Ten lessons from no-confidence motion debate
The motion sounded the bugle for the 2024 general elections. It showed us that the Opposition needs to up its game to match the government’s narrative
With the three day no-confidence motion in Parliament completed, the bugle for the 2024 general elections has been sounded. This no-confidence motion was never about the numbers but a more intangible perception war. So here is the critical question: Who now has the momentum going into the 2024 battle? Here are 10 key takeaways from the bruising Parliament confrontation.
One, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi remains the central focus of the 2024 storyline. The TIMO (There Is Modi Only) factor still shapes the political discourse: If the Opposition, especially the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) grouping seeks to reflexively target the PM, the government cheerleaders buzz around the Modi cult. The rapturous applause for the PM from the treasury benches even as the Opposition walked out during his speech is indicative of just how the larger-than-life Modi persona has deeply divided the political class.
Two, a newly minted Rahul Gandhi, armed with goodwill from his Bharat Jodo Yatra and sympathy from his disqualification as a lawmaker, is now ensconced as the mascot of the anti-Modi forces. Unlike the 2018 no-confidence motion when Gandhi had, quite inexplicably, chosen to go across the aisle and hug the PM, this time he has abandoned any pretence of conviviality to the ruling party. His likening the PM to Ravan while invoking Bharat Mata in the context of Manipur indicates an uncontrolled response from the dil (heart) when the occasion demanded a more focused attack from the dimag (mind).
Three, so hyper-polarised is the political conflict between the two principal contenders that there is a shrinking space for any neutral third front option. Fence-sitting parties such as the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP), and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) are all being pushed to take a stand. While the BRS has slowly aligned itself with the Opposition camp, the BJD, YSRCP and TDP have drifted closer to the Modi government. As a result, two distinct alliances are taking shape ahead of the 2024 polls.
Four, while the INDIA grouping was caricatured as a messy and opportunistic thug-bandhan (alliance of thugs) by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there is certainly a greater spirit of accommodation within its constituents. The manner in which the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), for example, chose to build bridges with the Congress suggests a flexibility in approach that wasn’t noticeable in 2019.
The AAP’s reach out to the Congress may be more out of mutual self-preservation than ideological conviction, but it does solidify the Opposition’s challenge. If the TIMO factor makes the BJP a front-runner for 2024, INDIA is trying to coalesce around an ABM (Anyone But Modi) credo.
Five, the Opposition’s Manipur-centric interventions might yield temporary political dividends but are unlikely to set the national agenda for 2024. The no-confidence motion was largely driven by the Opposition’s determination to get the PM to break his conspicuous silence on Manipur inside Parliament, but amongst the wider public, more basic issues such as jobs, prices and welfare schemes are likely to find greater resonance.
Six, the PM and home minister Amit Shah might have captured eyeballs with their speeches in Parliament but there is also a growing fatigue with the familiar naamdar (dynast) versus kaamdar (worker) trope. After nine years in power, the Modi government can’t escape accountability by pinning the blame on the Congress’s past failures: How, for example, can the double-engine government shift the goalposts for Manipur in 2023 by harking back to Mizoram in 1966?
Seven, if the BJP still has the momentum heading into the big election year, it is because the Opposition hasn’t found a compelling narrative for change. The BJP has clearly decided to make 2024 a Modi versus Who presidential-style national leadership contest once again. For the Opposition, the challenge and the opportunity lie in making the electoral battle a sum of fierce state-level contests. Localised battles, as seen in the war between the Shiv Sena factions in Parliament, could yet prove decisive in key states such as Maharashtra.
Eight, the Congress, in particular, needs to get its act together within and outside Parliament with a more coherent strategy. The excessive focus on de facto captain Rahul Gandhi has meant that Team Congress isn’t making full use of its bench strength. Why, for example, did the Congress not choose to line up the articulate Shashi Tharoor as one of its star speakers in the no-confidence vote?
Nine, the Parliament as an institution is being systematically undermined. This was yet another session when several days were lost to adjournments, when important bills were pushed through without much discussion or any parliamentary oversight. The suspension of members that was once the exception is now becoming routine. A brute Lok Sabha majority without any checks and balances is a danger signal for the health of our parliamentary democracy.
Ten, there is a nagging sense that any debate in Parliament isn’t on quite a level-playing field. Every time a major Opposition leader criticised the government sharply during the no-confidence motion, they complained that the camera would swiftly cut away from the Speaker. Sansad TV, funded by the tax-payer, is surely expected to be non-partisan.
Post-script: A defining image of this turbulent week in Parliament was during the Delhi services bill debate in the Rajya Sabha: Wheelchair-bound nonagenarian former PM Manmohan Singh listening quietly to the debate. When in power, Singh was mockingly referred to as Maun-Mohan or silent Singh by his political opponents.
Truth is, in his decade in office, Singh spoke almost 70 times in Parliament on different issues. The more charismatic Modi, by contrast, has spoken barely 30 times, often avoiding contentious subjects. In his more reflective moments, former PM Singh might wonder why he was lampooned as a silent leader.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal.