By calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi's demonetisation move worse than the Uri terrorist attack, that led to the deaths of 21 Indian Army jawans, senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad ignited a new kind of public discourse on Thursday – of comparing terrorism with corruption.
The Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha found substance for his logic after some media reports correlated the deaths of around 40 persons due to demonetisation – who had died of fatigue and exhaustion while standing for long hours in queues to withdraw cash – with the jawans who had lost their lives in the Uri attack.
"Pakistani terrorists did not kill even half the people in Uri than those who have died due to the government's (demonetisation) policy," Azad said.
Azad's comparison of Modi's move with the Uri attack was seen as imprudent and uncalled for by many, especially since it came from a person who has been the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, a Union minister for several terms and is one of the leaders perceived to be close to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
As it is, post the Uri attack, the nation's mood has been that of aggressive nationalism, which eventually culminated with the Modi government conducting a surgical military strike across the border in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
Also, in his address to the nation on 8 November, Modi had said that the rationale behind this unprecedented action was to cripple corruption, black money, hawala money, drug-trade, fake currency, and Naxal and terror financing. Azad's statement directly and crudely negated all of these objectives.
Right around the time when Azad made this controversial statement, elsewhere in Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal launched a tirade of his own against the PM. Speaking at the Azadpur fruit and vegetable market, the Aam Aadmi Party chief questioned: "Who is responsible for the 40 deaths?" Additionally, he and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee warned Modi to roll-back the demonetisation scheme in the next three days, stating that otherwise it would lead to nationwide protests against the current regime.
Most senior BJP leaders ignored their statements, except for Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who strongly condemned their demand for the demonetisation roll back.
The BJP leaders, however, pounced on Azad and Congress for his remark. Information and Broadcasting Minister M Venkaiah Naidu was on his feet in the Upper House on Thursday, demanding an apology and blasting Azad for his insensitive, "pro-Pakistan" remark.
Within a matter of minutes, the public discourse around demonetisation took a new turn. Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh came to Azad's rescue, saying that there was no need for him to apologise. That provided even more ammunition for the BJP to target Azad and Congress.
Jaitley went ballistic against Azad, asking "what is Congress' interest in siding with black money and corruption?" The black money was also being used for terror funding, he added. Jaitley's contention was that the Opposition didn't have much to say in Parliament, which was apparent from the disruption tactics employed by them in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday.
He also claimed that money disbursement to the common man was easing with each passing day and added that all ATMs will become functional very soon. He then went on to compliment the chief ministers of various states for playing their part in the demonetisation.
Bihar Chief Minister and JD (U) president Nitish Kumar has publicly come out in support of the demonetisation. It's a different matter though that the JD (U) Parliamentary party has not been in sync with Nitish's position, as they had attended various coordination meetings convened by the Congress to come up with a joint floor strategy to oppose the government on the subject.
The ripple effects of Azad's intemperate remarks would echo, with all its public dimensions, both inside and outside the Parliament for days to come.
Though demonetisation has affected almost every single citizen of this 1.3 billion strong nation, it is also true that a war against corruption cannot be won without winning over public perception. And the latter part can only be achieved if demonetisation is given an emotive spin. For now, it seems that Azad's remark would help BJP to take a step towards achieving that required spin.