Economy

Sparks Set to Fly as Opposition Prepares to Corner Government on Demonetisation

The opposition has submitted 651 amendments to the president’s address at the joint session of parliament – many of them contesting demonetisation.

The Budget session, 2017, in progress. Credit: PTI/Files

Screengrab of the Budget session, 2017, in progress. Credit: PTI/Files

The president’s address to the joint session of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha is gradually becoming the opposition’s favourite tool to throw punches at the Narendra Modi government in parliament. Demonetisation has come in handy for the opposition in the midst of elections and it is set to exploit it to the fullest in the first part of the Budget session.

The parliament’s winter session was a virtual washout with protests over demonetisation. The government did not issue any statement on that key issue, either in Lok Sabha or in Rajya Sabha.

This time though, perhaps a record 651 amendments have been given by the opposition in the Rajya Sabha – some of them on the issue of demonetisation.

Opposition leaders like Sitaram Yechury of the CPI-M wanted the address to include regret that there is no mention of the “tragic death” of over 100 people in the wake of demonetisation. Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has lamented that the address fails to pay respect to lives lost and hardship faced by the common man, farmers, fishermen and small businessmen. Rajya Sabha members of the Samajwadi Party have also become excessively active on the issue in the wake of the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Incidently, the government is facing embarrassment in Rajya Sabha for the past two years as its detractors have succeeded in passing their amendments to the president’s address. The ruling BJP-led NDA government does not have a majority in the upper house and is unlikely to have one soon. An opposition amendment to the president’s address carried in the Rajya Sabha is just a matter of embarrassment for the government.

But if similar thing happens in the Lok Sabha, then it leads to a collapse of government as it would mean that it does not enjoy confidence of the house.

“The opposition moves show the growing discord between it and the government. It also shows the opposition is very active,” says a former secretary general of the Lok Sabha, S. Bal Shekar. He said that in the past, opposition parties at different points of time had resorted to such tactics.

Another parliament official said that such tactics in the Rajya Sabha cause only “minor embarrassment” to the government.

A meeting of the Congress and TMC floor leaders, is being held on February 6, at which other like minded parties have also been called. This suggests that the opposition is chalking out a strategy on demonetisation that will be revealed only next week. 

Rahul Gandhi had begun these consultations in the winter session two months ago, which had for the first time seen a growing bonhomie between several opposition parties. The purpose of the opposition’s interaction is aimed at creating obstacles in the passage of a Bill in the Rajya Sabha which has been brought by the government in the Lok Sabha on February 3. TMC had put up a spirited resistance in Lok Sabha, when finance minister Arun Jaitley wanted to introduce the Specified Bank Notes (Cessation of Liabilities) Bill.

The bill seeks to end the liability of the RBI and the government on currency notes withdrawn in November 2016. The bill seeks to replace an ordinance brought by government in December.

Senior TMC MP, Saugata Roy had clashed with Jaitley while opposing its introduction. Speaker Sumitra Mahajan subsequently allowed the introduction overruling objections from the TMC member.

The opposition’s plans are apparently aimed at scuttling the passage of the bill in the Rajya Sabha. But the government knows the opposition’s intentions and would treat it as a Money Bill which does not require the approval of the upper house.

The bill is expected to come up for consideration in the Lok Sabha on February 7, and the discussion would offer the first opportunity for the opposition to debate demonetisation in parliament. The last session had witnessed charges and counter-charges between opposition and the government, but there was no debate.

The prime minister too, had not spoken in parliament on the issue in the session, amid claims by the ruling party that he was not being allowed to speak. The opposition had attacked the ruling party for stalling parliament on some days in order to avoid debate on demonetisation.

Government managers have often alleged that the opposition – especially the Congress – has not reconciled to a full majority to Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha and hence resorts to stalling tactics.

Members of the opposition, however, say the job of the opposition is to “oppose, expose, depose”.

Sunil Gatade is a senior journalist.