No Trust Vote: Opposition in Blunder Land
Typically Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned the no confidence motion into the launch of the Modi 2024 campaign.
The essence of strategy, management guru Michael Porter said, is choosing what not to do.
A few years back, a successful entrepreneur, in an informal conversation, advanced the Indian logic on the strategic call to not do something. It resonated with the wily P V Narasimha Rao’s quip that “not taking a decision was also a decision”! The crux of the insight the tycoon got from his father was that the opponent will always suspect your intelligence, acuity and competence. His father cautioned that the blunder would be to trip on temptation, do or say something and prove the suspicions right.
This week, India’s opposition parties grouped as the INDIA alliance did just that as they chose to process the vote of no confidence against the Modi Sarkar. The exercise amplified caricature painted by the ruling regime and illuminated the worst fears of the followers of the alliance and its voters. Typically Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned it into the launch of the Modi 2024 campaign. Julius Caesar famously said, ‘Veni, Vidi Vici – I came, I saw, I conquered’. The opposition, wallowing in blunder land, issued the clarion call and capitulated to be conquered’!
The coalition has for months raged about the deleterious dilution of democratic institutions, the neglect of crippling inflation and the rising threat of polarisation. Yet, the prosecution of the charges during the trust vote debate was an astonishing display of poor strategy, absence of political acumen, lack of preparedness and ignorance of basic tactics in processing what legal slang defines as ‘oppo’.
The INDIA coalition claims that the ‘no confidence motion’ forced the prime minister to come to Parliament and speak. In the same breath, it charges that the PM spoke on Manipur for just two minutes and that the three vital questions were yet unanswered. No matter how potent a strategy appears, what matters is the outcome. Napoleon once told his troops that when the enemy is erring, it is best not to intervene. The question that begs asking is if the cause of the opposition would have been served better by the strategy of “not doing”.
As the old adage has it failing to prepare is effectively preparing to fail. How good was the preparation of the opposition parties? In the 2018 no trust vote, Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened his salvo by thanking the opposition for the opportunity. He quoted lines from a poem by Bhubaneshwar Prasad Dikshit to highlight the poor preparation. In 2023, he thanked God and the opposition, cited another poet to highlight the fractious coalition and invited them to try again in 2028. He used the occasion to target the Congress and send a message across India’s political geography – the BJP needs to once again win against Congress in nearly 180 face-off seats.
The opposition’s attack was sans focus and quality. The selection of MPs left the better speakers out. Rahul Gandhi, rebranded post the Bharat Jodo Yatra and freshly reinstated as MP, was presented with the occasion to don the role of the voice of dissent – to articulate the rationale for the no-confidence motion. He chose instead to ramble, even if passionately, and indulge in extreme rhetoric laced with mixed metaphors from mythology. The phrase “expunged” appears over 20 times in the Lok Sabha record of his speech.
The performance of other opposition parties was scattered in focus and splattered with sloganeering. The INDIA coalition claims that the exercise was not about winning the vote but winning the war of perception. Did it? The governments led by BJP have many claims to success but also questions to answer – this includes the assaults on women, the othering of communities, the persistence of vacant posts across governments, the state of urbanisation, the historic high of 5.02 crore pending cases in courts and more. You would expect a coalition of 18-plus parties which decided to move the no-confidence motion would act in concert to present a cogent and coherent view. That was scarcely the case.
The war on perception in the internet age demands innovative articulation. The BJP under Modi deploys modern templates in crafting the narrative, whereas the opposition is stuck with idioms of the past. Did they need to field 27 speakers? Was there any attempt to allocate/demarcate geographies and domains to specialists? The parties could have crowdsourced issues – even presented experiences and questions from constituents as challenges to the ruling front’s narrative.
At the birth of the INDIA coalition, this column had observed that the opposition senses the disquiet on disharmony and distress at the bottom of the pyramid but struggles to weave a narrative. Frequently rhetoric conflates the aspiring nation and the political state, causing frustration and anger among those in the middle ground. There is a need to make a distinction between the nation – the cultural, economic and geopolitical context – and the grievances about the regime.
Success demands the opposition articulate what it stands for, not just what it is against, not merely criticise but prove how it can do better. India’s political landscape is riveted by ennui, Latin for weariness and dissatisfaction. Emil Cioran, the Romanian philosopher, in A Short History of Decay, says, “Ennui is the echo in us of time tearing itself apart, the revelation of void.” India needs competitive ideas; politics cannot be merely an argument industry.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India