There's a running joke among Opposition MPs, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs a visa to enter the Rajya Sabha, given how seldom he is seen there. They accuse Modi of being scared of a debate in the Upper House, where the ruling NDA is in a minority.
Amidst the Opposition's persistent demand that Modi should attend the debate on demonetisation in the Rajya Sabha, the PM's avoidance of the Upper House has angered them even more.
He did attend the Lok Sabha but did not visit the neighbouring House, in what can only be interpreted as a message to the Opposition that he will not bow to its demand.
The Opposition too did not hit any conciliatory notes and stepped up the agitation inside as well as outside Parliament. The Rajya Sabha failed to transact any business for 5th straight day, as Opposition MPs continued to frustrate the Chair's attempts to go ahead with the pending debate on demonetisation. In the Lok Sabha, the Opposition uproar was over the denial of its demand to conduct the debate with voting on the government's decision.
Outside the House, the Opposition showed solidarity for once. Opposition MPs from a number of parties organised a large protest inside Parliament, just outside the two Houses. The Congress reasserted that the entire demonetisation exercise smacked of a scam on the people of the country. Barely two km away, Trinamool Congress turned Jantar Mantar into a battleground, with its chief Mamata Banerjee nearly giving out battle-cries for a long and sustained agitation against the demonetisation policy.
PM culpable, not FM: Opposition
The prime minister's comments on demonetisation at the BJP's parliamentary party's meeting the previous day gave the Opposition in Rajya Sabha a new argument to attack the government. Referring to Modi's comments that the Opposition was spreading lies about demonetisation, Opposition MPs said the PM was insulting the House by avoiding it and speaking on the same issue outside.
Deputy Chairman P J Kurien tried to reason with the Opposition that the subject pertained to the Finance Ministry and therefore Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was competent enough to respond to the debate. CPI(M) General Secretary sought to nullify this argument, saying that the announcement on demonetisation was made by the PM and it is he who should respond.
Kurien eventually expressed his helplessness, saying he could ask the government to ensure the presence of any minister, but not the prime minister. DMK's Tiruchi Siva appealed to the Chair to recall that the measure has had a huge impact on the general public and government should be asked to ensure the PM's presence in the House, in the interest of the nation.
Interestingly, the government too got a mouthful from the Chair as Kurien lost his cool seeing MPs from even the treasury benches leave their seats and shouting in protest. Admonishing Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi for their conduct and asking him to reign in these MPs, he also cautioned the minister that he will take action against him. Naqvi had provoked Kurien by asking under which rule was he allowing Opposition MPs to raise points of order.
Opposition in symbolic queue outside
There was a lot of action outside the House as nearly 200 Opposition MPs from both Houses formed a symbolic queue in solidarity with all those who were forced to stand in unending queues outside bank branches and ATMs since 8 November. MPs from the Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Trinamool Congress, DMK and Left parties participated in this protest. They were also joined later by AIADMK MPs, in a reversal of the party's stand on demonetisation.
This came as a shot in the arm for the opposition parties as AIADMK is the third largest party in Lok Sabha and fourth largest in Rajya Sabha. It is usually sympathetic towards the government and had been largely silent on the demonetisation issue so far. Only a day earlier, its MPs had submitted a memorandum to Jaitley with a list of demands to ease the pressure on common people. The memorandum stayed away from heavy criticism of the government.
Mamata takes Modi head-on
The biggest attack, however, came from the Trinamool Congress, as its chief Mamata Banerjee led a separate dharna against demonetisation at Jantar Mantar. The West Bengal chief minister continued to focus on the authoritarian nature of the decision suddenly announced by the PM on 8 November. She termed it an evidence of the union government's feudal mentality and even ventured to declare that the country was not in safe hands under Modi.
Power me rehne se aankhen or kaan bandh hojate hain. Itni badi akad hai inme, isse govt has lost all its credentials: Mamata Banerjee pic.twitter.com/rY6FkmDGmK— ANI (@ANI_news) November 23, 2016
Banerjee also alleged that people were in pain because of demonetisation, that it had snatched away the democratic rights of farmers, youth, women, labourers and traders and it had also halted the country's economic growth.
She accused the BJP of "looting" the common man, asking why those with Swiss bank accounts were "not touched at all". Banerjee was also joined by leaders from other parties, including JD(U)'s Sharad Yadav, SP's Jaya Bachchan and Dharmendra Yadav, Majeed Memon of NCP and Raghav Chaddha of AAP.
Things are looking very challenging for the Modi-government from here on. The government has shown no indication that it will concede to the Opposition's demand in the Rajya Sabha. Opposition parties have announced that they will launch country wide protest on 28 November, calling it Aakrosh Diwas.
The Trinamool Congress chief has turned this into a passionate battle and has appealed to "NGOs, charitable organisations, political parties, student groups,civil society representatives & others" to rise in protest across the country and organise their own protests against "this financial emergency". The Opposition has made its intentions clear and the ball is now in the government's court. It will be interesting to watch its next move.