A trial run

Print edition : September 12, 2003

Sonia Gandhi leads the attack on the NDA government during the debate on the no-confidence motion, which turns out to be the virtual launch of the campaign for the coming Assembly elections.

in New Delhi

THE debate on the no-confidence motion moved by Congress(I) president and Leader of Opposition Sonia Gandhi was politically significant for several reasons. Besides becoming the virtual launching pad for the campaign for the coming Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, the debate also made it clear that the National Democratic Alliance's (NDA) focus of attack would be Sonia Gandhi and her "foreign origin". Apparently, the voting on the no-confidence motion also became an opportunity for NDA constituents to reassert their faith in the leadership of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The almost two-day-long debate concluded with the defeat, by 312 to 186 votes, of the motion, moved after the Defence Ministry refused to disclose the findings of Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) probe into the allegations of corruption in purchase of caskets during the Kargil War.

Sonia Gandhi, Congress(I) president and Opposition leader.-V. SUDERSHAN

Opening the debate on August 18, Sonia Gandhi was at her combative best. Criticising the government for weakening the country's defence, she said: "Here is a government so lethargic that it is willing to risk the lives of our brave jawans, a government so irresponsible that it bargains with the martyrdom of our Kargil heroes." She cited the coffin scam and irregularities in defence purchases to prove her point. She indicted the government for weakening national security. Citing the Subrahmanyam Committee report on the Kargil War, she said that though the government had been caught unawares by Kargil, it did not deem it fit to discuss the report at any length. Taking the Prime Minister to task for the deployment of forces on the border after the December 13 attack on the Parliament House, she said: "Operation Parakram lasted nearly nine months in 2002, involved over five lakh troops and entailed an expenditure of Rs.8,000 crores...What did it achieve?" She said the government was playing with fire in northeastern India, toppling democratically elected governments and not paying heed to the State governments' demands for the deployment of additional troops to tackle insurgency.

Sonia Gandhi criticised the government for "defiling the very essence of our nationhood" by rewriting school curricula. She said: "Obscurantism is being thrust upon us, heroes of the freedom movement are being denigrated and excluded and in their place those with dubious credentials are being celebrated." She also attacked the government for the dismal economic situation, increasing unemployment, corruption, denigration of institutions and the jeopardising of communal and social harmony.

Other Opposition parties too did not spare the opportunity to put the government in the dock. Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Somnath Chatterjee began by congratulating the Congress(I) president on bringing in the no-confidence motion because "the government is neck-deep in corruption, encouraging communalism, making jawans suffer, and forcing farmers to commit suicide". Describing the NDA government's promises as a "collection of jokes", he said: "You played hoaxes with people." Calling the government a "motley concoction", which was held together by the "loafs of office" and not by any common ideology or programmes, he said: "It was high time the government was sent out lock, stock and barrel."

Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president Mulayam Singh Yadav described the NDA government as "the weakest and most inefficient government so far". Criticising the government for failing to protect human rights, he said it was a government of "national shame". He also criticised the government for not maintaining good relations with neighbouring countries. However, Mulayam Singh also had some good words for the Prime Minister. He said that the Opposition had allowed the government to continue so far only because "there is no one better than him at present". When this made the BJP benches thump the desk, he quickly corrected himself by adding, "on their side".

Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Raghuvansh Prasad delivered one of his best speeches so far. The House was drowned in pandemonium when he started reading from a "letter" written by former Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) chief Balasaheb Deoras to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, distancing his organisation from the Jayaprakash Narayan-led movement and requesting her to release RSS activists who were in jail. Speaker Manohar Joshi restrained him from reading it out because he said it was not a letter but a press clipping. Not to be cowed down, Raghuvansh Prasad pulled out another letter, which he claimed was written by Vajpayee to Indira Gandhi from jail during the Emergency, pleading for mercy and release.

LEADING the attack from the government's side was Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani. Refuting the charges Sonia Gandhi levelled against the government, he alleged that the motion was against "India and Indians". He said: "Do not insult India and Indians by levelling such charges when the country was making all-round progress." He even advised her not to "undermine" India by the use of "unbridled" language. Criticising Sonia Gandhi's use of expressions such as "arrogant governance", "capricious", "brazen" and "insensitive", he said: "I had initially refused to open the debate because I cannot match her sharp style or language."

Advani likened Sonia Gandhi's allegation that the government weakened national security and defence to an attack on the "brave soldiers risking their lives fighting for the country". Her criticism of the government for the poor economic performance, he said, was as an insult to millions of Indians who were doing India proud in several fields, especially information technology. To make his point, surprisingly, Advani quoted from an article by film actor Amitabh Bachchan, who wrote that in every country that he visited since the "dawn of the millennium", he had seen India being projected as a potential leader. Underlining the achievements that India has made in various fields, including Pokhran-II, which he said was a "turning point", Advani said: "In the last five years every Indian feels as if he has gained in stature. This is our biggest achievement."

