NEW DELHI — "Who says we don't have the numbers?" Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi said on Wednesday, but the no-confidence motion against the Modi government today is more than just a number game; it promises to be a day long war of words that kicks off at 11:00 am.
In readily agreeing to the no-confidence test in Lok Sabha, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to exude confidence ahead of four state polls and the general election in 2019, while highlighting the chinks in the armor of the so-called united Opposition.
BJP leaders will use today to talk up four years of the Modi government, at a time when many feel the party has struggled to fulfill its campaign promises, especially when it comes to providing jobs. They will also use this opportunity to question the unity and leadership of the parties that have come together to challenge them.
The Opposition is looking to embarrass the BJP government and hold its feet to the fire on a range of issues including religious intolerance, lynchings, violence against Dalits, farmer distress, the problems arising from the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir, women's safety, and demonetisation.
In 2016, Congress President Rahul Gandhi had famously warned of an "earthquake" if he was allowed to speak on demonetisation in Parliament. In April, he dared the prime minister to have a 15-minute debate.
BJP's national general secretary Ram Madhav said on Thursday, "We will see today and tomorrow which regional parties get together with Congress as B team." Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ananth Kumar said, "Sonia Gandhi's maths is weak."
This is the first no-confidence motion against the ruling government since 2003, when the BJP government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power. At the time, the Vajpayee government defeated the no-confidence motion, went on to win three major state elections in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and advanced the date of the general election. The BJP (with 138 seats), however, lost the general election in 2004 to the Congress (with 145 seats) by seven seats.
A looming question is whether the Modi government will advance the 2019 general election. Those who believe that the BJP will lose or barely scrape by in the upcoming four state elections, especially in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, are in favor of advancing the election. They worry that consecutive losses could trigger a downward spiral for the BJP, culminating in a loss in 2019.
Numbers favour BJP
When Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan accepted the Telegu Desam Party's (TDP) no-confidence motion, earlier this week, it was clear that the BJP felt that its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would pass the numerical test.
Following Chandrababu Naidu-led TDP's exit from the NDA in March, over the issue of Special Category Status for Andhra Pradesh, the strength of the ruling alliance came down from 330 to 314 seats in Lok Sabha.
"In view of continued adamant attitude of BJP led NDA Govt, TDP has moved a no confidence motion against them. I appeal to you to support the motion moved by our MPs," Naidu wrote in a letter to all lawmakers on Thursday.
Of the 535 seats in the present Lok Sabha, the BJP alone has 273 seats, which takes it over the half way mark of 268. The BJP is counting on the support of its 26 allies including Shiromani Akali Dal, Lok Janshakti Party, the Janata Dal (United), and Apna Dal.
BJP's ally, Shiv Sena, which has 18 lawmakers in Lok Sabha, has said that it will vote against the no-confidence motion, according to various reports. On Thursday evening, however, Hindustan Times reported that the Maharashtra-based party was non-committal. We have not decided yet...we will arrive at a decision by Friday morning," said Chandrakant Khaire, a party leader and lawmaker.
The Opposition comprises of the Congress (48), Trinamool Congress (34), TDP-16, Communist Party of India (Marxist)-9, Samajwadi Party (7), Nationalist Congress Party (7), Rashtriya Janata Dal (4), the Aam Aadmi Party (4), amongst others.
The Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which has 20 lawmakers, has called on all its MPs to be present in Parliament.
Two other parties, AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) - 37, and the TRS (Telangana Rashtra Samiti) - 11, have not made their position clear.
Even if the AIADMK, the TRS and BJD vote against the NDA, the Opposition would still be well short of passing the no-confidence motion.
"I think there are intellectuals in opposition but they should've done it later. We have the numbers and our moral is also up. I haven't left BJP and party hasn't left me," said Shatrughan Sinha, who is known to criticize his own party and defend political rivals.
The speaking time allotted to the various parties is as follows: BJP- 3 hours 33 minutes, Congress-38 minutes, AIADMK-29 minutes,TMC-27 minutes, BJD-15 minutes, Shiv Sena -14 minutes, TDP-13 minutes,TRS- nine minutes, ANI reported.
Given how readily the BJP agreed to the no-confidence motion, there is speculation as to whether the Amit Shah-Narendra Modi duo have a strategy in place to convince voters that despite the BJP's lackluster performance, Modi is the only leader who can run the country for now, and the so called united opposition is a doomed project.
The so called united opposition has had some measure of success, but suffers from internal rivalries and the failure to project a leader who can front the amalgam of parties.
In Uttar Pradesh, BJP's three successive by-poll losses are attributed to a large extent to an alliance between regional rivals SP and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). In Karnataka, the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) came together to block the BJP from forming the government, even after it emerged as the single largest party in the state election, earlier this year.
The BJP is already in campaign mode, with Modi addressing multiple rallies in Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous and politically significant state, and scheduled to make an appearance in Shahjahanpur, later this month.
The PM will be the final speaker on Friday, when the vast majority of the public can view his speech from home.
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