NEW DELHI: It is for perhaps the first time since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 that he has had to share the headlines in the morning newspapers with the Opposition leaders, on a day when both sides have spoken. In fact in several newspapers the press conference by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on demonetisation got the first space, as against PM Modi’s comments hitting out at the opposition saying they are upset as they are “choron ke sardar” (leaders of thieves).”

2016 has ended with a direct face off between PM Modi and an assertive Opposition. It has also ended amidst the first glimmerings of Opposition unity outside Parliament, with the Congress trying to become the catalyst for a new front again. So far the response has been restricted to the Trinamool Congress, the DMK, the Janata Dal(S), Rashtriya Janata Dal the AIUDF that basically cover the states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bihar and Assam. The Left has stayed away, as has the JD(U) that has not supported the rest of the Opposition on demonetisation even in Parliament.

PM Modi while addressing a public rally in poll bound Uttarakhand claimed that demonetisation was intended to bring back the “money looted from the poor.” Interestingly, the mainstream print media as well as television channels to a greater extent than before covered the Opposition press conference with Rahul Gandhi and Banerjee getting full play. And what seems to have gone down well for the Congress leader is his “you can mock me if you want, but answer my question line” that seems to be resonating at his public rallies. At the press conference the two leaders asked for the resignation of PM Modi at the end of his 50 days of ‘chaos’ following the demonetisation.

Specific questions asked by the Congress leader were:

1. What are the collections after November 8 when the demonetisation was announced?

2. What is the loss incurred by the economy?

3. How many people have died as a result of demonetisation, have they been compensated?

4. Who were the experts consulted by the PM before the notes were banned?

The BJP meanwhile is occupied in preparing for a mammoth rally in Lucknow to be addressed by the PM on January 2. Here, according to BJP leaders, PM Modi will be making a major announcement, at the start of the new year. Congress state leaders laughed saying, “this will be another jumla.” A Samajwadi party legislator in Lucknow said, “they are just trying to gather the crowds.” However, it is almost certain that the PM will use the start of the year to make an announcement before the elections in UP, that is a crucial state for all in the fray.

The first test of the success, or otherwise, of the demonetisation will come through the state elections in UP, Punjab, Gujarat and the other states with both sides expected to raise the pitch further. PM Modi has made it clear that he is not even considering a roll back, with a new RBI rule now making the possession of more than 10 old denomination notes “punishable.” The Opposition has gone into the campaign terming this as a gross anti-poor move hitting the informal sector hardest; while the PM has been insisting that it is anti-rich and anti-corrupt.

PM Modi who never steps back from a decision is optimistic that the demonetisation will work in his favour with the people rallying around his “join me in cleaning India of corruption” call. The Opposition parties are as convinced that the people have seen through the ill conceived decision, that the poor and the voicless have been hurt, and will register this protest at the hustings. As Rahul Gandhi said at the joint press conference, “"We can all see what a disastrous decision that has been. People in the country have been robbed of their money. Why has Modiji imposed such restrictions on people? He just wants to instill fear among people.”

The BJP is planning a big rally for the PM, the Opposition is looking at joint campaigns in the forthcoming polls. New alliances are in the offing that leaders insist will crystallise through the course of 2017 as the elections are held, and the results flow in. A Congress leader more optimistic than his colleagues laughed, “the NDA is cracking, a new Opposition front is forming.” Perhaps not, but after a dejected start to 2016, the Opposition does seem to be in a slightly happier place at the end of the year.