Mahua Moitra 

The Honourable Prime Minister’s address to the nation on New Year‘s Eve adhered to his usual style – it was full of sound and fury and signified absolutely nothing. Rather, it heralded in a new low in the affairs of the nation. At the end of the promised 50-day period of state-inflicted abrogation of constitutional rights on the vast majority of innocent law-abiding Indians, the PM chose to ring out the old and ring in a new set of falsehoods.

It is necessary to strip off the cloak of verity Modiji seems to be clothing himself in even at the risk of abuse and invective by the ever-vigilant army of trolls, the vanar sena of the social media (for whom the essence of democracy lies not only in their being entitled to their own opinion, but more important, to their own facts). Quite like the disrobing of the fabled emperor’s new clothes that required a child to publicly counter with fact an oft-repeated lie masquerading as truth. It is indeed an unfortunate day when the man holding the highest elected office in the land also chooses to propound his own brand of “sachai” based not on fact or accountability, but on rhetoric, empty promise and repackaged half-truths.

Fifty days on from November 8th, the Prime Minister applauded his “pyaare deshwasiyon” for joining him in the fight against the three stated evils of corruption, black money and counterfeit currency. Laughably, he even invoked parallels with the border wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971. Apparently the lack of widespread popular revolt against his government was sufficient proof of unflinching support for this undemocratic and constitutionally invalid move! Did no one beat up a bank manager? Did no one set fire to an ATM machine or a bank branch? Did no one lay siege to the residence of the Finance Minister, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India or even the Prime Minister? No, no one at all. Their basic law-abiding instincts, their inherent patience and resignation to their destiny made every poor farmer and every construction-site worker wait out the queues silently for the 50-day period. The lack of looting, rioting and arson was no evidence of mass support for demonetisation as the mother of all cleansing rituals. It was merely proof of India’s forbearance.

Rhetoric aside, the Prime Minister offered no data, no statistics, no information at all as to what the real benefits had been so far, even using just the three parameters he put out. Just how much had corruption been reduced? What was the quantum of black money unearthed? By what percentage had counterfeiting been reduced? Show us the numbers, Mr. Prime Minister. The nation is still waiting.

In totally unprecedented dark comedy on national television, audiences were treated to the unseating of a Finance Minister on live TV by his own Prime Minister who chose to deliver an impromptu budget speech complete with sector allocations and plans. What made this doubly ironic was that there is no hard evidence to suggest that the Finance Minister had even been consulted on demonetisation in the first place! The RBI stonewalled a legitimate RTI query on whether Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramamian and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley were consulted before the demonetisation, using the excuse that the query was “in the nature of seeking opinion from the CPIO.” However, two former Commissioners of Information, AN Tiwari and Shailesh Gandhi, both disagreed and pointed out that whether someone was consulted or not was a matter of public record, and was a fact sought by an RTI applicant and could not be termed as an opinion. They were both of the unequivocal view that the Central Public Information Officer of the RBI was completely wrong in rejecting the query. The same RTI query remained unanswered by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry even 30 days after its filing.

To crores of farmers who had unwittingly constituted the oblations in Modiji’s great demonetisation yagna, he sprung another cruel joke. Rabi sowing, he said, was actually up by 6.9%. The truth is that for the vast majority of Rabi crops in India, the sowing season is from the beginning of October to mid-November. As of November 11, government data shows that Rabi sowing was already up 15.7% on the previous year. This means that the period from November 11 to December 30 actually registered a steep percentage decline in sowing! Rice, whose sowing begins later in mid-November, is down 28% from last year (to 10.7 from 14.8 lakh hectares last year)! This is data publicly available on the Ministry of Agriculture’s website backed by a note published by the Press Information Bureau, not disseminated by the alleged propaganda machinery of the Opposition.

These were just the evasions and the half-truths. The downright untruths are even more worrying. The Prime Minister declared in his address that he was “introducing a nation-wide scheme for pregnant women whereby 6,000 rupees will be transferred directly to their bank accounts. The sorry truth is that the Section 4(b) of the National Food Security Act 2013 already provided a universal maternity benefit of Rs. 6,000 (following from the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana, IGMSY, 2010 which gave an allowance of Rs. 4000 to pregnant and lactating mothers in 53 pilot districts). The Ministry of Women and Child Development, when questioned by the Supreme Court on non-implementation, filed a misleading affidavit on October 30, 2015, stating that the government would extend coverage of the IGMSY program from 53 districts to 200 by 2015-16 and to all districts by 2016-17. The budgetary allocation for IGMSY in 2016-17, in direct contrast to this claim, remains an abysmally low Rs. 400 crore (unchanged from the previous two years), which makes it impossible to increase coverage from the 53 pilot districts! You did not introduce the scheme, Mr. Prime Minister. You did not even implement it when you could have. Your ministry misled and prevaricated in a sworn document before the highest court of the land – you too are following in their inglorious footsteps by misleading the very people who placed you in office.

The sops announced for senior citizens, aged 60 and above, include 8% interest in fixed-term deposits for a minimum of ten years – hardly much use in a country whose average life expectancy 68.3 years. Nine out of ten seniors will in all probability need to withdraw their deposits before the end of the ten year period, and will lose the higher interest rate which will then be deducted from the principal amount remaining. Net gain equals zero.

The speech abounded with countless examples of flawed economic theory. The most obvious one is that notes of large denomination – apparently – increase prices and inflation. Perfect logic no doubt then to replace notes of Rs. 1,000 with those of Rs. 2,000, Sir. Or that political parties should reject a “holier-than thou” approach to their funding, a statement that would be laudable were it not so deeply steeped in hypocrisy. The Delhi High Court in a landmark judgement delivered in March 2014 found the BJP guilty of violating FCRA (foreign exchange) norms for accepting donations from a London-based mining firm. In the budget session of 2016, the government conveniently brought in an amendment to the FCRA Act, 2010 (with retrospective effect no less) via a money bill route that bypassed the need for a discussion in parliament, which ensured that donations made by foreign companies will not attract the provisions of the FCRA Act!

Mr. Prime Minister – you spoke of sachai and achhai in your speech. What is perhaps more relevant is a Hindi phrase we all heard in childhood – Jhooth Boley Kaua Kaatey. We still hope the dark crow will not grow into a bird of greater ill-omen.

(Mahua Moitra is a member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly and General Secretary of the West Bengal Trinamool Congress.)