The government’s move to recall high-value banknotes came under fire in Parliament and the Supreme Court on Friday, with judges questioning cash rationing by banks and opposition lawmakers accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “running away” from a debate.
As a lingering cash crunch seemed to temper the initial euphoria over the high-stake policy move – aimed at curbing black money and counterfeit currency – the government has appeared less effusive about the November 8 decision. And with only three working days left, it wants to see off the winter session without any major embarrassment in Parliament.
So much so that ruling lawmakers were seen on Friday preventing a debate in the Lok Sabha, prompting opposition charges that the government didn’t want to be called out on the so-called demonetisation move which suddenly culled 86% of cash in the economy.
The Opposition had initially sought a debate with a vote on demonetisation but later relented to one without voting. Only this time, the government has seemed reluctant to hold one at all. A senior minister told HT that it was not a “favourable time” to have a debate in Parliament.
“If they allow me to speak in Parliament, you shall see an earthquake will come,” Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi told journalists. “This is the biggest scam in India’s history. If I say this inside the House, Modiji will not be able to sit.”
The Parliament’s winter session has so far been lost to disruptions by opposition parties, but, in a role reversal on Friday, BJP chief whip Rakesh Singh was seen gesturing to ruling NDA MPs to get up and shout the opposition MPs down.
For the government, the day was no better at the Supreme Court, which wondered if the restriction on withdrawal of “legitimate and taxed money” violated fundamental rights. Cash withdrawals from banks are capped at Rs.24, 000 a week, but most banks are unable to pay even that.
A bench headed by Chief Justice TS Thakur asked the government to consider fixing a minimum assured withdrawal which banks cannot refuse and allow district cooperative banks to accept banned 500-and 1000-rupee notes after stringent verification of the customers.
The court told Mukul Rohatgi, the government’s top law officer, to report back the progress on this on December 14 when it will issue an interim order to reduce people’s hardship.
“Did you have any projections as to how much will you receive and how much notes were to be printed? What would be your gestation period?” the bench asked Rohatgi, wondering whether there was any application of “mind” or “planning” before the demonetisation announcement.
A constitution bench will be set-up to hear 25 petitions that have challenged the government’s demonetisation move. The court said it will frame 11 questions for the consideration of the constitution bench.
Back in Parliament, ruling party lawmakers refused to allow Gandhi to initiate a fresh debate while parliamentary affairs minister Ananth Kumar demanded an apology from the opposition benches for disrupting the proceedings during the past days. At one point, BJP leader LK Advani was seen asking his party MPs not to disrupt the proceedings.
Later, a visibly upset Sumitra Mahajan, the Lok Sabha Speaker, adjourned the Lok Sabha till Wednesday morning.
“Jao sab chhutti par (Go on leave, everyone),” she said on the microphone. Her rebuke came a day after President Pranab Mukherjee castigated MPs for disruptions, asking them to run Parliament “for god’s sake.”
With only three working days left this session, the government is unwilling to allow opposition leaders an opportunity to attack it in Parliament for people’s hardship due to demonetisation, said sources.
“The Prime Minister is giving speeches across the country but is afraid of coming to the Lok Sabha and is not willing to sit there,” Rahul Gandhi said, wondering about the reason for this “nervousness”.
He said the government has changed the narrative on demonetisation from black money to counterfeit currency and now to campaign about turning a cashless society.
The Congress vice-president demanded that Modi come to the House so that it could be discussed “what demonetisation is, who has benefited from this decision and what it means for whom”.