Pavan K. Varma | Debate, not disruption, must be Opposition strategy
The no-confidence motion moved by the Opposition in the last Monsoon Session was predictably defeated. Now it is time to take stock of the government’s response to the Opposition’s demands, and the Opposition’s strategy to ensure that they were met.
The Opposition wanted to have a discussion on Manipur under Rule 267 of the Lok Sabha’s procedures with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s participation. Under this rule, the Speaker can adjourn, with proper notice, the House’s scheduled list of business “to discuss a definitive matter of urgent political importance”. The discretion to accept or deny such a motion lies with the Speaker, and in the Rajya Sabha with the Chairperson.
On the eve of the monsoon session, a video surfaced of two women in Manipur sexually assaulted, and paraded naked surrounded by a mob. The video shocked the conscience of the nation, and once again drew attention to the ongoing violence and anarchy in that sensitive border state for more than 77 days. In my view, the Opposition’s request was not unreasonable. Rule 267 has been created for a purpose. Since 1990, the Chair has given permission for a discussion under it on 11 occasions, on issues ranging from the Babri Masjid demolition, Gulf War, Coalgate scam, the attack on the secular fabric of the country, agrarian crisis, farmer suicides, and demonetisation.
However, in the case of Manipur, the Speaker and the Chairperson Rajya Sabha did not agree. The counter-offer was a short duration discussion under Rule 176 of Parliament, which has a time limit of two-and-a-half hours, where the concerned minister dealing with the subject — in the case of Manipur, home minister Amit Shah — would reply to the motion. When I had moved a motion a short duration discussion on the crisis in Indo-Nepal relations in December 2015, it was replied to by then foreign minister Sushma Swaraj.
The Opposition was not satisfied. It wanted PM Modi to come to the House and make a statement under Rule 267. The PM refused to oblige, although I think his stature would have been enhanced had he agreed, and tried to build a consensus, cutting across party lines, to unite and work to resolve Manipur’s prolonged crisis. An all-party delegation could then have visited Manipur.
Consequently, the Opposition did not let the House function. The government later did make an offer to have a discussion on Manipur under Rule 176 for an unlimited duration, but again the Opposition did not agree. It then decided to move a no-confidence motion against the government to ensure that the PM speaks.
This was, to my mind, a strategic error. Firstly, a no-confidence motion allows the Treasury benches to speak on all issues, including highlighting their achievements to explain why they still enjoy the confidence of the people. Secondly, the time allotted to the Opposition based on numerical strength in the House, is far less than that available to the ruling party. Thirdly, except for an effective opening speech by Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi, who had moved the motion, the attack against the government was disorganised, inadequately structured, and lacked a coherent narrative both on Manipur, and on issues like price rise, unemployment, growing economic inequality, authoritarianism, and rising communal tensions. Rahul Gandhi’s polemical and meandering speech was a missed opportunity. Fourthly, the star speakers on the other side made a coordinated onslaught on their political opponents. Amit Shah spoke for two hours, and gave his own version of the situation in Manipur. Fifthly, the Opposition presented Mr Modi the opportunity on a platter to use all his famed eloquence for a two-hour speech at the end of the debate, shown live on TV across India. And lastly, the Opposition, which had moved the no-confidence motion, walked out before the debate ended, and Gaurav Gogoi did not even exercise his right of reply.
In retrospect, it would have been a better strategy, if the Opposition had agreed to a discussion on Manipur, with each of its speakers first expressing on record their anguish at the absence of the PM on such an important debate. This way the PM’s absence would have been highlighted, and the sorry spectacle of a failed no-confidence motion avoided. In fact, I am clearly of the view that disruption of House proceedings on a daily basis is a strategy of diminishing returns. It prevents a debate where the Opposition’s voice can be heard, and influence the views of people. The importance of this was apparent during the discussion on the Delhi Ordinance Bill on Services, where speakers like Abhishek Manu Singhvi and P. Chidambaran gave eloquent and substantive speeches, heard with rapt attention in live telecasts.
It is true that it was the BJP that first gave legitimacy to House disruptions. When the UPA was in power, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, leaders of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, respectively, said that disruptions are also a form of democratic protest. When the BJP came to power in 2014, the Congress and the Opposition, in a tit for tat response, did exactly the same. But now I think the strategy is misfiring. Even if we accept that the Treasury benches are unreasonable in accepting valid requests of the Opposition, and the presiding officers of both Houses are — as the Opposition alleges — partisan, a perennially non-functional House, which sees no debate but only unseemly din and uproar, with parliamentary decorum flouted on a daily basis, is getting a thumbs down from the public at large. Meanwhile, none of this stops the government from passing key bills without discussion and debate. It would be far better if the Opposition, while firmly protesting the disregard to their requests, prepares well for key discussions, and makes its voice heard, in a House where the unalterable truth is that the ruling party has an overwhelming majority and takes full advantage of it.
The trust deficit in the Parliament is now almost unbridgeable. In any case, this Parliament session is now over, with national elections due in a few months. The battle for 2024 has begun.