Clearly, the BJP's strategy was to dub "non-Indian" Sonia Gandhi's attacks on the government as attacks on the country itself. The fact that there is enough in the Congress' history to be put it in the dock only made matters difficult for Sonia Gandhi. Replying to her charge that the government was undermining "parliamentary democracy", Advani said had she been familiar with India's history she would not have levelled such a charge. "A party which imposed the Emergency is accusing us of undermining parliamentary democracy." This remark provoked Sonia Gandhi into reacting that during the Emergency, many BJP leaders had written letters to Indira Gandhi pleading for release from jail.

This was followed by an all-out attack on Sonia Gandhi's "foreign origin". BJP chief whip Vijay Malhotra pointed out that during 1975-76 (the Emergency years) Sonia Gandhi was not even an Indian citizen. "Was the Prime Minister's Office leaking letters to a foreigner then," asked Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley. Alleging that Sonia Gandhi's leadership of the Opposition was not unchallenged, Advani said that there should be a provision, as in Germany, that a no-confidence motion can only be brought after the leader of alternative government was announced. "Had this provision been there, this motion would not have come in the first place," he said.

The Prime Minister, intervening in the debate, went a step ahead, by expressing anguish at the very fact that a no-confidence motion had been moved against his government. His hour-long speech, which did not touch upon a single issue raised by Sonia Gandhi, was confined to pieces of advice to her on the language and style for parliamentary debates. Questioning Sonia Gandhi's right to bring in the motion, Vajpayee said: "We are here because we have been chosen by the people and we shall remain here as long as the people want us to. Who are you to judge us? You have said this government has betrayed the mandate of the people. Who has made you the judge? You are not prepared for a show of strength here, then wait for the Assembly elections and see who emerges the winner."

He said he had read her speech and was shocked at the use of words like "insensitive, incompetent and corrupt". He asked: "Should this be the way? Using abuses would not lead to a solution. It seems we are giving up parliamentary norms." Criticising her for levelling charges of weakening national security and defence, Vajpayee asked: "How can such charges be levelled without any proof in Parliament?" In fact, Sonia Gandhi had quoted from government documents such as reports of the CVC, the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) of India and the Public Accounts Committee, to substantiate her charges.

Rebutting her charge that the government had compromised on foreign policy and mortgaged it to a particular country, Vajpayee asked: "Can India be mortgaged?" He said it was alright for the Congress(I) to try and come to power, but it should not do so at the cost of the country's honour and dignity. "Would the foreign policy be criticised for this purpose? Would our defence forces be criticised for this? Differences ought to be there, on economic and other issues, but on certain things like foreign policy and defence matters there should be unanimity. Using the language of ultimatum is not the right thing."

Not to be left behind, second-rung leaders of the BJP and other NDA constituents attacked Sonia Gandhi's "foreign origin", her accent, her so-called ignorance of Indian culture and the fact that she was reading out her speech. The personal attacks on her forced Sonia Gandhi to remark: "When I talk of the country, they talk of my language and style. When I talk of the sufferings of the people, they level personal allegations against me." BJP leader Uma Bharati, questioning the intent behind the motion, said it was not surprising the Congress(I) had brought in the motion because it had itself lost faith in everything else.

"The party has no faith in the Constitution, the Emergency is an example; it has no faith in the legal system, the Shah Bano case is an example; it has no faith in Indianness, and the leadership of Sonia Gandhi is an example." She said that the party had moved a no-confidence motion against the leadership of Vajpayee when its own leaders had no confidence in the leadership of Sonia Gandhi. She quoted from a book written by Prabhash Joshi, in which he had lamented how a "100-years-old party was prostrating before a foreigner". She claimed that the book had been sent to her by Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and Congress(I) leader Digvijay Singh and pointed out that it implied that he had no confidence in the leadership of Sonia Gandhi.

Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress, who normally professes respect for Sonia Gandhi, took a dig at her by saying that she should be wary of other Opposition leaders because they would never accept her as the Prime Minister. She challenged Mulayam Singh, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar and others to declare whether Sonia Gandhi was acceptable to them as their leader. Mulayam Singh intervened at this point to say that the Opposition would elect its leader when the time came.

THE debate pointed to the lack of unity among the Opposition parties on some issues. It was not without reason that the NCP fielded former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma as its speaker, despite the fact that Sharad Pawar was present in the House. Although the NCP supported the motion, Sangma likened it to an "UXO", which in military jargon means "an unexploded ordnance". He criticised the Congress(I) for boycotting Defence Minister George Fernandes for several months. Sangma said: "If at all, they should have boycotted the Prime Minister because it is his authority they were challenging."

On the Defence Minister issue, even the S.P. seemed to agree with Sangma. Mulayam Singh said that his party would not support the Congress(I)'s boycott of Fernandes. He said: "You did not even give him a chance to put his point across. This is not right." On the issue of reservation for women too, the differences in the Opposition ranks came to the surface when Mulayam Singh challenged the BJP, the Congress(I) and the Left parties by saying that he would ensure that the bill was not passed in its original form. "Just because you have the majority, you cannot have your way. Unless Dalits, OBCs [Other Backward Classes], Scheduled Tribes and minorities are given their due we will not allow the bill to be passed," Mulayam Singh declared.

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