The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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When the political stalwarts opposing Emergency held their first public meeting after Indira Gandhi announced elections, they chose Delhi’s vast Ramlila Ground. Indira Gandhi’s wily information and broadcasting minister, V.C. Shukla, chose to telecast the box office hit film Bobby on Doordarshan at the same time as the opposition’s public meeting to keep the crowds away. He did not succeed.

Earlier this week, Ramlila Ground shifted to the Lok Sabha, where an all-party election campaign was launched under the guise of a no-confidence motion against the Vajpayee government moved by the Congress. It was broadcast live. Wild horses could not keep people away from television and radio when the two major parties launched their election campaigns live.

That this was pure electioneering was evident not only from the timing of the no-confidence motion — at the fag end of the tenure of a coalition government fairly secure in terms of numbers — but also by the broadness and sweep of the charges made against the government. This was certainly not a debate about George Fernandes and defence deals. This was about the state assembly elections in the Hindi heartland — in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi — due in November.

The choice of Hindi as the predominant language of the debate and thechoice of the members of parliament fielded showed that this was an election campaign live from the floor of the Lok Sabha. The two major political parties — the Bharatiya Janata Party more clearly and cleverly than the Congress — sought to address their voters in these states. The rest of the political parties too addressed their specific and well-defined constituencies.

The left parties took up the issues concerning the industrial and agricultural working class — disinvestment in the public sector and the Supreme Court’s obiter dicta on workers not having a right to strike.The Dalit parties talked of violence against Dalits and the Muslim leaders about Gujarat and the miscarriage of justice in the Best Bakery case. Independents like S.K. Bwismutiary praised the formation of the Bodo Territorial Council, Jayanta Rongpi about the unkept promise of autonomy for the Karbi Anglong district of Assam and Maneka Gandhi about how her pocket borough of Pilibhit had prospered in the last five years. George Fernandes and the defence deals be damned, each one of them was busy making a campaign speech live on television.

The BJP had the advantage of having Uma Bharti and Vasundhara Raje — being projected as the party’s potential chief ministers in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, respectively — in the Lok Sabha. Fielding them was a surprise that the BJP sprang on the house — they were not among the party’s listed speakers and replaced Arun Shourie and Shahnawaz Hussain at the eleventh hour. Uma Bharti used the opportunity to show how the Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Digvijay Singh, had endorsed a book critical of the Congress leadership and Vasundhara Raje took up the issue of reservations for the economically backward amongst the upper castes in Rajasthan

The Congress seemed to have precipitated this electioneering in Parliament because of several reasons. But primarily, it wanted to showcase Sonia Gandhi as the undisputed leader of the opposition and project her as someone capable of taking on Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The Congress also wanted to show that as the largest party in the opposition, it was capable of setting an alternative national agenda. Although opinion polls are aplenty before any election and they need to be taken with a pinch of salt, the general political perception is that except in Delhi, where the Congress has a clear lead over the BJP, the situation in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan is not comfortable for the party. The debate on the no-confidence motion was perhaps sought to be used for generating anti-incumbency sentiments against the Centre.

The aim of the first no-confidence motion moved by the Nehru-Gandhi family also sought to exorcize the ghost of Bofors by attempting to show that what happened during Rajiv Gandhi’s time was nothing compared to the corruption in defence deals during the tenure of the Vajpayee government.

Although initially surprised by the no-confidence motion, the BJP tried to turn the tables on the Congress by targeting Sonia Gandhi and her foreign origin. The BJP treated the debate from the very beginning as plain electioneering.

The BJP also ensured that all the speakers it fielded spoke in Hindi — the language best understood in the election-going states. However, the best debaters in the Congress speak better in English. Sonia Gandhi and S. Jaipal Reddy spoke well but how many in the election-going states understood their message is difficult to say. Jaipal Reddy’s alliterations went over the heads of many MPs and they said so. Even a Congress ally like Mulayam Singh Yadav was pushed to complain about the English speakers in the house — not because he does not understand the language but because he understands Hindi heartland politics better.

Luckily for the Congress, by the end of the first day’s debate its party managers had understood their linguistic handicap. Not only was English not understood by the masses, it also reinforced the opposition’s charge of the “foreign face” of the Congress. On the second and concluding day of the debate on the motion, therefore, the Congress ensured that all its members spoke in Hindi. Priya Ranjan Das Munshi made a valiant attempt speaking in Hindi, as did Mani Shankar Aiyer. That the point about campaigning in the language of the voters of the Hindi heartland had been driven home was evident from the fact that even Sonia Gandhi had to switch to Hindi for her concluding submission in the debate.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not make a great speech. He projected a grandfatherly persona which does not go down well in these politically fractious times. However, he did manage to convey that the new Congress leadership belonged to a political class untutored in the decencies of parliamentary conventions and political collegiality.

The BJP seemed to have achieved two major objectives by joining the debate with the Congress. In its perception, the foreigner face of the Congress has been seen, observed closely and heard by the people. The public memory about Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origin and the time taken to become an Indian citizen has been refreshed.

The National Democratic Alliance has also gained. The divisions within the opposition were exposed. This was most evident on the issue of the Fernandes boycott and the attitude of the opposition to the women’s reservation bill. When George Fernandes spoke, the Congress was willing to listen to him but the left and the Rashtriya Janata Dal walked out. When Sushma Swaraj provoked the opposition on blocking the women’s reservation bill, Mulayam Singh Yadav ended up blaming the Congress for coming in the way of a compromise.

The NDA also managed to consolidate its strength. There were no apparent divisions within it and when the voting took place it had 312 MPs — thelargest as yet — voting in its favour. It had never crossed the 304 mark in the past. And this is when J. Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam positively inclined towards the BJP, abstained from the vote.

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