The Parliament of India seems to have been held hostage by a persistent protestation pyrotechnic unfurled by the elected political opposition both in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha for the most part of the majority BJP-led NDA government since it came to power in May 2014.
The opposition spares nothing – from the prime minister’s foreign trips to the current demonetisation of two high-value currency notes, Rs.1,000 and Rs.500 – to disrupt critical sessions in Parliament which sit only four times a year.
Rajya Sabha, where the opposition has a bigger strength than the NDA, the ruling cliché, has remained nearly paralysed. In Lok Sabha, in which the NDA has over a two-third majority, less than two dozen opposition MPs have been persistently shouting in the well almost daily during its sessions to disrupt the proceedings. This is unfortunate and must stop for the normal operation of Parliament, recognised as the citadel of democracy.
Forceful debates and learned discussions should, instead, tear into wrong anti-common man policies of the government in power in the highest tradition of democracy. Nearly 50 outstanding bills are pending before the House, some of them are for many years. Neither the government nor the opposition seems to be keen on moving them to become law.
This is not to suggest that opposition protests are all wrong. Protestations both inside and outside the Parliament too are part of a common democratic tradition. But, they should not stop debates on subjects at issue.
The current spell of protests in both the houses of parliament over demonetization may not be branded as a wholly undesirable disruption considering the untold misery and confusion the government’s unprepared action has caused to the country’s common man as the banking system has nearly failed to meet the currency demand of depositors. For the last one month, depositors are not being allowed to withdraw their funds from banks as per their requirement.
Demonetisation has also made a mockery of the promise held by the RBI governor to pay the bearers of currency notes the exchange value of money, making it a legal tender. Whatever be the purpose of demonetisation of this scale immobilising about 68 percent of the total value of currency in a country of over 1.3 billion people and the world’s largest home of the poor earning less than two dollars (Rs.140) per day, this need to be debated seriously in Parliament.
A parliamentary paralysis of proceedings is only helping the government to pursue its agenda which seems to be even unclear with the authorities, who have apparently shifted the demonetisation focus from the original target at black money, fake currency and terror funding to digitisation of commerce towards a ‘cashless’ economy. Hopefully, the opposition may be aware that the propagation of a so-called ‘cashless’ economy is a myth.
It does not exist even in the world’s most sophisticated small economies such as Switzerland and Denmark. And, it is more so in a country like India, where over 60 percent of mobile phone users use the instrument mostly on voice calls due to lack of education to fiddle with various ‘Apps’ and habitual distrust for invisible money transfers. The majority of Indians are not smart enough to put up with hidden data-fed income and smartphones to meet the demand for a digital economy.
A serious political opposition in Parliament must allow a proper debate in Parliament on the demonetisation and its severe impact on the common man. It must debate on the forcible and futile attempts of the government to implement a ‘cashless’ economy and a smartphone powered commerce.
Possibly, not even many BJP or NDA members of Parliament would agree with the government action, and they may directly or indirectly support the opposition on the note ban issue, if it is put to the vote, ignoring whips from BJP and its allies for support.
Now or never is the time for a serious debate and discussion on the issue of demonetisation in Parliament as the next Parliamentary session starts with the presentation of the national budget. It may be too late for any useful discussion on demonetisation on the floor of the House later although the situation is unlikely to become normal by then.
Even one month after the demonetisation, banks are severely short of funds to meet the demand of depositors seeking to withdraw money as per their preferences. Most banks have put a cap on withdrawals. For instance, in Delhi, HDFC bank branches issue only 40 withdrawal tokens per day in the morning to its depositors, and not many are prepared to pay cash up to Rs. 24,000 each as per the RBI directive citing cash shortage.
Insufficient bank ATMs often fail to work. Office attendance in most cities, including Delhi, has gone for a six as people start queuing up before bank branches as early as at 6 AM to collect withdrawal tokens. And, most customers are thrust with Rs. 2,000 notes which are difficult to change against small purchases.
The opposition must voice the concerns of the common man and the economy by using the constitutional process and not disrupting it.
The persistently unruly parliamentary practice by the Opposition has been criticised by such persons of eminence as the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, himself a former Congressman for the best part of his political life, and the most veteran Parliamentarian and BJP’s own Lal Krishna Advani. The latter is said to be unhappy about the role of his ruling party and the Lok Sabha speaker about the way the parliamentary proceedings are being handled by the government and senior ruling party members to defuse the situation.
Despite its overwhelming majority in Lok Sabha, the ruling NDA combine and the speaker of the House do not seem to be doing enough for a healthy debate and discussion, or even voting, on demonetisation in the lower house. This does not portend well for the coming budget session and the government’s most ambitious plan to implement the GST regime from sometime next year.
Although Parliament has passed the GST bill (constitutional amendment), opposition states can still put a spanner on its early and easy implementation. Neither the ruling combine nor the opposition in Parliament should perform in isolation. It is not good for the country and its democratic tradition.