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Crisis of confidence

Remember that image? NarendrabhaiDamodardasModi paused for a moment at the entrance, then went down on all fours and touched his forehead reverentially on the steps of the grand sandstone edifice before walking into the Central Hall of Parliament to the thunderous ovation of newly elected members of the BharatiyaJanata Party.
The date was May 20, 2014. Modi had led the BJP to a magnificent victory just four days before and this was his maiden entry into Parliament. In an emotionally charged speech befitting the occasion, Modi said, “We are here in the temple of democracy. We will work with all purity… not for the post but the people of the country. Work and responsibility are the biggest things. I accept the responsibility you have reposed in me.”
In the preceding months – from September 13, 2013 when the BJP parliamentary board formally declared him their prime ministerial candidate to May 10, 2014 when the campaign for the sixteenth general elections ended – Modi had dominated the nation’s political discourse. He was everywhere – staring out of hoardings, beaming on television screens, appearing in several places at the same time through the magic of holograms, and physically present in hundreds of rallies and road shows in practically every corner of the country.
In speech after speech, Modi mocked the incumbent prime minister, dubbing him “Maunmohan” Singh – a man who spoke seldom and never too loud. Modi presented himself as the fiery and robust alternative: the strong leader with a self-proclaimed 56-inch-chest, the powerful orator who could keep audiences spellbound, the self-made man who derived strength from his formidable mass appeal and did not need any high command to anoint him. He was here to make India great again – and millions of Indians believed him. For the one thing NarendraModi had in abundance was supreme self-confidence -which deepened and expanded as the BJP went on a winning spree in state after state, and he on a hugging spree in country after country.
After the complete wash out of the second leg of the just concluded Budget Session, that image of Modi’s first day in Parliament and those deluge of words exuding an overweening confidence suddenly seem quaint, outdated and farcical. Because far from worshipping the ‘temple of democracy’, the prime minister treated it with complete disdain. And instead of addressing the burning issues of the day, an otherwise garrulous leader offered only toxic silence.
No matter how much the government tries to blame the Opposition, every member of parliament and every observer in the galleries knows that this session – starting on March 5 and ending on April 6 – was derailed by the ruling party that was too afraid to squarely face the first no-confidence motion since it was elected.
When the session began, the BJP members were on a high. The party had just scored a “historic” victory in Tripura, and spread its footprint across the Northeast. Given these triumphs, the Modi government was not too concerned with the prospect of a discussion on the NiravModi-MehulChoksi bank fraud issue that had come to light the previous month. The wrangle was over the form of discussion: the Opposition, led by the Congress, was keen on a discussion with voting in the RajyaSabha and an adjournment motion in the LokSabha; the government wanted a discussion that did not entail a vote.
But soon, a series of developments rocked the nation and unnerved the government. First, the Telugu Desam Party decided to quit the National Democratic Alliance in protest against the Centre’s refusal to grant special category status to Andhra Pradesh. Then, the “Long March” by Maharashtra farmers from Nashik to Mumbai suddenly brought to the forefront the long smouldering agrarian unrest that had gripped large swathes of rural India.
Days after the march concluded in a blaze of publicity, the BJP faced another unexpected blow: the shock defeats in the LokSabha by-elections in Gorakhpur and Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh and Araria in Bihar. The results had an electrifying impact on the Opposition parties as well. The BJP no longer seemed as invincible as before. Ground realities were compelling erstwhile foes such as the Samajwadi Party and the BahujanSamaj Party to join hands, and the TDP to abandon the NDA, and other allies become more vocal in their dissent.
It was the competitive politics in Andhra Pradesh that led the YSR Congress to give the first notice of a no-confidence motion against the government on March 15. The TDP followed that up with its own notice the next day. Soon, every major Opposition party in Parliament was ready to back the motion. A no-confidence motion can be admitted if 50 members support it. The Opposition clearly had the numbers. But day after day after day, the LokSabha Speaker pleaded helplessness in admitting it on the pretext that the House was not in order. And the House was not in order because friends of the ruling coalition – the TelanganaRashtraSamithi and the All India Anna DravidaMunnetraKazhagam members insisted on disrupting proceedings. The TRS was ostensibly demanding a hike in the reservation quota for the scheduled tribes whose proportion had increased after the formation of Telangana; and the AIADMK was clamouring for the setting up of a Cauvery Management Board.
The Speaker could have asked the marshals to remove the TRS and AIADMK members in order to restore order in the House. But when the government does not want Parliament to function, a Speaker cannot do much. If the government was genuinely interested in restoring order, a far easier way would have been to reach out to the TRS and the AIADMK. A word of assurance from the prime minister would have been enough. But it was obvious to even the most casual observer that the government was not interested in resolving the impasse; rather it actively suited the treasury benches to let the disruptions continue.
Outside Parliament, more turbulence was in store. The Supreme Court’s controversial verdict diluting the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by laying down stringent conditions for lodging cases against the accused led to a furore. Even Dalit MPs belonging to the BJP and allies of the NDA called upon the government to immediately file a review petition in the Supreme Court.
The government eventually filed the petition but only after Dalits across the country called for a national strike on April 2 that was marked by violent protests, leading to the death of at least eleven persons. Those deaths may have been averted if the prime minister had chosen to speak out on the verdict immediately after it was delivered – and given an assurance that his government would not allow any dilution of the Atrocities Act. But even though Parliament was in session neither Modi nor any member of his government thought it wise to make a statement on the floor of the House on such a crucial matter.
The CBSE paper leaks, too, happened while Parliament was in session – but again the ideal forum to address people’s concerns was bypassed by a government that was happy to escape scrutiny from the people’s representatives it is accountable to between elections.
Even after the exit of the TDP, the NDA has enough numbers on paper to win a confidence vote. Outside the NDA, the government has friendly parties to bail it out too. A leader who has been hailed as the “most popular prime minister since Independence” could have used the no-confidence debate to send a message of reassurance to the increasingly restive sections of the Indian people: to farmers, to Dalits and adivasis, to students, to middle-class bank deposit holders. The floor of Parliament, after all, is democracy’s designated place to make a government’s intentions known, not a monthly radio chat show.
By allowing, if not actively encouraging, the washout of the session, the Modi government managed to escape the perils of a no-confidence motion. But in the process, it also betrayed an acute lack of confidence in itself and its leader that is bound to haunt the government for the rest of its term…