Manipur Crisis: Modi's speech takes centrestage in No Confidence drama Video Credit: YouTube

The three day debate on the no confidence motion ended in India’s parliament on Thursday with Prime Minister Modi’s attack on the opposition in what was a bitter end to a bitter debate.

The motion was moved by opposition parties to force the PM to speak in the House on Manipur, after he had completely avoided any statement on the issue - barring one more than 80 days after the violence began.

In the end, the debate on the no confidence motion against the government in Parliament turned out to be a curtain raiser for the 2024 Lok Sabha election campaign, with both sides pulling out all the stops and setting their agendas.

What stood out was that the Prime Minister spent most of his long speech attacking the opposition alliance — the Congress and Rahul Gandhi in particular (without naming him) and spoke on Manipur only very briefly, that too more than 90 minutes into his speech.

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Opposition hits back

By the time he finally mentioned Manipur, the opposition had walked out of the Lok Sabha. It is quite astonishing that that the Prime Minister did not seem it fit to say more than a few sentences about a state that has seen unprecedented violence since May and desperately needs a healing touch. Instead, the focus was on barbs and jokes about the opposition alliance and its name — INDIA.

As the no confidence motion debate got underway earlier this week, the BJP made a new campaign theme public — Quit India: of dynasty, corruption, and appeasement politics. This lays the groundwork for what the Modi government will focus on in the general elections.

The opposition hit back with senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh posting on the social media platform X — “It is quite the irony that those who were never part of the Freedom movement, those who never supported the Quit India movement, and those whose ideological forebears supported the British government, are talking of Quit India today.”

OPN Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi, senior leader of India's principal opposition party, Congress, arrives at the parliament after Supreme Court of India reinstated as a lawmaker, in New Delhi, India, August 7, 2023 Image Credit: Reuters

Deflection strategies

What is very clear now is that the INDIA opposition alliance has got under the BJP’s skin and the way Rahul Gandhi’s speech during the no confidence debate was expunged at several places is a reflection of this.

Not just that, when the Congress MP spoke, the state run Sansad TV cameras spent more time focused on the Lok Sabha Speaker. When union minister Smriti Irani spoke, the same cameras stayed on her most of the time.

Rahul Gandhi’s speech itself had mixed reactions. Some say the references to “Bharat mata” and to “traitors” was over the top, that he should have stuck to facts especially about Manipur. However, politics today has become much about theatrics too, and Rahul Gandhi’s speech was fiery and combative.

Perhaps it needed less rhetoric and more substance, but the same can be said of the treasury benches. The fact that BJP MPs tried to divert attention to a controversy over an alleged “flying kiss” by Rahul Gandhi in the House was more evidence that the Wayanad MP is touching a raw nerve.

Modi vs Rahul

But it also suits the BJP to make the 2024 battle one between Modi and Rahul. Rahul Gandhi has been smart in recent months by taking a back seat in opposition meetings and letting his party President Mallikarjun Kharge take the lead. Now that he is back as MP, the Congress must desist from making Rahul appear to be the “face” of the INDIA bloc.

For the moment, it is better for the INDIA alliance not to get into bickering over who should lead them and to stick to substantive issues with which to take on the BJP. For Rahul Gandhi himself, both the Bharat jodo Yatra and his expulsion as a member of Parliament have done him a world of good.

They have turned around his non serious image and gave him much goodwill. Mr. Modi may still have the advantage over all other political leaders when it comes to voters, but there is no doubt Rahul Gandhi has changed.

As the opposition gears up for its third big meeting in Mumbai later this month, the BJP too is fully in poll mode. The countdown to the next general election has well and truly begun.