All eyes were fixed on the third day of the monsoon session of Indian Parliament on July 20. As widely expected, Prime Minister Narendra Modi defeated with convincing margin the first opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion against him in the Lok Sabha. Given the arithmetic in the House, the opposition parties knew too well that they faced an impossible task of seeing the motion through. No doubt, winning the trial of strength in parliament does not guarantee success in the bigger battle of ballots involving the people. But it creates a feel-good factor for the winner.
The most talked-about point of the no-confidence motion was, of course, main opposition party Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s startling bear hug of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his wink at his party lawmakers. Undoubtedly, Rahul’s hug and wink grabbed the eyeballs, both of the media and the people at large. But it has also raised the question: what purpose did it serve? Was he trying to send a message that after his fiery hour-long speech targeting Modi the hug would be interpreted as making a statement that political differences and attacks are part of the democratic process and should not cause animosity? True, political rivals should not be treated as adversaries in a democracy. But has Rahul achieved that objective by the wink which did not gel with the seriousness of the occasion ? Parliament Speaker Sumitra Mahajan rightly pointed out to Rahul that there are certain behavioral norms to be observed inside parliament.
Nonetheless, Congress party finished the no-confidence motion exercise with a positive takeaway in Rahul Gandhi’s speech which touched on wide-ranging topics like alleged corruption in the deal between India and France on purchase of Rafale fighter planes, women’s safety, mob lynching and agriculture sector crisis, keeping Modi in his firing line for a bulk of his speech.
Why this no-confidence motion when fresh general elections in India are less than a year away? The answer is that it set the agenda of the campaigns of both the ruling and opposition parties for not just of the general elections but also in three key state elections before that in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh which are ruled by the BJP.
The opposition parties had been pressing for a no-confidence motion since the second half of the previous budget session of Parliament in April but the BJP was at that time not prepared to concede to that demand. That face-off had resulted in washout of the second half of the budget session due to disruptions of proceedings on a daily basis. Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan had repeatedly ignored regional party YSR Congress’ plea for tabling the motion in the last session by citing the disruptions and arguing the House was not in order.
So, when Mahajan promptly admitted the motion on the very first day of the monsoon session of parliament, it came as a surprise to the opposition. Why this change of strategy by the Speaker and BJP? That is not difficult to understand if one remembers that the Speaker had come under fire for refusing the no-confidence motion in the last session.
Secondly, BJP felt that once the no-trust vote is defeated, the opposition would not have any issue to disrupt parliamentary proceedings. After all, what is at stake in the monsoon session are over 45 Bills including the one on instant triple talaq which the BJP is keen to pass in a bid to woo Muslim women in the polls on the plank of gender justice and polarize the community’s vote. Thirdly, BJP wanted to counter the perception that it is not willing to face the no-trust motion despite enjoying clear numerical superiority.
Also, the BJP’s strategy in the debate on the no-confidence motion was to hit speculations about a proposed pan-Indian united opposition front of the Congress and key regional parties to take on the saffron party in the general elections. This was clear from Modi’s hour-long reply to the debate on the motion.
Modi recalled history to caution the non-Congress opposition against a coalition with the Congress. He pointed out how the Congress had betrayed its different allies at different times by first supporting them from outside to form governments in 1979, 1991 and 1997 and then withdrawing the support leading to premature fall of federal governments and triggering political instability in the country. Modi’s political message was that Congress cannot be trusted as a reliable coalition partner.
Some regional parties in the opposition aiming at an anti-BJP coalition are main political rivals of Congress like Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) which rule Telangana and Odisha states respectively. The TRS does not share Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee’s enthusiasm for including the Congress in a pan-India anti-BJP front. Interestingly, lawmakers of both the TRS and the BJD stayed away from the no-trust motion debate, thereby making it easier for Modi to defeat the motion with a much bigger margin as their absence brought down the threshold mark in the Lok Sabha.
Modi also pointed out that it was under the previous BJP dispensation headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee that Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand–were smoothly created by dividing Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and contrasted it with the creation of Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh under a Congress-led federal government resulting in heart-burns which are yet to be resolved. Modi also commended TRS chief and Telangana K Chandraekhara Rao’s development work.
One major disappointment for BJP was that its longest-standing but now estranged ally Shiv Sena stayed away from voting against the no-confidence motion. But the saffron party must have been enthused by the direct opposition to the motion from AIADMK, another key regional party which is not part of the saffron party-led alliance, and a potential ally in the TRS.
The writer is New Delhi Correspondent of the Bangladesh Post