Economists can use smoke and mirrors to create artificial reality and get away with it. Numbers, after all, render themselves to creative interpretations when mixed with human situations. But politicians don't have the same liberty; they are accountable for their actions. So while economists can keep projecting several realities, both rosy and gloomy, on demonetisation, the political leadership that took the call on it cannot evade questions. That is the reason Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to provide answers to Rahul Gandhi.
The Congress vice president on Thursday asked Modi to answer a few basic questions including the black money recovered from the demonetisation process; the economic loss to the nation; and the number of deaths so far. The more important is the poser on the process of preparedness followed by the government before it announced demonetisation. Why were experts, economists and RBI not consulted? He asked. While the second part can be explained away by the government, answering the first could be a problem.
It's obvious by now that preparedness for such a massive exercise was not adequate. Cash availability is still a problem. There's no guarantee that things would improve within a couple of months. There was little consideration for the fact that bank officials could connive with hoarders to exchange old notes and that ATMs needed to be recalibrated and fed cash quickly. The possible impact on jobs and economic activity at the lower end was also not given due attention to. No matter how economists try to justify the current pain with future gains for people, the reality is too stark to be brushed aside.
Someone has to own responsibility. It is heartening that the prime minster has not run away from the situation by blaming others, which politicians usually do. He has made it clear that he stands by his decision and would defend it no matter how the political opposition treats it. Yet, that does not absolve his government of the guilt of oversight. The country has a right to know what went wrong. The popular goodwill that the prime minister enjoys should not be an excuse to evade answers. If there are no answers now there's a possibility that such mistakes would be committed later.
It is the responsibility of the opposition to ask questions. Rahul Gandhi and others have done well to put them bluntly. At a rally in Dehradun yesterday the prime minister claimed that the issues of fake currency, terrorism, human trafficking and drug mafia were dealt with in one stroke through demonetisation. The opposition must ask how. The mumbo jumbo of economists and the brute power of right wing trolls would not do here. Modi must address it as a political leader. The country appears in doubt whether the whole exercise to trash high denomination notes was worth the effort. He needs to clear it. If he seeks time for it, waiting for the results to show, it is fine.
The rules of democracy demand such a gesture from him. As a leader with vision he has similar reforms lined up. The country needs to have some idea of the cost, particularly the human cost, and benefit of every such move. Otherwise, it would appear he is being arbitrary in his actions and the PMO is riding rough-shod over all other voices in the ministry. The country would not mind if he admits that he made a mistake.
As for Rahul, he is focused in his line of attack for a change. It helps his case that he is more articulate this time round and dealing in specifics instead of generalities. His stand on demonetisation has certainly added to his stature as a politician. This could be a new beginning for him.