There was no doubt about the outcome of the no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha on Friday. To begin with the numerical – and rhetorical – advantages were stacked in favour of the Narendra Modi government. In the event, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies managed predictably to carve out a victory, even if an unsatisfactory one; whereas the Opposition did snatch a satisfactory defeat, bordering on an honourable draw.
To the extent it inevitably came down to a Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi contest, neither gladiator landed a decisive hit. In the end, Rahul Gandhi did not do all that badly; as for Narendra Modi, surely he has done better in the past than he did on Friday night.
In fact, Rahul Gandhi had much more to lose than Modi, and the Congress president did not fall flat on his face. He owed himself and his party a good show and what he turned in was exceptional parliamentary performance. He passed the simple test: he got under the ruling party’s skin. He managed to prod and provoke BJP ministers. So effective was Gandhi that the treasury benches had to instigate a disruption and force an adjournment – a familiar parliamentary tactic, but also an unwitting concession to the opposition.
More than a good performance, Rahul Gandhi needed a catharsis. As if he wanted to prove to himself and to the rest of the political crowd, in and out of the Congress, that he was up to it. That he had overcome the stage fright, that he was not effete, not without gumption, was capable of a rambunctious combativeness – and that he was not afraid to take on one of the most effective and most vitriolic of antagonists. His performance was addressed to the allies as well, who needed to know that he was someone who was not afraid to confront Narendra Modi.
All that was accomplished with ease.
In fact, he appeared uninhibited, and revealed a confident rhetorical style. Nor did he allow himself to be derailed by barracking from the treasury benches. He managed to flag down a number of issues, introduced a few grand themes – defence of the constitution, the BJP’s backing of crony capitalism – without tripping over the secular/communal issue.
Yet it was unmistakably, even if unintended, a rite of personal passage, a private ceremony performed in a public place, before a national audience. Rahul Gandhi was in confessional mood, as if he had just ended a journey of discovery, as if stumbling for the first time upon the enormity of being a good Hindu, a Congressman, or even a Lord Shiva acolyte. Internal voices and arguments spilled out in the open.
His remarks were crafted as an intensely personal statement, rather than as the political philosophy of the leader of the Congress. He was clearly pleased with himself.
And, then, he overdid it. Unbelievably, Rahul Gandhi went over to the treasury side, and tried to hug the prime minister. It was awkward, bizarre, unnatural, and most un-parliamentary. He invited a well-deserved rebuke from the speaker. Rahul Gandhi was put in his place, partly, by defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. And later, the prime minister took him apart, with ease and skill.
His act of hugging suggests that for Rahul Gandhi public life remains a personal project, albeit with trappings of the noble burden of the Nehruvian legacy. And Narendra Modi was happy to trap him in that legacy, painting him as an undeserving aspirant for the national gaddi.
In the process, Modi ended up doing Rahul Gandhi a favour, perhaps unwittingly legitimising the young man’s claim to the Congress gaddi, sucking him back into the Congress’s flawed history and mixed record.
Not only that, Modi did the BJP no favour by showing himself to be a prisoner of the Old India, its animosities and bitterness. The pointed references to 1979, 1990, 1997 were intended to re-kindle old fashioned anti-Congressism. But by placing himself in the category of presumed anti-Nehru rebels – Subhas Chandra Bose, Vallabhai Patel, Jaya Prakash Naryan, Morarji Desai, Chandrashekhar, Pranab Mukherjee, Sharad Pawar – Modi ended up refreshing a meta-narrative about the Congress, thereby reaffirming the Congress’s historical relevance and role.
Modi was not without his characteristic demagogic flourish, especially his penchant for positioning himself as the embodiment of the aspirations of one billion Indians and their “gaurav.” But he was disappointingly pedestrian as he gave an accountant’s rendering of his government’s achievements, as if all the PIB press releases have been lazily put before him.
And then there were insights into the prime minister’s personality flaws. The enlisting of the armed forces against the opposition’s criticism of the “surgical strikes” was as revealing as it was extremely dubious. Above all, there was that familiar self-serving, self-congratulatory note: “I have the political will” – that comforting delusional streak, easily spotted in most authoritarian political personalities.
If Rahul Gandhi failed to spell out adequately what he had to offer to the nation, Prime Minister Modi was also content to offer only more of the same. To that extent, the debate which was grandly billed as a forerunner of the next Lok Sabha election turned out to be a colourless, disappointing affair. The government clearly missed Arun Jaitley’s eloquent presence.
More significantly, it was left to the NDA allies – Ramvilas Paswan and Anupriya Patel – to serve notice on the Modi establishment. While Paswan competently addressed himself to the charge that the Modi government was less than zealous in protecting the interests of the Dalits and backwards, he also subtly noted that the allies would not allow any dilution of the constitution and its promise of social justice for all.
The debate revealed the Modi regime’s strengths as well as its vulnerabilities. Now it is up to the Congress and its leaders to summon the requisite political wisdom and skills to help the progressive, liberal, democratic voices and forces around the country coalesce into a coherent and cogent challenge to the Modi regime. The 2019 battle is far from settled or sealed.