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UNDERLINING that “maximum Opposition unity” was the need of the hour, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Friday urged Opposition parties to work out their own agenda and move forward on it rather than keep reacting to that set by the ruling BJP. He was participating in a panel discussion to mark the launch of Fearless Opposition, a collection of columns (Across the Aisle) by former Finance Minister P Chidambaram in The Indian Express published by Rupa. The launch was attended by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, too. Pointing at Rahul, Kumar said, “Why will they (BJP) set the agenda? Why not Rahulji sets the agenda (agenda wo set kyon karenge, agenda Rahul ji kyon nahin set karenge?).”
Kumar, who yesterday visited Gondia in Maharashtra to attend a function at a college set up by NCP leader Praful Patel, today held talks with CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and CPI’s D Raja and Sudhakar Reddy. In the evening, he joined the panel with Yechury, Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal, where he said, “Right now, the need of the nation is Opposition unity. The day this Opposition unity comes, you see what happens…There is nothing to fear. Everything will be all right. We should follow our agenda 90 percent and only 10 percent we should react to the agenda of others. We should move forward after setting our own agenda with maximum opposition unity.”
Kumar was referring to Chidambaram’s opening comment that he needed to underline “fearless” in the title of the book because “too much fear is stalking the country,” — in institutions, in the bureaucracy, in Dalits and minorities, in civil society and activists. “We need to send a message that we are democratic and fearless. There are enough cheerleaders and drumbeaters,” he said. Sibal said that India, as of today, was not a “fearless” nation. He claimed fear had gripped the bureaucracy and sections of the media as well. The panel discussion was moderated by journalist and former NDTV editor Barkha Dutt.
Yechury drew the attention of the panel to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks in Haridwar today warning the Congress to “hold its tongue” saying he had everyone’s “janam patri” (horoscope). “This sort of language…this is not the level of politics in which we have grown. Moreover, as Prime Minister, if you have the janam patri, put it out and take action,” he said. Kumar said: “The reply, the language shows they (BJP) are in trouble somewhere. The use of (this kind of) language shows that one who is speaking it is facing some difficulties.”
Modi’s “raincoat” jibe at Manmohan Singh was also discussed and Chidambaram strongly defended the Congress’s reaction saying that it could have been ignored had it been made in a remote town or in a party meeting but the floor of the House was a “sanctified” place. Kumar said that his initial support to demonetisation was because of claims made by the government that it would curb black money and fake currency but “now it should be asked how much black money has come back, how much of fake currency was detected.”
He said he agreed with Manmohan Singh’s contention that it displayed “monumental mismanagement.” “What Doctor Saheb (Singh) said is right. It is indeed a failure. The Central government should tell what benefits accrued due to it,” he said. He also accused the Modi government of “totally diverting” the issue through the cashless or less-cash pitch after demonetisation. “Some people are adept in diverting issues. They are now saying that they will double the income of farmers in five years. They are not going to stay in power for (the next) five years (paanch saal tak to rahne waale hi nahin hain).”
Nitish Kumar’s anti-BJP pitch and his meetings with Opposition leaders, particularly from Left, comes in the backdrop of speculation of his cosying up to BJP. When asked by Dutt to respond to speculation about his possible “ghar wapasi” to the BJP, Nitish laughed and dismissed the speculation. He said that while he was in the NDA, he had supported UPA’s decisions including its candidate for President, Pranab Mukherjee. “Do not go for these things. See what happens ultimately. The habit of some people should be understood,” he said reminding that how a newspaper reported that he had met BJP chief Amit Shah even when it did not happen.
Yechury, whose party has supported governments by the Third Front as well as the Congress, said that Opposition unity has always been on the basis of programmes. He downplayed the issue of a single national leader. In a jocular vein, he said that he had the patent for the term, “outside support.” “Opposition unity can and will come on certain set of agenda, policy and programmes, that a common minimum programme. I don’t think lack of personality is a problem. Moreover, there is no dearth of personalities,” he said. Congress leader Kapil Sibal said there is a “need to build a new consensus”.
Asked why the Opposition did not have a counter-narrative to that of the Government, Chidambaram said that it is wrong to assume that the political narrative cannot be changed and cited the victory of Nitish-led coalition in Bihar and the “upstart” victory in Delhi (AAP) as examples of parties having “defeated the Hindutva narrative”. “These are two fine examples in 24 months,” he said. Sibal interjected that the “alternative narrative has to be a civilised one. The Nitish narrative was a civilised one. The other was not civilised.” Chidambaram called demonetisation a “terrible mistake”, which had interrupted India’s growth story and said that the “shadow of demonetisation” would extend across 2017-18 and a bit of 2018-19 as well. He declined to accept that there was a popular support to the move asking “whether this is popular support or popular silence” underlining the difference between the two.
He alleged that the government’s intent to carry out demonetisation may be one of the reasons why former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan was forced to go. He dared the government to make public a “five-page note” of the RBI sent to it around the time when RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan had resigned in June last year and claimed that the note gave arguments why the currency ban exercise should not be carried out. Sibal said that it was important to scrutinise how Rs 15 lakh crore got back into the system. “There has to be a nexus within the system,” he said suggesting corruption in the demonetisation exercise.
Yechury said the jury is out on the issue and the support is “anti black-money” and “not pro-demonetisation”. He drew a parallel between the people’s response to notebandi (demonetisation) with that of nasbandi (sterilisation campaign) during Emergency. “At that time nobody spoke against nasbandi but people spoke through vote. This time also, nobody spoke against notebandi but they will speak through vote,” he said.
Alleging that “powers that be unleashed people to attack Rajan,” Chidambaram said that his impression was that the former RBI Governor would have agreed to a second term of two years and if nudged he would have stayed another eight months. “But they made it so difficult for him to continue with self-respect and dignity. In retrospect, it appears to me that one of the reasons why Raghu was made to leave, why conditions were created to make him leave was that they wanted to demonetise currency and Rahul was implacably against demonetisation of currency,” the former Finance Minister said.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi, Ahmed Patel, Mani Shankar Aiyar, K C Tyagi, Jay Panda, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, were among those who attended the event. Welcoming the panel, Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express, said that the book was not just a celebration of fearlessness but also an affirmation of two fundamental principles of public discourse that are so fuzzy these days. “One, that facts do matter even in what is fashionably called the post-truth world. Two, the most effective way to ensure that you are heard and taken seriously is when you listen to those who disagree with you. Each column of Chidambaram has both these qualities in equal measure,” Goenka said. And they have a natural home in The Indian Express, he said. He quoted Raghuram Rajan’s foreword to say that in his columns, Chidambaram has a deep understanding, an “empathy,” for the position he chooses to criticise.
Rupa publisher Kapish Mehra said that Chidambaram’s book was an “important” one — the fact that the word “fearless” had to be used with “Opposition” was a pointer to the times.