The no-confidence motion against the government in Parliament, which had absolutely no chance of succeeding, was always going to be a two-edged sword. While it brought Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the floor of the Parliament, where he is rarely seen, it also afforded him the opportunity to virtually kickstart his campaign for the 2024 general election. Modi rubbed this in during his speech when he pointed out that the Opposition had given him a similar opportunity in 2018 ahead of the general election when it had moved a no-trust vote.
Opinions are divided over Modi’s speech. Many felt that he did an effective job of shredding the Opposition, as a member from a Bharatiya Janata Party-friendly party had warned during the debate. Others noted that Modi harped on familiar themes rather than effectively addressing Manipur that brought about the no-trust vote in the first place and on which he had maintained a conspicuous silence except for a brief statement to reporters.
What is undeniable, however, is that the no-confidence motion validated one of the claims of the Opposition – the prime minister is a reluctant parliamentarian who usually speaks in Parliament only on occasions like the motion of thanks for the president’s address or to introduce ministers. By using a rare weapon like the no-confidence motion, the Opposition forced the prime minister to speak in parliament, but it came with attendant political costs due to Modi’s oratorial skills.
On May 20, 2014, when he first entered parliament as prime minister, Modi touched his forehead on the steps, later calling parliament a “temple of democracy”. More recently, he inaugurated the new Parliament building with much fanfare and ceremony repeating the same words. Modi’s reverence for Parliament, however, has not translated into sustained engagement with the House. By one estimate, between 2014, when Modi was elected prime minister, and 2023 Modi had spoken 30 times in parliament, which worked out to on an average of three times a year.
This is far lower than the two prime ministers who preceded him: Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Vajpayee spoke an estimated 77 times in six years as prime minister from 1998 to 2004, while the reticent Manmohan Singh – often derided by the BJP as “Maunmohan”, or silent – spoke close to 50 times during his 10-year tenure from 2004 to 2014. Indeed, like Jawaharlal Nehru, who chose to willingly speak to Parliament during some of his lowest moments like the Chinese invasion of India, Singh faced Parliament during some of the critical moments of his tenure. The same cannot be said for Modi who has used any platform other than Parliament to address issues like demonetisation or the farmers’ protests.
Modi uses only special occasions, like the recent no-confidence motion, to speak in Parliament and his speeches are meant less to address the house than to directly address the nation. This fits in with Modi’s style of communication where he has traditionally practiced, as one scholar puts it, “centralised, one-way messaging”. This can be seen as part of the populist politics of Modi where he circumvents institutions and traditional mediums to communicate directly to the people. This has also led to excessive centralisation and executive capture of political power, which has had the effect of undermining Parliament among other institutions.
Some clues to the lack of engagement with parliament on the part of Modi, a first-time MP in 2014, can be gleaned from his legislative record as chief minister of Gujarat. During Modi’s third term as chief minister, the Gujarat Legislative Assembly between 2008 and 2012 sat for an average of 31 days a year, which was low even by the poor standards of state assemblies. At the same time, over 90% of the bills were passed the same day they were introduced. Indeed, the number of sittings of the Gujarat Assembly between 2000 and 2010 (Modi became chief minister in October 2001), was an average of 31 days a year, a figure which was higher than Assam or Haryana, but significantly lower than states like Kerala, Maharashtra or West Bengal.
Modi’s averseness to engage Parliament also has something to do with his reluctance to face questions, either in parliament or outside. As is now well known, he rarely addresses press conferences or takes unscripted questions. When Modi has to answer questions, they are usually carefully vetted, such as the ones on his Mann ki Baat programme, or during interviews granted to chosen journalists or celebrities.
However, Modi’s reluctance to engage with fellow parliamentarians is also due to the absence of institutional arrangements to make the prime minister answerable to Parliament. While the Indian prime minister usually comes to the parliamentary chambers once a week, there is no system like the Prime Minister’s Question Time in the United Kingdom, where the PM answers questions from MPs in the House of Commons for half an hour every week. The British MPs usually raise questions of current political significance and can ask up to six questions, none of which the prime minister is supposed to know beforehand. Despite their domestic and international commitments, all British prime ministers in the last three decades have maintained roughly 90% attendance during the question time.
Thus, Modi, a powerful public speaker, has followed a policy of using Parliament to reach out to a national audience rather than make himself and his government accountable to other elected representatives. Modi’s lengthy speeches in Parliament – the latest one was over two hours – are well suited to his style of oratory. Debate or accountability, a prerequisite of any parliamentary democracy, is not something that is central to Modi’s scheme of things. In that sense, he is a reluctant parliamentarian much like the last presidential and populist prime minister in India: Indira Gandhi. The latest no-confidence motion did little to dispel that notion.
Ronojoy Sen is with the National University of Singapore. The article partly draws from his recent book House of the People: Parliament and the Making of Indian Democracy.