Recalling high-value banknotes was a right decision made at the right time as the economy was in good health and there was a brief lull in business after the peak festive season, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Tuesday.
In what was his first defence in Parliament of the “demonetisation” of 500-and 1000-rupee, Modi compared his November 8 move to fight tax evasion and illicit wealth with surgery on a human body.
“When can you have an operation? When the body is healthy. The economy was doing well and thus our decision was taken at the right time,” a combative Modi said, peppering his speech with stinging attacks on the Congress for opposing the “demonetisation” move.
“Like Swachh Bharat, the decision on demonetisation is a movement to clean India.”
The prime minister said the cash clampdown was ordered after the festive season business had peaked with Diwali and there was a slack period when businesses usually took it easy.
“Changes don’t happen on a whim, proper process and planning is being followed,” he said, rejecting opposition charges that the government was ill-prepared for a decision that drained out 86% of the cash in the economy. The move triggered a severe cash crunch in the initial weeks and disrupted business and trade that hit the poor the most.
“After demonetisation we did our best to help people who were facing issues, we also had to tweak rules to stop those who were trying to game the system, those adept at theft,” he said.
Modi said he also was ready to face the consequences.
“Aise aise logon ki musibat hui hai. Mujhe pata hai mere upar kya kya zulm ho sakta hai (Because of the kind of people who were affected…I know the kind of trouble I could face).
Calling demonetisation a “pro-poor” move, he said the government was clear from the beginning that “we are ready for a discussion on demonetisation but some were keener on TV bytes and not debates.”
He also said his government had done more to fight corruption than any other government in the past and, to make his point, cited the formation of a special investigation team on black money on the directive of the Supreme Court.
Modi said the government had taken a series of steps to curb the shadow economy – from applying higher taxes to jewellery and writing a stringent new law against ‘benami’ property to launching a voluntary income disclosure scheme to enhance compliance.
“Before May 2014, the opposition benches used to shout about how much money was eaten up in the coal scam or that scam. Now the opposition shouts, how much has Modi brought back. This is a matter of great satisfaction for me,” the prime minister said.
Modi, who rode to power in May 2014 promising to fight corruption, was referring to his campaign pledge of bringing back illicit wealth parked abroad.
“You can oppose Modi, that is your job,” he said.
“But if something is genuinely good you should lend your support to it.”
The Congress, however, was not impressed by Modi’s defence and reiterated its demand for an apology.
“Demonetisation has wrecked the lives of the people…the least the PM could have done is apologise to the nation. The government is yet to offer condolences to the families of the victims of demonetisation,” Congress spokesperson Gaurav Gogoi said.
The Congress links the death of more than 100 people to the note-ban.