The sheer predictability of the midnight outcome of the no-confidence motion against the National Democratic Alliance government and the unedifying spectacle of members of parliament conducting themselves like truant schoolchildren should not distract from the larger political significance of the two-day televised event. Toppling the Vajpayee government and replacing it with an alternative coalition was never the intention of Congress president, Ms Sonia Gandhi. With five state assembly elections due in November and a possibility of the Bharatiya Janata Party settling for fresh parliamentary elections before the next budget, Ms Gandhi was anxious to undertake an exercise in positioning.
In tabling a no-confidence motion her objectives were limited: to establish her leadership claims in what may well turn out to be a presidential race; to expose the NDA’s vulnerability; and, finally, to strike roots for an embryonic anti-BJP coalition. Initially caught unawares by her grandstanding, the NDA saw the Lok Sabha debate as an opportunity to reinforce Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s leadership, to showcase the government’s achievements and to expose Ms Gandhi’s unsuitability for the top political job.
Given the indifferent standards of the debate and the visible lack of decorum throughout the proceedings, the only real winner was the mood of cynicism that already infects much of India. Yet, within the terms of the forthcoming BJP-Congress tussle, certain trends were apparent. First, while Mr Vajpayee enjoys a clear head-start over Ms Gandhi, the Congress president has narrowed the gap somewhat. This has been occasioned more by a Vajpayee slide than a Sonia surge. Mr Vajpayee’s performance on Tuesday night was patchy. This Vajpayee was a less inspiring version of the man who captured the popular imagination during the confidence vote of the 13-day government in 1996. Second, in making national security the core of its assault on the NDA, the Congress may have succeeded in making the defence minister, Mr George Fernandes, look more unappetizing than he actually is, but it has actually played into the hands of the BJP hardliners. If the defence of India and the external threat become the main talking points of a future campaign, the Congress can hardly better the BJP in competitive shrillness. In terms of sheer emotionalism, the assertion of Mr L.K. Advani that Indians can hold their heads high after Pokhran II is more powerful than the Congress insistence that there are kickbacks in defence deals. Finally, the government side seemed more preoccupied with demonstrating the solidarity of its coalition than with the larger message to the people. In terms of a focussed approach — the Congress concentrating on national security and the left on bread-and-butter issues — the opposition scored over the NDA. Caught between competing ideological pulls, the BJP has yet to decide the thrust of its re-election campaign. Sadly enough, Mr Vajpayee’s own defence of his government offered no clue of the way forward.