The ritual of a no-confidence vote fits in with the worship of parliamentary democracy. It is simply a reminder of the underlying belief system. No power equations will change as a result of the encounter in the Lok Sabha between the opposition led by Ms Sonia Gandhi and the National Democratic Alliance government led by Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee. At most it is a curtain-raiser for the elections to come; a propaganda exercise on both sides for the benefit of the voter. It is a perfectly legitimate form of protest, however, and the Congress president, Ms Sonia Gandhi, has chosen her issues accordingly. She is aiming for a “political and moral victory”. Choosing the Kargil coffin scandal as the launching pad was made easier by accusations that a vigilance report on defence purchases under the aegis of the Union defence minister, Mr George Fernandes, has been withheld from the public accounts committee. Neither this, nor any of the other issues of corruption and failure chalked up by the opposition, will endanger the government. The political arithmetic is intractable. The NDA will have to lose a huge number of members from the allied parties to the opposition for the danger to be real. Both sides have entered the fray with no illusions on this score.
It is not only the warring parties themselves, but also the voters, who know what is going on. The exercise in rhetoric and exposure is certainly largely for their benefit. It is a display of strength, in this case, of arithmetical and moral strength. Canny politicians never underestimate the importance of ritual, hence Mr Vajpayee’s enthusiasm to meet the opposition attack head on. Given the comfortable position of the Bharatiya Janata Party as the core of the NDA, there may not be any practical need for full battle array. But Mr Vajpayee has left no stone unturned. All partners in the NDA had been asked to issue a whip to their members to be present and voting. There is no question of conscience voting or of slackness, this is a grand show. Yet it is difficult to see anything effective coming out of this posturing, even if it is accepted as such. Certainly, the electorate will hear all the charges being aired on both sides. But the electorate is not stupid, it will not try to choose between parties on the basis of probity. The voting is always on other, completely different and differing, issues. On top of that, coalition politics has its own logic, the partnerships that finally emerge often have very little to do with the people’s intentions. The no-confidence debate might tot up scores for best debater, or best abuser, but is unlikely to achieve anything more than that.