Mission accomplished

Mission accomplished

No-trust motion

Congress President Rahul Gandhi hugs Prime Minister Narendra Modi after his speech in the Lok Sabha on 'no-confidence motion' during the Monsoon Session of Parliament, in New Delhi on Friday, July 20, 2018. (PTI Photo)

A vote of no-confidence is one of the most rigorous instruments of political control. The motion of no-confidence against the Narendra Modi government has raised fundamental questions about its nature, content, context and timing. In the mother of parliaments, England, no-confidence motions are used sparingly and only when there is a major crisis. Yet, they are meant to be targeted attacks by the opposition to alert the populace and the government.

It is also a political risk, since it could backfire against the proposer. The timing of the motion is also a matter of political judgement. Moreover, using a no-confidence motion on a trivial matter or when the numbers in the House are lopsided, can be counter-productive. 

In India, a no-confidence motion has often been perceived by the opposition as a strong tool to be used strategically and tactfully in the game of politics. The post-demonetisation debates, GST, special category status for Andhra Pradesh, the Shiv Sena’s decision not to fight the 2019 elections alongside the BJP, the fallout of the Karnataka elections, defence deals and the Nirav Modi scam have all come in handy for the opposition. These provided the opposition the necessary impetus to initiate the no-confidence motion, though they were awfully short of numbers to bring down the government.

Perhaps the opposition sensed an opportunity for strategising its policy positions, without necessarily believing that it can bring down the Modi government. In fact, the Lok Sabha’s Conduct of Business rule 198 clearly stipulates that no-confidence motions are being provided as a ‘remedy’ to the opposition. 

When no-confidence motions have been taken up for discussion in India’s parliamentary history, they have not necessarily been because of the opposition’s confidence in bringing down the government. Hence, it is not to be perceived merely as a numbers game, though numbers matter. Even a cursory analysis of the last 26 no-confidence motions suggests that most were introduced when the opposition  knew the government would win. In fact, many of them were symbolic in nature. Hence, from the opposition parties’ perspective, the no-confidence motion is meant to amplify and magnify specific issues/concerns. Moreover, unlike the routine debates that take place in the Lok Sabha, no-confidence motions attract nationwide attention.

Much water has flown down the Yamuna since the first no-confidence motion was initiated by the socialist leader Acharya Kripalani against Jawaharlal Nehru’s government in August 1963. Lal Bahadur Shastri and PV Narasimha Rao faced three no-confidence motions each. Morarji Desai faced a no-confidence motion in July 1979 and resigned even before it could be voted upon.

Indira Gandhi faced some 15 no-confidence motions, including one initiated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1967. She had the numbers to survive them all. Overall, the Congress governments faced 23 of the 26 no-confidence motions in the past. Vajpayee himself faced a no-trust motion in April 1999 and fell by one vote, but survived a second one in August 2003.

The no-confidence motion against Modi more or less reflected the scenario when Vajpayee’s government, with a strength of 325 members, took on a combined opposition of 212. Hence, to perceive a no-confidence motion as a reflection of the opposition’s arrogance, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested, does not augur well for democracy.

Elsewhere, there are a variety of dimensions in the use of no-trust motions, namely an express motion of no-confidence, implied motions of no-confidence and a constructive vote of no-confidence. Recently, the Greek government survived a no-confidence motion over its deal to end years of animosity with Macedonia over its name; or perhaps there could be certain take-aways from the German experience. The Basic Law of Germany (1949) provides for the removal of the Federal Chancellor by a majority vote in the Bundestag – the ‘Federal Diet’, the lower house of the German Parliament. This can be done only if the prospective successor has the necessary majority.

To prevent scenarios that occurred towards the end of the Weimar Republic, the Basic Law has ensured that a motion of no-confidence is also perceived to be a motion of confidence for the new incumbent. In other words, the German model reflects a constructive vote of no-confidence since it provides for a stable change of power. Moreover, the opposition parties must reach consensus on a successor before moving the motion of no-confidence. 

A legitimate tool

For both the UPA and NDA, no-trust motions have been occasions to expose the government’s failures. It is also initiated by the opposition to heighten public awareness of certain government policies and/or to censure the government on some aspect of policy. Most often, such motions are used to highlight salient issues of political agenda.  

A no-trust motion is a legitimate parliamentary tool — often employed as a tactic — that needs to be respected for what it is, and used responsibly. The circumstances of the debate and the tactic adopted by various parties vary and receive much importance. Many previous Speakers have given precedence to no-confidence motions over the routine business of the Lok Sabha. Both the parties and voters tend to be more attentive during a no-trust motion, since the focus tends to be on economic performance, scandals and policy performance in general.

Though the recent no-confidence motion has perhaps shown that the opposition is not going to be a mere pushover as it was in 2014, yet the ‘grand alliance’ is easier said than done. The no-trust motion was meant to set the political agenda and climate for the coming parliamentary elections rather than to defeat the Modi government. It has done that. The outcome of the motion was known, but the process turned out to be a reality check for all the parties. 

(The writer is Professor and Dean (Arts), Dept. of Political Science, Bangalore University)

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