The Pulse

Rahul Gandhi Uses the Nationalism Plank to Take on PM Modi

Recent Features

The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Rahul Gandhi Uses the Nationalism Plank to Take on PM Modi

Although the Modi government defeated the no-confidence motion, it is evident that it is rattled by the opposition.

Rahul Gandhi Uses the Nationalism Plank to Take on PM Modi

Opposition lawmakers demanding a statement from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the violence in Manipur state carry placards outside the Parliament building in New Delhi, India, July 24, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo, File

It was expected to be a turbulent Monsoon session of India’s Parliament, coming in the wake of the ongoing horrific ethnic violence in the northeastern state of Manipur, which erupted on May 3, and has sent shockwaves through the country.

However, the extent to which the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was rattled by a newly united opposition in Parliament was unprecedented. Not only was it faced with a no-confidence motion moved by the opposition but also it had to deal with the unexpected return of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi as a reinstated member of Parliament, which shook the confidence of the otherwise smug treasury benches.

The ruling BJP was clearly on the back foot during Parliament’s Monsoon session.

In March this year, a Gujarat district court convicted Gandhi in a defamation case relating to a remark during an election campaign in 2019 that “all thieves have the Modi surname.” The conviction resulted in his disqualification as an MP, prompting the opposition to slam the verdict as an act of “political vendetta.”

On August 4, India’s Supreme Court stayed the conviction against Gandhi, paving the way for his return to Parliament in time to participate in the no-confidence debate against the Modi government.

Significantly, this is the first Parliament session since India’s otherwise fragmented opposition came together as the INDIA alliance. I have written earlier on the unity bid by a re-energized opposition to take on Modi and the BJP in the 2024 general elections.

The no-confidence motion against the government was tabled by 26 opposition parties led by the Congress in response to the continuing ethnic violence in Manipur and the Modi government’s reluctance to take decisive action to quell it. The BJP is in power in Manipur state as it is in the center.

What triggered the opposition action was a viral video from Manipur of two women being paraded naked and sexually abused by a mob.

The no-confidence motion saw the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, engage in a 12-hour-long debate over a span of three days. Opposition MPs slammed the government for its callous inaction. Describing the situation in Manipur as a “civil war,” Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra said that what is happening there is “a tacitly approved hate crime.”

Addressing Parliament, Gandhi launched a blistering attack on the BJP. He tore to shreds the government’s claims of being flagbearers of patriotism.

“Manipur had been set aflame by the BJP” and its divisive policies, Gandhi said, alleging that the party had killed the soul of the country in Manipur. Gandhi, who visited the riot-ravaged state along with other opposition MPs in June, recounted to Parliament the trauma of survivors there. He said that the country was like his own mother, and she had been torn asunder.

Gandhi thereby wrested the patriotism and nationalism plank that Modi has been using to great effect to counter the opposition in the past. In fact, BJP has conflated its majoritarian Hindu politics with Indian nationalism to squash any dissent and any calls for accountability. Through its nine years in power, the Modi government has dealt severely with any attempts by the opposition or its critics to hold it accountable for its actions or inactions, and labeled any criticism of the government and its policies as anti-national.

Now Gandhi has used the nationalism card to question why Modi did not bother to visit Manipur since the outbreak of violence on May 3.

He alleged that the BJP had subsequently set aflame Haryana, which borders New Delhi. Haryana’s Nuh district was plunged in communal violence last week. “You are burning the entire country,” Gandhi said.

Gandhi’s speech was repeatedly interrupted by slogan-shouting BJP MPs. Several words and portions of his speech where he attacked the government were later expunged by the Lok Sabha.

Left with no answers to counter the barrage of questions and accusations, BJP parliamentarians then adopted diversionary tactics. Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani accused Gandhi of blowing a “flying kiss” while leaving Parliament on Wednesday. His ”indecent gesture,” she said, “insulted” women MPs.

Despite its numbers in Parliament – the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance coalition controls 331 seats and on its own the BJP has 301 seats in the 545-seat Lok Sabha – the BJP is rattled. Sansad TV, which telecasts proceedings in Parliament, chose to not show on screen opposition MPs when they spoke, preferring to focus instead on the speaker. However, cameras were firmly focused on BJP MPs when they addressed the Parliament.

As is the norm in a no-confidence debate, the prime minister is required to address the house and defend his government. Modi used the occasion instead to showcase his government’s achievements in the run-up to 2024. Despite speaking for close to two hours, the prime minister spoke about Manipur for precisely three minutes.

A disgusted opposition staged a walkout after 1 hour and 40 minutes of his speech. Soon after their exit, Modi mentioned Manipur. The opposition claimed that the prime minister was too scared to discuss the strife-torn state in front of them.

Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate tweeted that it was shocking that Modi laughed and cracked jokes during his speech, and the treasury benches echoed with laughter. This was at a time when he was expected to make a serious statement on the situation in Manipur and what the government was doing about it.

The first speaker, Congress leader Gaurav Gogoi, had demanded answers to three questions on Manipur from Modi. “Why has the chief minister of Manipur not been sacked so far?” asked Gogoi. He then questioned Modi on his failure to visit Manipur to date and asked why it took the PM almost 80 days to speak on Manipur, that too at the prodding of the opposition. When they got no answers to their questions, the opposition walked out, Gogoi said.

Expectedly, the Modi government with its overwhelming majority in Parliament won the vote of confidence, through a voice vote. Yet the opposition succeeded in getting the prime minister to speak on the grave situation in Manipur, albeit only after they had walked out.

Political analysts say that Gandhi is a threat to Modi and the BJP, more now than he was ever before.

In his speech in Parliament, Modi claimed the Congress and Gandhi were a spent force and posed no threat to the BJP. Why then do he and other BJP leaders spend so much time discussing and attacking the Congress party and its leaders?