The hostility and the combativeness on display during Friday’s debate on the no confidence motion in the Lok Sabha set the tone for a no-holds barred fight for the 2019 Parliamentary elections. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertion that his government was going to go after VIPs who have infringed the law, was evidently a strong rebuttal to Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who, while singling out PM Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, said that they fear losing power because they know that “other processes will start against them once they were no longer in office”. Modi’s reference was to the case against former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, clearly hinting that the government would not hesitate in acting against other prominent leaders of the Congress.
The day-long debate witnessed angry exchanges between the two sides, with Rahul becoming the first ever Opposition leader to launch a scathing attack on PM Modi, demanding answers for some uncomfortable questions concerning farmers’ distress, unemployment, the poor state of the economy and a plethora of unfulfilled promises. He lashed out at the government for its failure to check mob lynching, and while raising the Rafale issue, minced no words in insinuating that huge kickbacks were involved in order to double the price of the aircraft during the BJP regime. He accused the Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, of making inconsistent statements that to him meant that the government was concealing facts.
Modi, who has always taken the lead in setting the political agenda ever since he took over as Prime Minister, hit back at the Congress leadership with all the ferocity at his command, taunting it for not respecting the mandate of the people. He emphasised, that his party and its allies enjoyed the support of the people, who in 2014 had shown the door to the Congress for indulging in unprecedented corruption. Characteristically, without answering any of the questions raised by Rahul, he went ahead and gave a detailed account of his government’s achievements.
The debate brought to fore fault lines both in the Opposition ranks as well as in the ruling dispensation. The Shiv Sena stayed away from the proceedings in order to reflect its differences with its ally. On the other hand, AIADMK voted with the government, while the Telangana Rashtra Samithi and Biju Janata Dal abstained from the proceedings, allowing the BJP to consolidate its winning margin. The TDP, which had moved the motion with the support of the Congress, towards the end belted out at both the BJP and the Congress for doing injustice to the people of Andhra, leaving Sonia Gandhi and her colleagues shell-shocked. Many in the Congress had wanted to know why the party had supported the TDP in the first place since in their estimation the Telugu outfit was a BJP Trojan in the Opposition and was 100 per cent anti Congress.
While the drama played out in Parliament, there were varied interpretations of who won, or who lost, in political circles. The views, indeed, were seen depending on the ideological spectacles worn by various people. Social media went into a tizzy when Rahul took Modi by surprise by going across to the treasury benches to shake hands, post his aggressive tirade against the Prime Minister. The encounter ended in an embrace, with several Parliamentarians accusing the Congress president of breaching protocol and acting against the decorum and dignity of the House. From Rahul’s standpoint, it was seen as his way of mocking the Prime Minister, who has the propensity of hugging world leaders whenever he meets them.
Much before the debate had commenced, doubts were raised on why a no confidence motion was moved nine months ahead of a Lok Sabha election since the BJP had a clear majority in the House. The proceedings showed that Rahul consciously used the opportunity to pit himself as a possible contender for the leadership role of the Opposition alliance against Modi, without realising that in a one-on-one fight, it was the Prime Minister who would emerge as the undisputed winner.
Rahul was evidently aware that other contenders for the leadership role of the Opposition combination were not members of the Lok Sabha, and it was, therefore, his day since by taking on Modi in full public view, he had delivered a punch beyond his weight. His performance in the House would make it difficult for any Opposition configuration to ignore the Congress, which was finding it hard to make a place in the proposed Gathbandhan, with several leaders stressing that the alliance would be both against the BJP and the Congress, thereby comprising only regional players.
The ambiguous stand taken by several regional parties also sends a signal that the alignments had not been firmed up, and the massive victory of the NDA in the voting did not purport that those who had voted with the government had committed themselves for the future as well. The issue was wide open.
In a nutshell, none of the accusations made against the government have been refuted. The focus of social media has been to deviate and swing the debate from the issues on hand to personalities. This necessarily may not be the truth in respect of an objective takeaway from the debate. The ball is in the people’s court. At this juncture, it is difficult to perceive Rahul as a future Prime Minister. The pertinent point being what would happen in 2019. With the Opposition in a state of confusion, it would be a Modi versus Modi contest. Modi of 2014 pitted against Modi of 2019. Thus people will either vote for him, or against him.