It saw a no-holds-barred, blistering attack by the Prime Minister and Home Minister Amit Shah against the Opposition – and it also showed that the ruling side takes the challenge posed by the newly formed 26-party I.N.D.I.A alliance seriously, possibly more seriously than they take themselves.
Both Modi and Shah spoke for over two hours each, their speeches reflecting a great deal of preparation and thought, though the PM spoke rhetorically as he does at poll rallies. They ripped into the Opposition for “corruption, family rule, and its policy of appeasement” – themes that are going to dominate the BJP’s campaign in the coming elections.
In comparison, the Opposition side was not as well-prepared as it could have been. It turned out to be an unequal battle, even though there were good speakers from the Opposition, like Gaurav Gogoi (Congress), who opened the debate, Asaduddin Owaisi (AIMIM) , Mahua Moitra (Trinamool Congress), and Farooq Abdullah (National Conference).
Even though the Opposition knew it had no chance to defeat the government, given the way the numbers were stacked in the Lok Sabha, it had decided to bring a no-confidence motion to compel the PM to speak in Parliament on Manipur. It succeeded. Modi made an appeal for peace, promised to bring the guilty to book, and said the rest of India cared about Manipur, and that the Northeast was “our jigar ka tukda (a piece of our heart)” – something he could have said weeks ago. But the PM – and the Home Minister – used the no-confidence motion more as an opportunity not just to showcase the achievements of the government but also to turn the tables on the Opposition. They trained their guns particularly against the Congress, and within the Congress, they targeted the Nehru-Gandhi family, and within the family, Rahul Gandhi.
The attempt seemed to be to make it a Modi versus Rahul battle again in 2024. Their calculation: Rahul will be no match as a leader to Modi in a national election, while bringing him centrestage would fuel the fears of the regional parties in the I.N.D.I.A. about the domination of a Rahul-led Congress, which state satraps feel will be at their expense.
Rahul’s performance in the Lok Sabha was disappointing. All eyes were on him, particularly after the restoration of his Lok Sabha membership by the Supreme Court. And he had himself visited Manipur – something the PM had not done. He related two poignant instances of what women in Manipur had told him about their sufferings. And then an obviously ill-prepared Rahul went into an emotional, high-pitch accusation that the government had murdered “my mother, the Bharat Mata, in Manipur”.
Since the Opposition had made Manipur their main “mudda (issue)” and vowed to stall Parliament unless the PM spoke on the subject, many expected I.N.D.I.A leaders to come out with more facts and figures about how many women were allegedly assaulted sexually in Manipur, what had happened to the FIRs lodged, or not lodged. For, when the video went viral about two Kuki women being stripped naked and assaulted, Chief Minister N Biren Singh had himself remarked that there were many more such cases. Many thought that the Opposition speakers would bring more information before Parliament – and the country – about progress or the lack of it, to buttress their demand for the CM to resign to enforce the principle of accountability.
In hindsight, it was a mistake for the Opposition to walk out in the middle of the PM’s speech. The moment they trooped out, Modi started to speak about Manipur. The walkout only reinforced the government charge that the Opposition was interested not in a debate on Manipur, but only in politicising the issue. It was also a mistake for Gaurav Gogoi not to exercise his right to reply after the PM had spoken, and not to rebut the charges by Modi holding the Congress responsible for all the ills that beset the Northeast today. It was after all Rajiv Gandhi as PM who had signed the Mizo Accord in 1986 to bring peace to an insurgency-afflicted state!
There are several political takeaways from l’affaire no-confidence. It has reinforced the rise of Shah as an adept parliamentarian, besides being a backroom boy, as well as the PM’s ace trouble-shooter, an impressive party organiser and a tough Home Minister – either liked or hated, and he arouses both passions. He had also spoken similarly when he announced the abrogation of Article 370 – part of the BJP’s core agenda – in the House on August 5, 2019.
This time, an observer of the political scene (not a Shah acolyte) remarked: “Woh Opposition ke khilaaf bole par tiraskar se nahin bole (He spoke against the Opposition but didn’t insult them).” He marshalled his facts and figures, arguments, citing chapter and verse, giving both historical and contemporary examples to take on the Opposition.
As Modi is making a bid for a third stint in power, it is early days to speculate about what this will add up to in the future. For, besides Shah, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is also seen as a national player in the post-Modi politics. For the Opposition parties, the message from the no-trust motion is clear. They have known that Modi and Shah are opponents, not to be taken lightly. But this week’s events showed that the duo may be even more formidable than the Opposition had bargained for.
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The Opposition parties will need more than a general intent to unite. Or to set up committees to formulate a common narrative, or to work on seat-sharing arrangements. They will need to coordinate a joint strategy at every turn. The no-trust debate could have done with greater micro-planning on who would say what to create a greater impact. While the Opposition went in for a no-trust motion to pressure the PM to end his silence on Manipur, clearly the motion could not be limited to the issue of Manipur. It was against the government’s overall non-performance, and Modi and Shah and the BJP MPs used it to defend their performance, and set the narrative for the future. The Opposition could not put the government on the mat enough on issues beyond Manipur, as it could have done.
With the return of Rahul to Parliament and to the centrestage of Opposition politics, the Congress may have to define his role in relation to other partner parties. Or to bring back Sonia Gandhi as a ‘sutradhar’ of Opposition unity, for the other parties may feel more comfortable with Sonia around, than with Rahul in a pivotal role. That is another message coming through the no-trust vote.
(Neerja Chowdhury, Contributing Editor, The Indian Express, has covered the last 10 Lok Sabha elections)