The vote on the no-confidence motion debate in the Lok Sabha on Friday, which the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government expectedly won, has turned out to be a revelation.
The Shiv Sena at last came good on its threats to the BJP of walking its own path. Its MPs simply didn’t show up in the Lok Sabha on Friday. As a member of the BJP-led NDA coalition, and with representation in the council of ministers at the Centre and in the BJP-led Maharashtra government, it was incumbent upon it to vote against the motion moved by the Modi government’s political opponents.
It did nothing of the kind. Indeed, Saamna, the Sena mouthpiece, appeared brutal in its declaration on Friday that it won’t go with the “Modi dictatorship”.
So where does the BJP go from here? Will it sack Udhav Thackeray’s ministers in New Delhi and in Mumbai? Will it make moves to topple the Shiv Sena from the leadership of the Bombay Municipal Corporation? On the whole, what shape will the Sena-BJP fight take here on?
If the gloves are off between the Shiv Sena and the BJP as the next Lok Sabha election approaches, can the Sena play for tactical accommodation with the Congress, NCP, or both? Promiscuous conduct has been known to be the stuff of Indian politics. On the other hand, if the BJP sues for peace, to what extent will it go to appease the Sena?
The Shiv Sena, Telugu Desam Party and Akali Dal have been the BJP’s nearest allies for decades. Now only the Akalis remain and they too have a plateful of grievances relating to agriculture and to the BJP’s muscle-play. As regards the no-trust motion, the Akali Dal position was that it was in sympathy with the TDP’s demand – which was the reason why N. Chandrababu Naidu’s party brought the no-confidence motion – for a special finance package for Andhra Pradesh.
Besides its principal NDA allies, the BJP has broadly been in tune with the politics of the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal, and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti of KCR. Indeed, is thought to have shaped some of the AIADMK’s postures since the death of J. Jayalalithaa.
Of these parties, the large block of 37 AIADMK MPs eventually voted with the Modi government. Otherwise, the government’s score would have dropped to 288. But in the run-up to the vote, through the 12-hours of parliamentary drama as the motion was debated, speculation was rife that the AIADMK was divided. Evidently, several MPs were not comfortable voting with the government, given the state of general dissatisfaction in the country. Willy-nilly, instructions “from above” were finally accepted.
The TRS speech on the motion couldn’t have given the BJP much comfort, but the party’s MPs walked out of the house before the vote was taken. It is not clear how this should be construed. Was this an indirect favour to the government, in terms of lessening the numbers of those present and voting so that the government count becomes comfortable? But such a reading has greater validity when the call is expected to be tight – when the strength of the government’s opponents is nearly as much as that of the treasury benches. This was clearly not the case.
The behaviour of the BJD presents a similar picture. But this party’s MPs did not take part in the debate at all. Before the discussion commenced, its leaders announced to the speaker that they were leaving as they were neither with the BJP nor the Congress.
The catch here is that the motion had not been moved by the Congress but by the TDP. In reality, perhaps, the BJD did not wish to annoy the government as some of its leading lights are allegedly involved with the chit funds scandal and the party might have calculated it was better to play safe.
On the other hand, party clearly didn’t wish to vote with the government. This is both on account of the government’s declining – or plateauing – graph in the country and the fact that in Odisha the BJD and the BJP will be pitted against one another in the 2019 elections to both the Lok Sabha and the state assembly.
Participating in the debate, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to insult the two regional parties of Andhra Pradesh – the TDP, not any more an ally, for bringing the no-trust motion, and the YSR Congress, for having “laid a trap” in which the TDP fell. It is to be seen at election time if it has viable allies in this southern state.
Looking at the picture, overall, it would seem that the BJP, quite unlike 2014, does not have willing and eager allies in the southern part of the country, or in the east and in the south. Those who are with them, like the AIADMK, are not on the strongest of wickets themselves.
The picture in the north of the country seems less gloomy, although in UP only very minor allies, like the Apna Dal, may be receptive to the saffron party’s advances. In Punjab, of course, the Akali Dal and the BJP cannot do without each other. Both will fall to the Congress if they don’t pool energies.
On the floor, a careful strategy
Another revelation the no-confidence motion vote threw up was that the BJP was unable to poach MPs from its avowed opponents. It also appeared that there was floor coordination, including at some level even between the Congress and the TDP – parties that have confronted each other over a long period of time. A high-level Congress functionary, who followed the debate cannily, seemed central to this effort.
There appeared initial thinking in the opposition camp that rather than face certain defeat, the parties ranged against the government should walk out protesting loudly as Modi took the floor. Neither TDP nor Congress favoured this line, but their reasons were different.
For the TDP, with the audience back home in mind, the need of the hour was to fight the BJP tooth and nail on account of denial of a special financial package. Its Guntur MP, Jayadev Galla, who led the charge as the first speaker – a rare honour given by a political party to a first-term member – noted without mincing words, “This is Modi regime versus the people of Andhra Pradesh!”
But the reason the Congress was keen on a vote taking place was that it desired the Shiv Sena’s conduct on the question of voting with the BJP to be made absolutely clear.
Two important leaders of the political spectrum were also on conscious display. Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, for once ticked all the boxes in the lengthy speech he made. His language, for once, was well considered, and the Hindi delivery fluent. Gandhi spoke without notes and touched all the crucial issues. But he would no doubt wonder the morning after if it was necessary for him to go and hug Modi after his combative speech, which was appreciated even by political opponents. Do such acts take away from a sense of gravitas?
Prime Minister Modi, as expected, targeted only the Congress, not any other party, and went all out trying to hit out at Rahul and Sonia Gandhi. It was clear who the BJP’s real adversaries are on the political landscape. He spoke for 90 minutes but couldn’t quite get into his political stride. He got caught in the thicket of statistics and official data, some of it jaded from overuse. This appeared to enthuse no one, not even the BJP benches, though they did applaud dutifully from time to time.
“Janab aankron mein phans gaye!” was the refrain heard afterward, so starkly a reminder of the time of the late P. V. Narasimha Rao. The brooding scholar-intellectual former PM, who everyone thought was devilishly adept in the affairs of state, had run a minority government quite successfully for a full five-year term, but his time in office saw the ignominy of the demolition of the Babri mosque. This had denuded him of political as well as ideological legitimacy, rendering the Congress a body blow.
In the election campaign that would be his last, PV, as he was widely known, addressed practically empty grounds where he tried to hide behind “aankrey” – data from files meant to highlight his government’s achievements (of which there were doubtless many). But no one was interested. Legitimacy had taken flight.
Anand P. Sahay is a Delhi-based journalist.