Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced the first no-confidence motion on the floor of Parliament by the combined opposition yesterday (July 20). He was expected to have a smooth sailing in the trial of strength given the parliamentary arithmetic in favour of his Bharatiya Janata Party and the National Democratic Alliance led by it. The opposition knew too well that the numbers were heavily stacked against it.
But Irrespective of the outcome of the voting on the motion, the questions that arise are why have this motion almost at the fag end of the five-year tenure of the Modi government when fresh general elections are less than a year away? What political purpose would this exercise serve?
While the opposition parties had been bracing for a no-confidence motion since the second half of the previous budget session of Parliament in April, the BJP was at that time not prepared to concede to this demand. That face-off between the rival sides had led to the washout of the second half of the budget session due to daily disruptions of proceedings by the opposition to press the demand for a no-confidence motion. 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 circles. What came as a bigger surprise was the swiftness with which the Business Advisory Committee of Parliament responded to Mahajan and decided to hold the debate on the motion and vote on it just two days later. Why the change of heart by BJP and the Speaker? Clearly, many calculations and thinking worked behind the Modi government's readiness to face the motion, the Speaker's alacrity in admitting it and, of course, the opposition's pressing ahead with the motion despite being outnumbered. The rival sides in the battle looked at the motion as a dry run for the coming parliamentary elections.
For one, the tabling of the motion in the monsoon session provided Mahajan a chance to redeem herself after she came in for criticism from several quarters by refusing the no-confidence motion in the last session. Her “House not in order” contention at that time was seen by many as specious. Secondly, the BJP assessed this time that once the motion is debated and defeated, the opposition would not have any ground to disrupt parliamentary proceedings. Thirdly, the BJP wanted to counter the perception that it is not willing to face the motion despite enjoying clear numerical superiority. Fourthly, the party reckoned that the motion could be a good opportunity to puncture the growing perception of the much-talked about pan-Indian united opposition front to take on the BJP in the next general elections. The BJP hoped to drive home that not all parties outside the NDA fold are with the Congress-led opposition which has been pushing for the motion.
“We will not just get the NDA votes but also the support from other parties as well,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister and senior BJP leader Ananth Kumar said. The BJP's assessment is that if it manages to enlist the support of from regional parties like the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) ruling Tamil Nadu state in the south and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) governing Odisha state in the east, either through abstention of their lawmakers or voting against the motion, it might entail a political victory for the BJP and signal that the anti-BJP front is weakening.
The BJP would not only not like to be seen as leading a truncated alliance after Telugu Desam Party, which moved the July 19 no-trust motion, parted ways in March this year, but more importantly would like to send the message that at least some of the non-NDA parties are not with the opposition. To that end, even abstentions by lawmakers of parties like AIADMK, TRS and BJD will help the BJP cause because it will increase the margin of the NDA whose stated strength will go up at the time of voting in a House with a lesser effective strength. That is not merely pure arithmetic but politics too.
Besides, the orator in Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his reply to the debate on the motion is likely to tar Congress and other opposition parties as an “opportunistic alliance” with the sole aim of dislodging him from power, something he has been saying since the opposition parties mounted their efforts for a joint alliance, and showcase the “successes” of his government through various welfare schemes.
On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi-led Congress and other opposition parties have argued that the trial of strength in parliament is not just a number game and that they are keen to utilise the debate on the no-trust motion to try and put the government on the mat on a range of issues including agrarian crisis, lack of jobs, slowing economic growth, rising incidents of mob lynching and cow vigilantism and attacks on Dalits. “The Congress and other opposition parties will use the occasion to highlight the failures of the government and show them the mirror. “This is the launch of a campaign which will send them packing in 2019 Lok Sabha polls,” said senior Congress leader Anand Sharma.
For the opposition, the no-confidence motion throws up an opportunity to show that its proposed united front against the BJP is not a flash in the pan but is rather here to stay at least till the next general elections.
So, in whom will the no-trust motion breed confidence, in the ruling or the opposition camp? Both sides may try to interpret it in their own ways. But one thing is certain: It will certainly set the agenda for the 2019 general elections.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.