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Opposition on notebandi: Sound and fury signifying nothing

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: The Times of India
Date: December 11, 2016
URL:   http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/right-and-wrong/opposition-on-notebandi-sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing/

When the history of the world’s largest demonetisation programme comes to be written, the primary sources may well be somewhat limited. There will, of course, be the various official reports, the records of media (both print and electronic) rancour and even the social media chatter. However, unless a miracle happens between November 14 and 16, there will be a gaping hole.

History will record that the parliamentary debate on such a consequential subject was either perfunctory or non-existent. Apart from an encouraging start to the discussions on November 16 and another 50 minutes of discussions on November 24 in the Rajya Sabha, India’s most representative body failed to discharge its responsibilities. Both Houses of Parliament were unendingly disrupted by boisterous Opposition MPs determined to express their displeasure by stalling proceedings. A venerable leader such as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who was heard in absolute silence when he made his brief but uncharacteristically forthright intervention, sat expressionless as party colleagues indulged in an orgy of slogan shouting. Even the conventional courtesy of allowing the leader of the House to have his say was unceremoniously discarded.

It can well be argued that the Congress and the Trinamool Congress MPs were merely repaying the BJP for its unruliness during the UPA government. Finance minister Arun Jaitley has experienced his own unfortunate defence of disruption as a legitimate parliamentary weapon being thrown back at him.

That two wrongs don’t necessarily make a right is well understood. In private, the political class make two admissions. First, that debate is always desirable; and second, that the disruption isn’t a spontaneous expression of outrage but a command performance. Those with political memory will recall the scene inside the Uttar Pradesh assembly in 1997 when open warfare broke out and many MLAs were injured. It was disgraceful but also carefully orchestrated to provoke a Constitutional crisis. The bid failed, but the lessons of that outrage have been insufficiently learnt.

The question naturally arises: why do political leaders believe that mindless disruption — as opposed to quaint tactics such as filibustering — serve a political purpose? It is one thing to stage a symbolic protest, even stage a walkout and then go on a fast in front of the nearest statue of Mahatma Gandhi. But when an entire parliamentary session is disrupted and a subject of immense national importance that has touched the lives of every Indian is left un-debated in Parliament, does it not imply an abdication of responsible conduct?

This is not to suggest that in India Parliament is the be-all and end-all of politics, as it is in some western democracies. During the furore over demonetisation, parties opposed to the measure have periodically staged street protests. There was even a call for a Bharat bandh that failed to have any noticeable impact. In addition, the media too has made the long queues and stories of hardship and inconvenience their big headline story since November 8. These have been accompanied by debates and interviews where everyone from Amartya Sen and Nandan Nilekani to Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee — the two poles of the proverbial shrillometer — have had their say. The Prime Minister, having sat grim-faced through the parliamentary bedlam, has also answered his critics with characteristic combativeness at public rallies. Indeed, it would be fair to say that after a month most people have made up their minds on demonetisation, even as experts are divided on its long-term impact.

STIRRING THE POT: Parliament is not the only platform of protest, so what does disruption achieve?

In such a situation, when Parliament is just one of the multiple platforms of discussion, what does disruption achieve?

The most noticeable feature of the demonetisation and the associated cash rationing is that every Indian has been inconvenienced in varying degrees. Yet, the interesting fact is that popular grumbling has not been accompanied by the ‘riots’ that the Chief Justice of India so injudiciously feared. Indeed, apart from stray incidents, the quantum of genuine rage has been non-existent, despite attempts to suggest that nearly a hundred people have become ATM ‘martyrs’. Nor have fantastic stories of a military takeover and a ‘conspiracy’ in the skies been greeted with anything but amusement.

The past month has seen a spectacular display of popular resilience that has broken the stereotype of an excitable India. The only place this extraordinary show of national determination has not been in evidence is Parliament, where civility and decorum have been put on hold. The tragic mismatch between how the electors and the elected conduct themselves is intriguing. Or is it?
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