The script has mostly been the same for much of the last four years. The Opposition tries as much as it can to take the battle to the Bharatiya Janata Party in Parliament, only to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi unleashed at the very end – and usually win the day. Friday’s 12-hour-long debate on the no-confidence motion moved by the Telugu Desam Party was expected to follow the same script.
And it did, for the most part, as the night ended with the BJP notching up a comfortable 325-126 victory against the Opposition’s no-confidence move. But the debate that preceded voting threw up two unusual developments: Congress President Rahul Gandhi delivered a fiesty speech with a theatrical ending, and Modi ended up being much less of a weapon than he usually is. Despite the lopsided nature of the final vote count, it is possible that the BJP’s leadership will go home somewhat unhappy at how Friday turned out.
The only previous time in the last four years that this has been the case was the “suit-boot” moment in 2015, when Gandhi managed to deliver a line in Parliament that got under Modi’s skin, forcing his administration to take a much more populist line afterwards. But that worked in part because there had been no expectations that the Nehru-Gandhi scion would amount to much in Parliament. Friday’s speaking line-up was, however, advertised almost like a prize bout, with Gandhi the challenger and Modi the comfortably ahead reigning champion.
Gandhi took the field first, and offered up a speech that included references to the son of BJP President Amit Shah, industrialists whom he alleged Modi was close to and allegations that both the defence minister and the prime minister were lying to the country. It ended with a hug, one that will undoubtedly be the most memorable moment of the day, if not the entire session.
That being done, the question was whether Modi would find a way to outdo his unexpectedly successful opponent. The wait, however, would be long, with the Speaker extending the time allotted for the debate continuously until, as many predicted, Modi was invited to speak just as television prime time had begun, at 9 pm.
He took the floor amid chanting from the Telugu Desam Party members demanding justice for promises they claimed had been made to their state of Andhra Pradesh, which drowned out his initial remarks, including a jab aimed directly at Gandhi’s hug stunt, when the latter asked Modi to stand up before embracing him.
Senior BJP leaders managed to convince the TDP members to stop chanting – though this was only visible to those in the room since the cameras only showed Modi and the Treasury benches, where the government’s members were sitting. This gave the prime minister an opportunity to build some rhythm with his speech.
Attacks and mockery
For a while it seemed like classic Modi: A clever inversion of Gandhi’s claim that Modi couldn’t look him in the eye, by insisting that Gandhi was a naamdar, a dynast, and he himself was a kaamdar, self made, and that it was true, he couldn’t look into the eyes of someone born into power. But in characteristic Modi fashion this allegation of overconfidence being behind the no-confidence motion also included mocking former Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s Italian accent, a reference to her claim that she had enough numbers to win the day.
But then Modi plunged back into the weeds, and eventually took on TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu as well, saying that his decision to pull out of the BJP-run National Democratic Alliance earlier this year was prompted by Andhra Pradesh politics rather than any broader principle. But this accusation, that the TDP’s pullout and no-confidence motion was motivated more out of self interest and not Andhra’s well being, inspired that party’s MPs to begin protesting again.
With the speaker, who had in the past interrupted other people’s speeches because of the din, unwilling to adjourn Modi’s speech, the prime minister continued delivering his comments with “we want justice” chants in the background. He continued for nearly an hour, diving deep into complex subjects like how the bad loans problem for banks had come about and what was going on with the economy. But because of the TDP protests, he could barely be heard, and little of this seemed to have much impact on the house, even less so on TV.
He concluded with a couple of important statements, saying that the government stands with Muslim women and that he was against violence, but again because of the background noise and the fact that it was nearly 11 pm, these barely registered.
Voting then followed, allowing the BJP to register its victory, but the prime minister did not seem overly pleased. Some of this might have been because the BJP was hoping to get more than 350 votes. It only managed 325 in the end. But some of it must have been due to the drowning out of the prime minister’s speech by the chanting, an unusual occurrence and one that certainly made it more likely that Gandhi’s hug would be the bigger newspoint from the day.
But even if there hadn’t been the background noise getting in the way, Modi’s speech might still have been something of a disappointment. He was clearly having to read out from his notes, something that is unusual for the prime minister, and he chose to go well into the latter half of primetime while tackling the complicated task of having to explain the non-performing assets crisis in Indian banks to the public. That is a tough task at the best of times. At 10.30 pm after a day full of debate with a protesting MPs making a ruckus, it proved to be too much even for the prime minister.
His supporters will still say he won the day, delivering a couple of strong jabs against the Congress and the TDP. It is not like Modi made a mess of things. It’s just that he was merely middling. But on a day where the mention of Amit Shah’s son and an unexpected hug had become the news, Modi needed to do more to wrest back control of the narrative, and that did not seem to happen. In fact, quick ministerial action in getting France to respond to Gandhi’s claim regarding secrecy in the Rafale fighter jet deal may have been the more effective response to the Congress leader than Modi’s speech.
The Monsoon Session has only just begun though, and it is likely that all sides will want another shot at this. The one thing that seemed to be clear was that everyone in Parliament seemed all set to turn on election mode. In that regard at least, Friday’s drama seemed more like the first round in a championship bout that will have many more rounds yet.