If the Prime Minister keeps his promise to turn up at a public square and face the consequences of demonetisation, a sneak preview of what lies in store was provided by Rahul Gandhi on Thursday (August 30) in his most direct attack yet on Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
At play will be questions on Rafale, Anil Ambani, cease and desist notices, alleged crony capitalism, demonetisation season deposits in a Gujarat bank and a “hesitant” media.
“Prime Minister Modi should answer why he inflicted a deep wound like demonetisation when issues like unemployment and low GDP rate remained,” Rahul told a media conference a day after the RBI said that 99.3 per cent of the demonetised notes had been deposited in banks.
The RBI figure has struck at the root of the contention that demonetisation would expose a mountain of black money, bringing into sharp focus Modi’s impassioned declaration in November 2016 that he would accept any punishment at a ” chauraha (crossroads or public square)” if it was proved that he made a mistake.
At the media conference, Rahul listed a slew of charges, prompting the BJP to dismiss them as a “parroting” of old charges. Many of the allegations were indeed not new but there appeared to be a cohesive strategy behind the Congress president’s offensive.
Allegations had arisen that the crackdown on activists and lawyers accused of being in cahoots with Maoists was timed to deflect attention from the Rafale controversy as well as the RBI annual report that listed the demonetisation data.
However, Rahul has now sought to interlink the key questions raised by the three issues with the objective of keeping them alive and denying a respite to Modi, who has never addressed a media conference on any of these issues but has confined himself to emailed interviews.
At the outset, Rahul touched upon a theme that sought to underscore the perceived atmosphere in the country.
“How are you?” Rahul asked the journalists. “Is your mood fine?…. Mine is good. Are you writing freely these days? Or under pressure? A little (pressure)?
“There is a general mood in the country… people are scared to speak… even the press feel so…. journalists have a hesitation in writing….”
Rahul’s attack on the demonetisation focused on two factors – he suggested that crony capitalists benefited and others, including a traditional constituency of the BJP, suffered.
The demonetisation was a scam devised to help 15 to 20 capitalist friends of Prime Minister Narendra Modi legalise their black money and aid the BJP politically and financially, Rahul said. He added that an apology – which the Congress had demanded on Wednesday – would not suffice.
“You apologise when you make a mistake, but demonetisation was not a mistake. It was a direct effort by the Prime Minister to help his corporate friends who helped him during his campaign… and continue to ensure him saturation coverage on television,” Rahul said. “Demonetisation was designed to allow Modiji’s crony capitalist friends to convert their black money into white.”
Rahul based the demand for an explanation from Modi on the suffering of small and mid-size businessmen and shopkeepers, farmers, women and jobless youths, insisting that the Prime Minister should answer them. “He (Modi) took money out of everyone’s pockets and put it into the pockets of India’s biggest crony capitalists,” Rahul alleged.
His focus seemed to be particularly on small and mid-size businessmen, long regarded as the BJP’s core constituency. “Demonetisation was a direct attack on small and middle businessmen to destroy them and open the way for big businesses like Amazon,” he said.
Seeking to hit Modi with his own jibe that nothing had happened in India in the 70 years before him, Rahul said: “Yes, Modiji is right that in 70 years no Indian Prime Minister has blown the economy to smithereens like he has. It was no jumla (figure of speech); it was a scam.”
Rahul cited how a cooperative bank in Gujarat, of which BJP president Amit Shah was a director during the demonetisation, received a huge amount of deposits in banned notes.
An RTI response, flagged by the Congress in June, had said the Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank had received Rs 745.5 crore worth of deposits in demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes in five days before such banks were barred from accepting the recalled notes. Nabard, which oversees the rural credit economy, had later sought to give a clean chit to the deposits.
Asked about the criminal defamation case filed against him by the cooperative bank, Rahul drew attention to the Rafale deal and the Reliance group of Anil Ambani which had served cease-and-desist notices on several Congress functionaries.
“Anil Ambani has filed cases against practically everyone in the Congress. File as many defamation suits as you want. But defamation suits will not change the facts. The truth is that demonetisation was done to benefit crony capitalists and the Rafale deal favours one particular corporate friend,” Rahul said.
On Rafale, Rahul quoted conflicting statements from the government and the Prime Minister to say “the man is lying”.