In Grimms' fairy tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Queen asks her magic mirror every morning, "Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Fairest of Them All?"
Almost every opposition party in Parliament would be doing the same during the month-long winter session from November 16 to December 16, wondering who amongst them is the most oppositionist of them all when it comes to putting the Narendra Modi government on the mat over the tardy implementation of its sudden decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes in the name of fighting black money.
For over a week after Modi addressed the nation on November 8 to announce demonetisation, there have been long unending queues of desperate people thronging bank counters and ATMs for a handful of cash to meet their daily expenses and fight the crisis of liquidity thrust upon them so suddenly.
|As ATMs and banks rapidly ran of cash, so did the patience of the people.|
As the ATMs and banks rapidly ran of cash, so did the patience of the people, most of whom were left stranded, hungry, thirsty and angry.
And now their anger is reverberating in Parliament as the opposition and treasury benches slug it out on the impact of demonetisation on the lives of every citizen and the benefits that the government claims will accrue to the country.
Fault lines show up
Groups of opposition parties had met on November 14 and 15 to chalk out a joint offensive against the government, which had indicated that it would not be defensive on a decision that would "cause people inconvenience temporarily but benefit the country in the long run". But they could not paper over the differences that divided them, or forge a consensus on how to go for the ruling party’s jugular.
While all of them welcomed the government’s intent to battle black money, their emphasis and approach was different.
It ranged from those who attacked it for its timing, faulty implementation, ill-preparedness to deal with the aftermath of demonetisation. Some attacked the government for using demonetisation when there were other tools to unearth black money, which is largely held in real estate, bullions, securities, stocks and other such instruments.
The Trinamool Congress, for instance, demanded a rollback of demonetisation and proposed a march to Rashtrapati Bhavan; the Congress suggested a probe by a Joint Parliamentary Committee into demonetisation, and the CPM wanted a step-by-step approach.
But there was more between the lines taken by the different opposition parties: the communists would not like to be seen to be joining forces with the Trinamool, its rival in West Bengal, notwithstanding chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s overtures for a joint strategy; the Congress and the TMC are battling it out to take a lead in any opposition offensive; and with elections coming up in UP, the SP and the BSP would not like to be seen on the same side of the fence no matter what the issue.
Initially ATM meant "All time Money" now it is "Aayega tab milega": WEst Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee pic.twitter.com/Yukd84U49M— ANI (@ANI_news) November 16, 2016
Indeed, even while targeting Modi, these parties are competing with each other to be seen as the most virulent critic of the half-baked demonetisation move that has upset the daily lives of people. The parties are attempting to capture the attention of their respective social constituencies and are seeking to grab the eyeballs as the most oppositionist of them all.
The Trinamool and AAP were among the first off the block in slamming demonetisation, with Mamata Banerjee even reaching out, among others, to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, JD-U leader and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, and BJD leader and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik.
So, on November 16, while the rest of the opposition was intent on assailing the government in Rajya Sabha — the Lok Sabha was adjourned for the day because of the death of an MP during the inter-session period — Mamata led a march to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Delhi: Mamata Banerjee leads the protest march to the President's House, other Opposition parties also participate #demonetisation pic.twitter.com/DlnSgrrQiV— ANI (@ANI_news) November 16, 2016
Her success lay in getting BJP ally Shiv Sena to break ranks with the NDA and join the march, which also included Omar Abdullah and his National Conference. Although Delhi CM and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal was in support, he kept away from the march as the Shiv Sena was part of it.
This is not the first time that the fault lines in the opposition parties showed up despite their common stand against the BJP-NDA on an issue. It has happened on earlier occasions as well, partly because the largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha is just a shade ahead of the others.
Congress seen as one among many
Cast an eye on the 2014 Lok Sabha results when Modi won a clear majority for the BJP and formed a BJP-led NDA coalition. The Congress was reduced to a paltry 44 seats — barely ahead of the 37 and 34 that J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress got in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal respectively.
Naveen Patnaik’s BJD won 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in Odisha. The CPI-M, which often acted as the opposition–in-chief, plunged from 16 seats to just nine in the new House, and thereby, lost the considerable moral force it used to exercise in national politics.
The Congress could not even claim the status of leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha as the 44 seats it had were 11 short of the number required for the position. It suffered the ignominy of being relegated to the category of just one of them in the opposition camp, though with a slightly larger number.
There is no investigation or action taken against Modi ji's industrialists friends: Rahul Gandhi on #demonetisation pic.twitter.com/rKzsdzN35u— ANI (@ANI_news) November 16, 2016
Not surprisingly, in the first few months, the party saw the AIADMK and the Trinamool — presumably to deflect attention from the Saradha scam in West Bengal and the BJP’s attempts to carve out a base in her state which was poised for Assembly elections — often trying to outdo it as an opposition party.
Mamata Banerjee’s MPs often took the lead in any agitation in Parliament. They carried black umbrellas into Parliament to flag the government’s failure to bring back black money stashed abroad and waved red diaries to emphasise the charge that BJP president Amit Shah’s name figured in a red diary recovered from Subrata Roy, the Sahara chief.
To take another example, when it came to taking a united stand in Parliament against hate speeches, including Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti’s objectionable comments against Muslims in December 2014, the CPM did not join the black band protest of opposition MPs lest it be seen on the same side as the Trinamool.
The AIADMK and the BJD stayed away from it to maintain equidistance, and parties like the SP, BSP and the JD-U were keen to end the matter following Jyoti’s "regret"’ and the PM’s statement in the Lok Sabha.
Cut to 2016. With the Presidential polls in mid-2017 — in which each party would like to be counted — and the general elections in 2019, it seems a going back to the same game again: of proving more pro-people and anti-government on the demonetisation issue than the other.