The nearly week-long stalemate in parliament over demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 currency bills continued on Friday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has avoided the debate until now even as opposition clamour against the currency reform grew amidst the demand that the prime minister should speak on the floor to clarify multiple questions. This has been the reason for multiple adjournments in both the houses over the last few days. Only Thursday, which was when the first debate over demonetisation took place, saw some productive discussion.
Despite justifying the move as an attack on black money on various occasions and at different platforms, Modi attended parliament only on the seventh day of the winter session. As India’s biggest currency reform, which has made invalid 86% of the currency in India (by value), is understood to have been presided over by the prime minister’s office, the opposition has not been content with the justifications coming from the second-in line leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Irrespective of mutual differences, majority of opposition parties have come together unprecedentedly to resist the move, which has affected normal life severely.
The opposition grievances are three-fold. Some of them have been demanding the government to initiate a joint parliamentary committee probe on the possibility of an information leak before the move was announced. Various reports have pointed towards unusual business transactions days before the move was announced, suggesting that people, especially those close to the BJP, were already in the know of the policy measure.
Secondly, multiple impacts on common people owing to demonetisation are some issues that the opposition has aggressively pointed out in the floor. Thirdly, the opposition parties have questioned the legitimacy of demonetisation, which many governments have rejected earlier. The parties have been asking whether such economic disruption, which could cause a significant drop in GDP growth, measures up to the benefits it may have. The BJP has been insisting that demonetisation will have many medium and long-term benefits.
However, while the government has failed to offer any concrete benefits that Indian economy may accrue over time, the BJP has gone off-track to turn the debate into a binary between crusaders against corruption and dishonest politicians, placing the opposition in the latter.
BJP has had to face a lot of heat over PM’s absence in parliament. Except suggesting that the opposition is sheltering the corrupt, the BJP has replied to the accusation that demonetisation of currency notes was a hasty, ill-prepared move.
The opposition has remained consistently confrontational. “We have a situation where PM is open to take opinions from people on his app but is hesitant in addressing their parliamentary representatives,” a senior Congress leader told The Wire. He added that by staying away from parliament, Modi is subverting the practices of a parliamentary democracy and this is the larger message the Congress party wants to take forward.
CPI (M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury dubbed Modi as “Tughlaq” who had gone missing after issuing a “farman” (order). The CPI (M), on Thursday, also moved a contempt notice against Modi for “staying away” from the Rajya Sabha and not adequately discussing the impact of demonetisation.
Mayawati, the Bahujan Samaj Party supremo, went a step ahead and demanded an apology from the PM for hinting that the opposition parties are corrupt. Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, too, asked for an apology, “PM today said that opposition is favouring black money, this is a serious allegation against the entire Opposition, he must apologise,”
Both Azad and Maywati were responding to the prime minister’s statement on Friday morning at at a function to celebrate Constitution day. Justifying demonetisation, Modi said, “Those criticising the demonetisation don’t have a problem with the government’s preparedness; their problem is that they didn’t get time to prepare.”
The Congress party has been invoking rule 56 of the rules and procedures of conduct of business in parliament every day. According to Aman Panwar, head of the Congress party’s legal cell, rule 56, also also known as an adjournment motion or urgent motion, is to draw the attention of the house to a matter of immediate public importance having serious consequences. He says, “It is usually invoked when the urgency in the matter is such that if a motion or a resolution with proper notice in due course is given, it would defeat the entire purpose of the debate as it may take weeks before the matter is taken up before the Parliament. This rule entails voting.”
However, the BJP, in response, wants the discussion to happen under rule 193. Rule 193 is usually invoked when a party thinks of an issue as only a matter of ‘small discussion’ and regular matters of the house need not be suspended. Many parliamentary experts believe that the rule is invoked to avoid discussion on serious matters and escape accountability.
Congress and other opposition leaders believe that since demonetisation has impacted every person, it is indeed a serious matter. The BJP, however, has not issued a statement as to why it thinks the policy measure needs only a “small discussion.”
The speaker has the discretion to accept or reject the opposition demand. However, since the beginning of the winter session, multiple motions for the discussion to carried under rule 56 have been rejected by the speaker. Most opposition leaders see it as a partisan act, as speaker Sumitra Mahajan is a member of the ruling party.
Until these procedural disagreements continue between the government and the opposition, the logjam in the parliament, especially the Lok Sabha, may only continue.