When demonetisation was announced on November 8, Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal realised he had a major problem on his hands, particularly as there were by-elections the following week. Some 20 lakh Assam tea garden workers are paid their wages in cash and with banks closed, it was impossible to get them to release money on pay day, even after the finance ministry was approached. Sonowal came up with an ingenious solution. Tea garden owners instructed their banks to transfer the wages into the National Disaster Relief Fund and the money was subsequently transferred to the offices of the district collectors, from where it was distributed to the labourers.
He may be a BJP ally, but Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal is also conscious of the realities of India. He is sceptical of the Centre’s claim that the shortfall of currency can be offset by digital transactions and plastic cards. Sukhbir was also doubtful when a senior secretary in the Union finance ministry told him she had bought her vegetables from the market using a smart app on her phone. Sukhbir himself does not carry a mobile phone.
Sukhbir Badal took a jibe at the Congress’ campaign strategist Prashant Kishor for setting up a programme similar to Modi’s Chai Pe Charcha for Amarinder Singh, Sukhbir’s arch rival in Punjab. With Kishor naming the Congress chief ministerial aspirant’s chat show with the voters Coffee with Captain, Sukhbir pointed out that coffee was not a beverage that really resonated with the people of Punjab. Instead, he said, it should have been Patiala peg with Kaptan or Lassi with Kaptan.
Cancelled press meet
The Thursday before last, the Congress alerted the capital’s media that an important announcement would be made at 24, Akbar Road, the party’s headquarters, at 8.30 pm. Television channels even lined up speakers since insiders at the party office claimed it would be the news of the year. But the much hyped meet was cancelled at the last minute. One lame-duck excuse proffered was that since former prime minister Manmohan Singh had spoken on demonetisation earlier that day in Parliament, the party did not want to steal his thunder. A week later, there is still no sign of the momentous promised news. Speculation among those covering the Congress beat is that the cancelled press conference was to announce a greater role for Priyanka Vadra in the party.
United but separate
Opposition MPs admit that the demonetisation protest on November 28 was largely a flop, except in the Left-ruled states of Kerala and Tripura. Most blame Narendra Modi for deliberately upping the ante by claiming that the Opposition “had announced a Bharat bandh” in retaliation to his “note bandh”, when only the Left had called for a total shutdown. Mamata Banerjee had simply announced a Jan Aakrosh Diwas. The protest also exposed the cracks in the Opposition ranks. A TMC MP complained that while Banerjee was focused on the hardship faced by the common man, the Congress, Left and SP distracted from the main issue by demanding a joint parliamentary committee to look into allegations that the government had tipped off certain BJP office-bearers, who had invested in land before demonetisation. Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik confounded the Opposition by refusing to join the protest and Lalu Yadav was belatedly persuaded to support Nitish. A senior Congress leader brushed aside the differences: “At least we agreed on a date and the same goal.’’ Sitaram Yechury observed, “We will march separately; we will strike together.”
Heralding a return
To blunt the Enforcement Directorate’s case against the Gandhis for allegedly misappropriating the shares of the Association of Journals (Ltd), which ran the now defunct National Herald newspaper, a National Herald website was started a month back. The website has the domain Nationalheraldindia.com since the title ‘National Herald’ has already been appropriated. Professional journalists have been hired as staff with Neelabh Mishra as the editor. Congress stalwarts P Chidambaram, Jairam Ramesh and Shashi Tharoor have contributed articles. Ramesh has been asked by Rahul Gandhi to play a more hands-on role.