No-confidence motion was Opposition’s last resort to hold Modi govt to account
It is no secret that the motion of no-confidence in the Council of Ministers moved by Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi and admitted by Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla on Wednesday (July 26) will be easily and roundly defeated by the BJP-led NDA government.
Yet, the 26 parties of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), on whose behalf Gogoi claimed the Narendra Modi government has lost the confidence of Parliament, hope that a discussion on the motion would force the Prime Minister to finally break his studied silence on the unceasing ethnic violence in Manipur. The Opposition also feels the debate could help outline the narrative it wishes to build against the BJP in the run-up to next year’s Lok Sabha polls.
Gogoi told The Federal that parties in the INDIA coalition are well aware that the motion will be defeated. “This is not about who wins the vote; it is about issues that should worry every Indian. A part of the Indian Union has been burning for the past 85 days; it is our citizens who are being murdered, raped, forced to flee their homes; and this raging fire is now spreading to neighbouring states. Yet, the PM is unwilling to tell Parliament how such a situation came to pass under his watch and in a state that is also under BJP rule. Everyone knows that we have used no-confidence as a last resort. The government said it is open to a short-duration discussion only; this shows how little importance it places on the stability, safety, and security of our northeastern states and its people.”
Gogoi’s party colleague, Anantpur Sahib MP Manish Tewari, explained that all constituents of the INDIA coalition felt it “imperative to move this no-confidence motion” because “the situation in Manipur is extremely disturbing… There is a clear ethnic divide, law and order has completely collapsed, and the constitutional instrumentalities, which are available to the governor to restore the majesty of the rule of law, have not been exercised. These are issues which require answers and accountability from the apex level of the government… After repeated adjournment motions, both in the Lok Sabha, under Rule 184, and in the Rajya Sabha, under Rule 267, were rejected, the only way accountability could be demanded out of the NDA-BJP government was to move a no-confidence motion”.
Question of when
The Speaker will now decide when the Lok Sabha takes up the motion for discussion. Rules of procedure and conduct of the Lok Sabha’s business dictate that a discussion on the no-confidence motion (Rule 198) must be initiated within 10 days of the motion being admitted. Convention, however, demands that the Speaker prioritise a debate on the motion over all other listed business of the House, as it is the confidence in the Union government that has been called into question.
Whether Birla goes by convention or follows the precedent set by his predecessor, Sumitra Mahajan, who in 2018 took her own time to admit a similar motion moved by Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) against the Modi government and then spent a few more days before allowing the discussion, is not known. Sources in the Opposition, however, indicated that any delay by the Speaker to put the motion to debate will only lead to further disruptions in the Lok Sabha, where nearly five of Parliament’s 17 scheduled sittings for the Monsoon Session have already been wasted due to Birla’s refusal to accept the many adjournment motion notices previously moved by Opposition MPs demanding discussion on the situation in Manipur.
Confident of defeating the motion with a greater margin of votes than it did the one brought by the TDP in 2018, the BJP has mocked the INDIA coalition for claiming that Modi has lost the confidence of Parliament. Incidentally, on Wednesday evening, Modi prophesised about his third term in office in his address at the inaugural of the International Convention Centre — Bharat Mandapam — at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan.
Purposes of a no-confidence motion
However, contrary to the mischievously misleading commentaries in mainstream media, the sole purpose of a no-confidence motion is not to oust an incumbent government. The fall of a government in the event of it losing a no-confidence motion is merely one consequence of the mandate of Rule 198. What is of more substantive import is that the instrument of Rule 198 offers MPs backing such a motion a chance to seek answers on a wide array of questions that the government is presumably avoiding.
In the current case, the foremost issue at hand is the situation in Manipur, on which the PM has refused to make a statement in Parliament. Additionally, the INDIA coalition MPs are also expected to raise other issues such as rising unemployment and inflation, alleged assaults on the federal structure and social unrest since discussions on a no-confidence motion need not be confined to a definite matter.
“Certainly, Manipur will take priority in the discussion but since a no-confidence motion is not subject to the limitation of discussions only on a definite matter, we will hold the government to account on other issues as well… There are a number of issues on which the Modi government has refused to offer any credible answers despite the Opposition raising them repeatedly, be it rising prices and unemployment, the misuse of central probe agencies or the constant undermining of the federal structure in non-BJP-ruled states through Governors and Lieutenant Governors. Several of these issues were also highlighted in the resolution that was passed by INDIA at its meeting in Bangalore on July 18,” said Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien.
“The no-confidence motion surely gives our colleagues in the Lok Sabha a chance to demand answers from the PM on all of these matters though I am confident that, as always, his response will be high on rhetoric and low on substance; he will distract, discredit, divert, obfuscate but the Opposition will be able to tell the country from Parliament what sets it apart from the BJP and the issues that will be germane to INDIA’s fight against the BJP-NDA in the Lok Sabha polls,” O’Brien added.
History of no-confidence motions
Even a cursory glance at the history of motions of no-confidence moved against successive governments since 1952 would canvass the expansive scope of Rule 198, evidently far wider than the issue-specific adjournment motion.
The no-confidence motion admitted by Birla on Wednesday is the 28th such motion to be successfully moved in the Lok Sabha in its over-seven-decade history. The first such motion was moved by JB Kripalani in 1963 against the Congress government headed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the wake of India’s humiliation in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Despite the bitter criticism of the Nehru government from MPs across party lines during the 21-hour debate on the motion that spanned four days, the motion was squarely defeated.
In the decades that followed, almost every Prime Minister has faced the challenge to defeat a no-confidence motion — and only three, VP Singh in 1990, HD Deve Gowda in 1997, and Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1999, suffered the ignominy of losing their post and government after having lost the vote on the motion of no-confidence. Indira Gandhi, through her various stints as PM, faced the maximum number of no-confidence motions — 15 — and survived each one of them.
Yet, each debate on such a motion served the larger purpose of posing uncomfortable but important questions to the government of the day, albeit with varying degrees of success in securing answers.
Why no-confidence motion was the last resort
The Modi government’s obstinate refusal to engage with the Opposition and concede to demands for discussions on critical matters facing the country, arguably, has no parallels in the history of India’s Parliament. The otherwise loquacious and omnipresent Prime Minister’s frequent absence from and rare interventions in Parliament are widely known.
For an Opposition struggling to corner Modi on the floor of Parliament, its challenge is compounded by two other maladies. Firstly, the number of sittings of Parliament in a year has been steadily shrinking over the years and, when sessions are convened, most days are lost to disruptions. More disturbingly, by routinely dismissing notices for adjournment or suspension of business submitted by Opposition MPs in either House of Parliament, the chief presiding officers of the Rajya Sabha (the Chairman) and the Lok Sabha (the Speaker) have displayed a brazenly partisan conduct that frequently allows the government to escape necessary scrutiny.
The motion for no-confidence, thus, seems to be the only instrument available to the Opposition to hold the Prime Minister and his government to account despite the inevitability of the motion being defeated and giving Modi and the BJP another opportunity for chest-thumping.