No-confidence motion

Signs of unease

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as Congress president Rahul Gandhi walks away after hugging him in the Lok Sabha during the debate on the no-confidence motion in Parliament on July 20. Photo: PTI

The events before the no-confidence debate and after it show how the BJP is concerned about the cracks appearing in its alliance in the run-up to the general election.

There is little doubt that the most enduring image of the 2018 monsoon session of Parliament will be of Congress president Rahul Gandhi walking across the aisle of the Lok Sabha and hugging Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The unique and unprecedented gesture had manifold significance. To start with, it marked the finale of, arguably, the most spirited attack by the principal opposition party on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ledNational Democratic Alliance (NDA) government during its reign of four-plus years. The conduct of the government was arraigned by Rahul Gandhi on a number of counts, including corruption in a defence deal. He asserted that the Prime Minister was not able to look him in the eye on account of his involvement in questionable affairs. He also came up with the warning that the hoodwinking (“jumla”) tactics of the government could not fool people for long.

Equally importantly, the act of the hug and the proclamations that accompanied it were essentially a reiteration of the Gandhian ethos, which is one of the primary guiding principles of the Congress party. In asserting that he would always respond to the expressions of hatred and lampoonery against him with love and regard and in following it up with the hug, Rahul Gandhi was clearly harking back to the Gandhian mode of politics and suggesting that this approach had great relevance in contemporary times when forces aligned with the government and belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar were perpetrating hate crimes in large parts of the country.

The counter to this abiding political exposition by Prime Minister Modi was marked by an aggressive spirit, although it was ultimately rated as much less effective than his usual performances. On his part, Modi once again brought up his humble origins and asked rhetorically how the son of a poor mother from a backward caste family in a backward village could look the big and mighty in their eyes. Without naming the Nehru family to which Rahul Gandhi belongs, he said everyone should remember what happened when those like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, Morarji Desai, Jayaprakash Narayan, Charan Singh, Chandra Sekhar, Pranab Mukherjee and even Sharad Pawar sought to look the leader in the eye.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu at a press conference in New Delhi on July 21. It was the break-up of the ties between the Telugu Desam Party and the BJP that led to the no-confidence motion.   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

In a political attack primarily targeting the Congress, Modi said that the grand old party had come to such a pass that it did not have faith in the Chief Justice, the Reserve Bank of India, institutions that provide economic indicators, or in the power of the Indian passport, the Election Commission and electronic voting machines. “This is because they don’t have faith in themselves. This is because some people have a strong sense of entitlement and have lost out,” he said.

Modi also sought to list out a number of achievements of his government. By far, this was the most lacklustre and pedestrian part of his performance that day. It was on account of these sections of listless performance by the Prime Minister that several observers and even political parties such as the Shiv Sena observed that while the opposition had lost the no-confidence motion technically (with a tally of 126-325 in a House attended by 451 members) it had scored politically on account of the way it manouevred the debate. The Shiv Sena even went to the extent of likening Rahul Gandhi’s parliamentary performance to the Croatian football team in the FIFA World Cup, saying that just like Croatia, the Congress president had won hearts even though his party had lost the vote in the Lok Sabha.

Realpolitik dimensions

However, beyond the numbers in the Lok Sabha and the balance of rhetoric in the speeches of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi lay the larger realpolitik dimensions emanating from the no-confidence motion, the goings-on in various parties against the background of the motion, the manner in which the debate progressed and, ultimately, the path ahead for the big and small political players in the days to come. Evidently, all this is linked to the preparations for the next general election due in the middle of 2019.

BJP president Amit Shah with Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray at his residence, Matoshree, in Mumbai on June 6.   -  Rajesh Waradkar

Central to the larger political dimensions of the current context is the issue of retaining and forging allies, both for the ruling NDA and for the opposition, which had cobbled together a unity in bits and pieces in a few Lok Sabha byelections and Assembly elections in the recent past. Even the limited unity among the opposition parties showed that the BJP could be taken on effectively if there were broad and State-specific alliances in different parts of the country. This larger political context was indeed a driving factor for the BJP leadership in the context of the no-confidence motion.

A major supplementary factor was the manner in which the no-confidence motion had come up. It was the break-up of the ties between the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the BJP that led to the no-confidence motion. The TDP accused the BJP of betrayal and violation of coalition dharma and the top-most leadership of the party of heaping deliberate insult and abuse on it. The BJP held that the TDP leadership was overreacting and it wanted to prove so by putting up a show of treating other allies well. In practical terms, all this meant that the leadership of the BJP, including Modi and party president Amit Shah, was bent on retaining those who had joined hands with the party during the 2014 election and later.

