight to the opposition's criticism.
The inexplicable Mr Modi
To say that the prime minister's strategy for the day was baffling will be an understatement. If his arrival in the Rajya Sabha was an olive branch to the opposition in the interest of resumption of proceedings, why did he suddenly disappear? Equally, if he did not want to attend the debate, why did he come in the first place? No surprise that Kurien's argument to the opposition MPs that the prime minister need not be present throughout rang hollow.
Equally stupefying was Leader of the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley's assertion that with the prime minister's "participation" in the debate, the opposition's "basic condition was knocked down" and it was left without an excuse to stall Parliament. Jaitley, of course, didn't explain how Modi's silent and short presence in the House could qualify as "participation"? And this when Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad had said at the outset that if the prime minister intended to stay only for the Question Hour, which is usually conducted for an hour from noon, then the Opposition would not allow the House function.
Although the Question Hour was suspended and the debate resumed, Modi stayed only for an hour from 12 pm to 1 pm. It appeared that the opposition did have an inkling about Modi's game plan; BSP chief Mayawati intervened just before the lunch break to urge Modi not to go away during the break.
PM vs former PM
The opposition's campaign against demonetisation received a shot in the arm with a crisp, forceful and articulate speech by Singh. The former PM took the bull by its horns, making five essential arguments:
People are not being allowed to withdraw their own money and this alone is enough to condemn the move.
People's confidence in the banking system and the currency system has been shaken.
There will be disastrous effects on the poor, agricultural growth, small industries and the informal sector.
GDP can decline by a minimum 2% points
It is regrettable that the RBI has been exposed to this kind of criticism.
Fmr PM, Dr Manmohan Singh's speech on Demonetisation in Rajya Sabhahttps://t.co/PpzSOTYeKT— INC India (@INCIndia) November 24, 2016
Singh also sought to puncture the government's "long-term benefit" defence of demonetisation by quoting the founder of modern macroeconomics John Maynard Keynes: "In the long run, we are all dead." He urged the prime minister to come up with "a constructive proposal on implementing the scheme while preventing the distress caused to common people".
Indira Gandhi's lesson
Samajwadi Party's Naresh Agrawal announced that his party was against the move as it was nothing short of a financial emergency. Agarwal mocked the result of the survey on demonetisation conducted through Modi's mobile app, saying appreciation for the prime minister had turned into sycophancy. He reminded Modi that Indira Gandhi had similarly been told by her loyalists during the Emergency that most people supported her decision and that she should call elections soon. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mayawati went much further, calling the survey fake and daring Modi to dissolve the Lok Sabha and call for fresh elections to gauge the "real mood" of the people.
Trinamool Congress's Derek O'Brien said secrecy can not be an excuse for the pain that has been caused to such a large number of people. He asked if the government was serious about tackling corruption, what was it doing about electoral reform? He informed the House that the move has been so damaging that India's GDP has suffered a Rs 3.75 lakhs crore dent in the last 15 days.
Overall, it was another bruising day for the government, as the opposition escalated its protests and the prime minister worsened the crisis through his "I came, I saw, I left" manoeuvre. Given his standing as an economist of repute, Singh's remarks are likely to weaken the government's arguments in support of demonetisation.
Modi didn't stay around to respond to his predecessor. Now, if he does so from a platform outside the House, he risks angering the opposition further, and inviting definitive allegations of contempt of the House and breach of parliamentary privilege.