As he stepped into Parliament for the first time on that day in May 2014, Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi had bowed his forehead to touch the steps of the place he described as “the temple of democracy”. More than two years later, in the aftermath of a daring move against black money that has disrupted the economy but that could be a gamechanger in the long term, Prime Minister Modi’s silence in Parliament has become an issue. It is not that the PM has not spoken on demonetisation in public in the last few days. He has seized several opportunities and forums — in no particular order, a rally in Ghazipur in poll-bound UP, another one in Bathinda in Punjab, also a poll-bound state, while laying the foundation for an airport in Mopa in Goa, speaking at the release of a book in memory of late BJP veteran Kedarnath Sahni or at a function to mark Constitution Day in the capital. But in the parliamentary session that began days after the November 8 announcement denotifying Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes, he has made only the brief appearance and has not spoken on demonetisation inside the House. This seems at odds with that 2014 freezeframe. It also sends some unfortunate signals about his government’s openness to debate.
The irony is that, for the most part, in the wake of the PM’s announcement of demonetisation, the Opposition parties have seemed more overtaken than oppositional. Mostly, they have criticised the implementation, not the policy itself. There have also been visible divisions within Opposition ranks about the precise form and course of protest. If the PM were to engage with people’s representatives across the aisle in the House, he might well find that his task is easier than he calculates. That he is not doing so, however, can be read as part of a larger political pattern: In its two and a half years so far, this government has shown a recurring unwillingness to hear out its opponents. On too many occasions, the government has avoided and evaded debate by simply labelling its critics, and imputing motives to them.
After demonetisation, too, the government has sought to paint all those who disagree with it as unpatriotic and/or corrupt. When former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rose in Parliament on Thursday to describe the policy as marked by “monumental mismanagement” — even he made it clear that he did not disagree with its objectives — the government immediately responded by reminding him of the scams on his watch, including 2G. The government is basically saying that it will not listen, or talk to, anybody who differs and disagrees with it. Regardless of the outcome of the demonetisation policy, this is an impression that no ruling dispensation in a parliamentary democracy can afford to send out. It could also undermine the powerful message that was first heard on the evening of November 8.