POLITICS

With Its Abysmal Showing, The Opposition Has Helped Modi Win The Perception Battle On Demonetisation

"The level of debate is abysmal."

22/11/2016 9:56 PM IST | Updated 23/11/2016 1:06 AM IST
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Himanshu Sharma / Reuters
A man sits in a queue to deposit his old high denomination banknotes in Ajmer, India, November 16, 2016.

Demonetisation is costing lives and livelihoods. The Opposition has come together to challenge the Centre over the exercise and its shoddy execution. Despite the hue and cry raised by his political rivals, and the prevailing chaos in the country, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi who seems to be winning the perception battle.

There are a couple of reasons for why the Opposition has failed to pin the Centre down. To start with, it isn't clear what exactly the Opposition is opposed to. While some find no merit in demonetisation, many are opposed to its execution, and others switch back and forth. Finding the words to oppose demonetisation but keeping one's anti-black money and anti-corruption credentials is proving to be quite tricky for lawmakers, especially with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party injecting a heavy dose of nationalism into debate. This lack of clarity not only divests the Opposition from a clean line of attack, but they have failed to articulate exactly what they want.

These faults were clear on the first day of the Winter Session, which also happens to be the only day when lawmakers actually attempted to debate demonetisation. It had been a week since the Modi government had scrapped the Rs.500 and Rs.1000 notes, and lawmakers had plenty of time to prepare. But on that day, and since then, the only thing the Opposition seems "united" over is hating Modi. What should be fairly obvious is that comparisons to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Muammar Gaddafi and Pakistani terrorists are not just distasteful, but also witless.

Instead of indulging in self-serving caterwauling both inside and outside Parliament, political analysts say that the Opposition need to articulate a clear-cut strategy, make sound economic arguments, and actually zero in on the fallout of demonetisation, not just bringing up vague doomsday scenario.

In a conversation about the Opposition, Sudha Pai, political science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, used two words a lot: "disappointing" and "senseless." "The level of debate is abysmal. Our lawmakers don't seem to read anything. They don't do any homework. The arguments are very very poor. They are making more noise than sense," she said.

READ: HuffPost-BW-CVoter Survey - 87% Indians Think Demonetisation Is Hurting Black Money Owners

Pai, who recently stood in line for an hour in the senior citizens line to withdraw money, feels that even though people were caught up in a myriad problems, none of what the Opposition had said and done had captured anyone's imagination. "What they are doing is not really for the public and the public can see that," she said. "Nobody is listening to them."

The level of debate is abysmal. Our lawmakers don't seem to read anything.

Just how indisposed our politicians are to think through their arguments is perfectly illustrated by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's outburst when a journalist asked him how the deaths of 55 people could be linked to demonetisation. His response was: "The public can now see how honest BBC is."

Given that the country was in the midst of its most violent economic churning, S.K. Dwivedi, political science professor at Lucknow University, said that it was incumbent on lawmakers to have a constructive debate. "There has been a steady decline in the quality of parliamentary debate. Even the BJP has contributed to it. Right now, it is in shambles," he said. "You talk out of anger and hatred, you have no control over your language. You use the word 'chor' against each other."

READ: If You Hear BJP Leaders Debate Demonetisation In Parliament, You Wouldn't Know That People Are Dying

While the Opposition has held up the Winter Session on the single demand that Modi speak in Parliament, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has gotten away with telling the public that the execution of demonetisation could not have been better, and this exercise will root out poverty from the country. Now, the BJP is claiming that its victories in the Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh by-polls is a vindication of its stand.

In fact, experts say that lawmakers do not have a single original thought on demonetisation, relying largely on media reports. Shiv Visvanathan, a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, said that it was the the reportage by the "young journalists" which had created a gradient for the Opposition. "The real Opposition has been journalism and the Supreme Court," he said.

In addition to the poor quality of the debate, observers say that the public senses acutely the politics behind the Opposition. Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's campaign against demonetisation, for instance, is pegged as a front for the 2019 national election rather than addressing the immediate crisis.

Dwivedi dismissed the narrative of the "united" Opposition. "Everyone is guided by political interest. They are dictated by the possibility that the BJP could actually get political mileage out of all this in 2019." Calling the Opposition's response "a circus," Visvanathan said that lawmakers were neither united nor did they have any kind of operational strategy even for the short-term.

They are dictated by the possibility that the BJP could actually get political mileage out of all this in 2019.

READ: Can A Fractured Opposition Really Cause Trouble For Modi Over Demonetisation?

It is a fairly unremarkable observation that troubled times require serious responses. The dearth of such responses is what really boggles the mind. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi queuing up in front of an ATM, and making jibes about the "super prime minister," for instance, comes across as superficial and juvenile.

On Gandhi standing in an ATM queue, Pai said, "I don't know why he doesn't learn from seniors such as Chidambaram, who at least raised some economic points in his interview... Modi wins despite making mistakes and the rest of us just sit around, well, feeling disappointed."

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