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In Friday matinee of no-confidence motion, 3 key actors and a climax

All eyes will be on three key actors – Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress president Rahul Gandhi and TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu – during the no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha on Friday.

india Updated: Jul 20, 2018 09:50 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
no confidence motion,no confidence motion against pm,constructive vote of no confidence
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, and Andhra Pradesh chief minister and TDP president N Chandrababu Naidu will be significant for their speeches during Friday’s session which will see a no-confidence motion moved.(HT File Photo)

Picture the debate on the no-confidence motion on Friday as a play. As the contours of its climax are already known, nobody will be watching the play for the last act (although its exact nature can be potentially revealing) but for the performances.

In this drama, three key actors stand out – two present and one absent. While their interplay will define the nature of the act, there will be many others on the stage. The audience is both common and disparate, spread across theatres. And each actor is hoping that his role will please his own target audience.

The spark

The first character is an unlikely one.

N Chandrababu Naidu, the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, is a veteran politician and often likes to remind his interlocutors that he was still a chief minister way back in the mid-90s when many of the current national and state leaders were still struggling. It is Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) that set the ball rolling, or kicked off the act, by filing the no-confidence motion over the Centre’s denial of special category status to his state.

This may seem like a region-specific issue, but it is striking how central Andhra Pradesh has been to national politics in the last decade and a half. It was because of the Congress’ spectacular performance in the state back in 2004 that it was able to oust the BJP from power in Delhi and form the United Progressive Alliance. It did exceptionally well in 2009 too, making it an even more dominant partner in Delhi. A key reason Congress lost political strength in the run-up to the 2014 elections was because of its mismanagement of Andhra Pradesh and the decision to eventually divide the state. The BJP was an unlikely beneficiary. It allied with Naidu’s party and, together, they won both the state and Lok Sabha polls.

Andhra and its internal politics continue to dominate the national theatre. It was because of the internal competitive politics in the state – Naidu faces a challenge from the Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSR Congress Party – that the TDP pulled out of the NDA government and exposed its faultlines earlier this year. It raised the stakes on the demand for special category status and pulled together a broader alliance on the issue, which included the Congress.

The play may have become a lot bigger than what initially triggered it. But it will be useful to remember that Naidu’s hope of projecting himself as effectively challenging BJP, and more broadly, Delhi – as a way to overcome the YSR challenge – is the central driver of the current political churning. Naidu will be absent from the main stage on Friday, but with the very fact that a play is being performed in Parliament, he aims to convey a potent message to his audience at home. That message, he hopes, would help him retain power in the state and win a maximum of the 25 Lok Sabha seats from Andhra.

The challenger

If it was left only to Naidu, the act would have been limited.

It is Rahul Gandhi who took the baton and gave it a national colour. The Congress decided to back the special category status demand as well as the no-confidence motion for the twin purposes of slowly rebuilding its credibility in Andhra Pradesh, whose people blame it entirely for the division of the state, and enhancing its credibility with potential regional allies.

Friday’s speech will be the most important one delivered by Gandhi ever since he became the Congress president. His address to the plenary of the party was meant to boost the morale for Congress workers; his election rallies in Karnataka were meant for a specific electorate. But the no-confidence motion gives him an opportunity to take on the ruling establishment and prove his own credentials before a national audience in the country’s most important institution.

Here lies the rub. Since the climax of the play is pre-determined, Gandhi knows he cannot change it. But what he can aim to do is bedazzle the audience with a memorable performance, with phrases that remain in public memory, with an act that will display what all his confidants and supporters claim is his real persona rather than the caricature that has been created of him.

This will be possible only if Gandhi is able to strike the BJP where it hurts the most, like he did with his “suit boot ki sarkar” jibe, which single-handedly turned the policy direction of the government. This will be possible only if he combines a solid policy critique with the rhetorical flourish that so animates and moves the electorate. It will only be possible if he is able to offer a coherent vision of his own that goes beyond the line of attack and evokes faith because – remember – this is almost a pre-application to become the lead actor in the real play to be enacted in 2019. And it will be possible if he is able to address multiple audiences – those who already harbour antagonistic sentiments towards the BJP and, far more importantly, others who constitute the mass of non-committed floating voters across the country who remain unconvinced about his capabilities.

It is a difficult task, but the stage could not be grander. And with his performance, Gandhi has to not only stop the juggernaut of his principal political rival but also turn it into an advantage for his own party and project it as the anchor of the next coalition.

Holding the crown

But all eyes will be on the third actor, for Narendra Modi thrives in political confrontation on the big stage.

When the climax ends up in his favour, it would be easy to assume that the Prime Minister has a walk-on part. But remember that neither is the BJP a party that rests easy nor is Modi a leader who would let go of any opportunity to project strength while undermining his rivals. As he once told an MP during the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections: “Chunav jung hai aur main iska senapati (An election is a battle, and I am its commander).”

Friday will also be a battle for Modi. His government has already sprung a surprise by the ease with which it accepted the no-confidence motion on the very first day of the house. This means that Modi – the lead actor – also decided the timing of the play, and all others have had to adjust accordingly. His squad has already declared that with the most effective actor on their side, there is no reason to worry.

But Modi will have his own audience to please. He has to keep the core supporters who have stayed on with the BJP through thick and thin happy. This will be possible if the act involves a sharp political attack on all the others on the stage, and a defence of the political worldview the government has pushed over the last four years. He has to please the incremental voters who joined in to support the BJP in the last election. This will be possible if he delivers to them a solid defence of his government’s record. He has to please the various components of his multi-class and multi-caste alliance – the middle class that appears to feel they have lost out; the marginalised and poor he has wooed with welfare initiatives but whose allegiances are fragile; the farmers who remain distressed about prices; and the youth who find a mismatch between abilities, opportunities and aspirations. Modi has to appeal to the south and the east – the two regions the BJP still needs grow in – as well as the heartland, the core belt they need to hold.

But most importantly, the lead actor has to ensure that the national audience continues to have faith in his intent and integrity – which, probably, is the key reason they have reposed faith in the BJP election after election and will be its central plank in 2019.

And the climax

There will be other performances too, almost all of them driven by a strong cost-benefit calculation.

Leaders who see the BJP as a primary threat in the state, whose worldview is fundamentally opposed to that of the BJP, or whose audiences are fundamentally antagonistic to the party, will display aggression. Think of the Trinamool Congress or the Left. Leaders whose audiences do not particularly think about the BJP, or who believe that a working relationship with the Centre is more advantageous, could opt out of the climax. Think of the AIADMK or Telangana Rashtra Samithi. On the other hand, leaders who have already bandwagoned with the BJP will stick on and, despite differences, prove their loyalty. Think of the Janata Dal (United), Shiv Sena or Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party.

But do not assume it’s curtains for the Opposition when the play ends with the BJP emerging victorious.

It will only mark the first act in a drama that will continue till 2019. But the performances themselves will reveal to the Indian audience – the vast electorate in this complex democracy – what lies ahead and who stands on which side.

First Published: Jul 20, 2018 08:50 IST