The emphatic victory of the Narendra Modi government in the no-confidence motion moved by the Telugu Desam Party was creditable. But it does not detract from the fact that the trial of strength in the Lok Sabha was not really about overthrowing the government and triggering a general election some six months before schedule. It has become almost customary for an opposition, especially an opposition that believes it is on a political high, to move a no-confidence vote to score debating points, especially towards the fag end of a five-year term. Last Friday’s long debate was no exception.
There was an additional dimension. By itself, and irrespective of political compulsions, the TDP neither had the political muscle nor a sufficiently appealing plank to convert an essentially regional spat into a national cause. By itself, the case for a Special Status to Andhra Pradesh — regardless of its merit or otherwise — wasn’t strong enough to coalesce all the other grievances against the Modi government. What drove the motion was the need for the new Congress President Rahul Gandhi to use the no-confidence motion to establish himself as a credible national leader. The Congress, in fact, hoped this would give him the platform to even emerge as a national alternative to Modi.
It is still too early to assess the impact of Rahul’s intervention on his national stature. The reactions to his over-dramatised and somewhat flippant speech — high on rhetoric but woefully lacking in sobriety and gravitas — has been on predictably partisan lines. The critics of Modi, especially those from the highly activist Fourth Estate, have been quick to see the speech as evidence of Rahul’s flowering as a national leader. They particularly appreciated the fact that the Congress President wasn’t lacking in self-confidence. Others went overboard in seeing his melodramatic hug of Modi as a master stroke, which it could possibly have been had it not been accompanied by a tell-tale wink which established it as a high-school jape.
The drama apart, what Rahul sought to achieve was to tell the nation that the planks on which Modi had won the 2014 election were spurious. In particular, he tried to puncture the prime minister’s personal integrity and expose him to charges of corruption. Rahul seems to believe that the Rafale aircraft deal could become the equivalent of the Bofors scandal that contributed immeasurably to his father’s defeat in 1989. As of now, the calculation seems unfounded. Likewise, Rahul’s charge of Modi capitulating to China suggested that he was still innocent of the complexities of foreign policy.
An opposition leader, especially in India, has to assault the government with a measure of exaggeration. That is part of the game. The bigger challenge is blend negativism with a measure of sobriety that would also establish claims of being a worthwhile alternative. Rahul’s experiments with negativism were adequate but in laying claims to be seriously regarded as a future prime minister, capable of managing the complexities of India, he still has a very long way to go.
On his part, the prime minister was confronted with two choices. He could either play to the galleries and match rhetoric with rhetoric. Alternatively, he could play the rules of conventional politics and use the no-confidence vote to give an account of his government’s achievements. His loyal supporters expected him to match Rahul’s drama with some Modi drama, something he can be rather good at. Instead, Modi chose to be a little-extra sober and confine his sharp repartee to asides. His long speech didn’t equal Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 1996 speech that set exalted standards. In fact, judged from Modi’s own high standards, last Friday evening’s concluding speech was dry. Indeed, Modi seemed a bit weighed down by facts and figures.
Those who have observed Modi over a period of time would be inclined to believe there is method in his dryness. Looking back at the post-2002 Gujarat elections, one can see that electioneering is split in two parts. In the six months before electioneering begins in right earnest, Modi does intensive tours of the constituencies and meetings with focus groups where he confines himself to spreading the word about his government’s achievements. This sets the stage for his final, frenzied round of campaigning where the emphasis is on rhetoric and the mobilisation of the party’s forces. At this stage of the coming battle, Modi chose to wilfully underplay the rhetorical flourishes. He attacked the opposition — in particular the Congress President’s sense of entitlement — but refrained from any excessive spilling of blood. He focused principally on his government’s record and its sense of mission.
It seems that Modi was also quite consciously contrasting his own ability to dwell on the specifics of governance with Rahul’s rather casual approach to details and factual integrity. If that was the case, he appears to have succeeded. Throughout the debate on the no-confidence motion, Modi bombarded the Lok Sabha with a surfeit of data aimed at demonstrating that his government was indeed transforming India. It was principally for the record but important in building the bigger narrative. Most important, he disappointed his critics by steering clear of the communal schisms.
For Modi, the no-confidence motion was a positioning exercise. He painted himself as a venerable politician, at ease with the all important project of delivering good and transformative governance. Rahul was left to play the role of an impetuous politician, out to make his mark. The general election won’t necessarily see Modi donning the same mantle. Modi, the parliamentarian, will be different from Modi, the campaigner.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.