No-confidence motion: Will Modi do the unthinkable and stun Opposition?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
You might disagree with their politics, but you would agree that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah have on several occasions in the past four years displayed a penchant for catching the Opposition by surprise.

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The first day of the monsoon session was another such occasion. The Opposition was caught unawares when Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan not only accepted their notices to move no-confidence motion against the Modi government but also announced that it would be held as early as Friday.

In the Budget session, Mahajan had received criticism for pointing to the disruptions as a pretext for not allowing a debate on no-confidence motion notices. She had, however, ignored the same disruptions to allow the passage of the Finance Bill without any discussion.

Therefore, none in the Opposition had on Wednesday anticipated that the government would not only agree to face a no-confidence motion but that it would be held within 48 hours.

According to BJP sources, party chief Shah drove this change in strategy. He convinced the rest of the leadership that the debate on the no-confidence motion would afford the government the opportunity to expose the Opposition narrative and also its lack of unity.

The debate on the no-confidence motion is scheduled to start in the Lok Sabha at 11 am and go on for seven hours. It should conclude by six but is likely to stretch until at least 8 pm. This would mean the PM, the last speaker in the debate, will reply around the time that people across the country would be preparing to sit down to watch television over dinner on Friday evening. The PM’s speech is expected to be a veritable launch of his Lok Sabha election campaign.

Meanwhile, the Opposition would hope its speakers succeed in conveying to the people why nearly all Opposition parties are against the Modi government. They will speak on a host of issues – price rise, lynchings, Jammu & Kashmir, foreign policy, flight of capital, increase in deposits by Indians in Swiss banks, fleeing of economic offenders from India, atrocities on Dalits and security of women.

But the question gnawing Opposition strategists is whether Modi and Shah would yet again try to surprise them. There is a view that the PM could use his speech to paint the Opposition as a motley crowd of discredited leaders, and use the no-confidence motion debate to call for an early election.

The PM, or so it is being speculated, would deliver his speech, and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would comfortably defeat the no-confidence motion. The message to the people would be that Modi is unbeatable, and he might then proceed to recommend to the President that he order the Lok Sabha’s dissolution and pave the way for general elections.

In such a scenario, the Lok Sabha elections could take place along with the Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram Assembly polls in November-December. The Election Commission would also be ready with its revised electoral rolls by then.

Already, over the past month, the PM has increased his public outreach. He has been addressing more public rallies and also reaching out to representatives of women self-help groups, farmers and other groups through teleconference. The BJP has also upped the ante by attacking the Congress, particularly with an agenda to polarise voters and make 2019 a ‘Hindu BJP versus Muslim Congress’ election.

Those supporting the theory of an early Lok Sabha election, even within the BJP and larger Sangh Parivar, believe the BJP is on a weak wicket in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. They believe losses in these three states will contribute immensely to the Opposition’s morale, and send a message across the country that the BJP was beatable. They argue that the losses in the recent Lok Sabha by-elections in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Maharashtra have drilled holes in BJP's aura of invincibility. The Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) forming a government in Karnataka has further dented Modi-Shah's carefully crafted image of unbeatable leaders.

To prevent this, or so it is being argued within the Sangh Parivar, Modi and Shah should catch the bull by its horns and go in for early elections to limit the losses. Any further delay in holding the Lok Sabha election would only lead to the BJP increasingly losing ground, a section of the RSS top leadership have told BJP leaders.

But the ghost of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s mistake in calling Lok Sabha elections six months in advance in 2004 continues to haunt the BJP leadership. The 2004 Lok Sabha elections were scheduled for September-October. BJP leader Pramod Mahajan convinced Vajpayee and senior leadership that the BJP should advance it to April-May. The BJP had won the Assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in November-December of 2003, which had enthused it to call an early election.

In the event, the BJP’s seats tally dropped from 182 to 138. The Congress, with 145 seats, a mere seven seats more than the BJP, emerged the single largest party and formed a coalition government with the help of the Left and regional parties. The BJP had to stay out of power at the Centre for 10 years.

Shah has immense faith in astrology. It remains to be seen if his astrologers believe holding early elections might be more propitious for the BJP.

Will the Opposition parties and people of India be in for a surprise in the next couple of days?