Thus, one week before the Parliament session, Shah made a day-long visit to Patna, the capital of Bihar, to assure the ally in that State, the Janata Dal (United), and its Chief Minister Nitish Kumar that the bigger party would take good care of the interests of the regional partner. Similarly, Shah made a telephonic call to Uddhav Thackeray, the chief of the Shiv Sena, the ally in Maharashtra, once again seeking continuation of its support in the vote in the Lok Sabha. This gesture was considered very significant because the Shiv Sena was extremely critical of the BJP and the Modi government in recent times. However, the manner in which things turned out marred the BJP’s well-laid-out plans.

The Shiv Sena leadership initially responded positively to Shah’s call and assured support and even issued a whip to its members to support the BJP against the no-confidence motion but decided at the last minute to abstain from the proceedings. Apparently, what turned Uddhav Thackeray’s stance was pressure from the party’s rank and file, which found expression through some leaders and Members of Parliament such as Sanjay Raut, Anandrao Adsul and Chandrakant Khaire. “How can you call this the worst government ever and then vote for it in Parliament?” one of them reportedly asked Uddhav Thackeray.

K. Chandrashekhar Rao. The Telangana Rashtra Smithi leadership has said that its support to the government on the no-confidence motion does not mean that the party is joining the NDA.   -  The Hindu Archives

The sarcastic comment made by Raj Thackeray, Uddhav’s cousin and chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), to the media also acted as a spur to the change in decision. Raj Thackeray taunted, “Let’s see now what he [Uddhav] does”, when a journalist pointed out to him the Sena’s declaration of support to the BJP during the no-confidence motion despite its constant criticism of the BJP. As it turned out, the Shiv Sena ultimately yielded to pressure from below and has continued with the criticism and lampooning of the BJP and the Modi government in the days after the no-confidence motion.

Despite all this, the larger political context as illustrated by the recent Lok Sabha byelections is forcing the BJP leadership not to take precipitate action against the Shiv Sena though sections of the party and the Sangh Parivar have started demanding internally that the BJP leadership should shed its ambivalence and make a clean break with that party. Their argument is that the relationship with the Shiv Sena has become the epitome of a political farce. They point out that the Shiv Sena is technically part of the NDA, both at the Centre and in Maharashtra, even as it pummels the BJP day in and day out. It is not pulling out of the NDA and is showing no signs of a compromise.

According to some Sangh Parivar activists, the situation is worse than the one that existed in Jammu and Kashmir before the BJP broke ties with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Their demand is that a decision should be taken to shunt the Shiv Sena out of the NDA as early as possible.

Falling numbers

It remains to be seen how far the BJP leadership will succumb to this pressure. Especially so because, in spite of the success in defeating the no-confidence motion, the number of votes it finally managed was not exactly commensurate with the expectations it had from smaller parties. The Odisha-based Biju Janata Dal (BJD) also abstained from the no-confidence vote like the Shiv Sena. In that situation, the remaining NDA had a tally of 294 members. The BJP, however, had procured assurances of support from the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) with 37 and 11 members respectively. If all the members had polled, the NDA should have had a tally of 346. However, the final score of the NDA was only 325, showing that even among the parties that assured support, there were members who did not go with the decision.

Ram Vilas Pawan, Union Minister. He pointed out the wrong message sent out by the appointment of Justice A.K. Goel as Chairman of the National Green Tribunal.   -  Ranjeet Kumar

The TRS leadership has already made it clear that its support in the no-confidence motion does not mean that the party is joining the NDA. To buttress this position, the TRS has said it will oppose the government’s moves to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act. There are signs of trouble with other allies too as seen by the statements of Union Minister and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Ram Vilas Paswan. The Dalit leader from Bihar has roundly criticised the appointment of Justice (retd) A.K. Goel as Chairman of the National Green Tribunal (NGT). In a letter to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Paswan pointed out that several Dalit MPs had “expressed concern” over the “wrong message” sent by the appointment as Goel is “the judge who ruled against” the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Paswan also pointed out in the letter that the All India Ambedkar Mahasabha (AIAM), a Dalit rights coalition, had sought Justice Goel’s removal from the post.

The BJP leadership has been silent on these voices from the allies and “one time” supporters during the no-confidence motion. This silence has to be read in conjunction with the elaborate segment in Modi’s speech during the debate, virtually beseeching smaller parties not to believe the Congress when that party calls for alliance. He pointed out that the Congress had a track record of betraying, as it had done in 1979, 1991 and 1997, leading to short-lived governments and instability. This is a clear giveaway that underscores how important the retention and accretion of allies is for the BJP in the run-up to the general election.

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